Pr James Tan

The church can be described in two aspects, the visible and invisible. All genuine and true believers are part of the universal invisible church (Ephesians 4:4-6), and the local visible church consists of both true and false believers (Acts 20:28-31). The growth of the universal invisible church depends on God alone as salvation is entirely of the Lord (Eph 2:8-10). Therefore, any genuine convert that physically joins the local visible church resulting in its “growth” must be attributed to the Lord.

In contrast, any false believer that enters the local visible church would not be counted as part of any real spiritual growth, because such a one would not be part of the universal church of Christ, never having a personal relationship with Christ (Matthew 7:21-23). There might seemingly be an addition, or physical growth in the local church’s membership, but there is no real spiritual growth in the individual, or as a church. The false believer may profess to be a Christian and be baptised with water like in the case of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:13) and yet be found in the “bonds of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). While some cases may be known to man such as Simon the sorcerer who Peter exposed, there may also be those who unknown to men and have “crept in unawares” (Jude 4). These would eventually “fall away” (Hebrews 6:4-6), being apostates who though professing to be of Christ, have never “tasted of the heavenly gift”. Neither were these “partakers of the Holy Ghost” and the “good Word of God”, nor have they received the promises of “the world to come”. Those attending a local church can be divided into these three groups:

Genuine Believers

  • Added to the Invisible/Universal Church of Christ
  • Added to the Visible/Local Church of Christ

False Believers

  • Not added to the Invisible/Universal Church of Christ
  • Added to the Visible/Local Church of Christ


  • Not added to the Invisible/Universal Church of Christ
  • Not added to the Visible/Local Church of Christ

Only genuine believers can be counted as part of the true church’s growth, whether it be the local or universal church. The false believer might deceptively seem to contribute to the growth of the local church for a season, but they would never truly be part of God’s ordained growth of the church. In the worst-case scenario, a false church filled with false believers, but claiming to be Christian, whether it be a cult or unbiblical sect, can never “grow” according to the biblical measure.

The growth of the local visible church can thus be observed in two main aspects, the spiritual, and the physical. Ideally, there should be growth in both aspects, as souls are genuinely saved, spiritually converted, and would join the local physical church. It is followed by spiritual growth as believers in the church would go through sanctification, and learn to obey the Word, keep the sacraments, grow in fellowship, etc. There is also an observable physical growth in numbers as converts and their families are added and ministries, physical assets, and properties are obtained.

The physical aspect is described in the book of Acts, where numbers would visibly be added to the congregations in their physical gatherings (Acts 2:46- 47). This growth is also seen in the active service of the believers by the handling of welfare (Acts 2:44-45, 6:1-7), the keeping of the sacraments (Acts 2:41-42) and evangelistic efforts (Acts 8:4). The early New Testament church saw such a pattern of growth both physically and spiritually.

This witness of the early church in the Book of Acts is preserved not only as a historical record but as a biblical pattern for churches to follow today. As much as both the physical and spiritual aspects are important, one must be careful not to simply conclude that any physical increase in the church is automatically an indication of spiritual growth in the church. It would be foolish to dogmatically assume that the biggest and fastest-growing visible church in the world should surely be the most righteous or spiritual.

Also, this biblical pattern found in the early church should not be taken as a formula for instant success, where the following of it will bring forth guaranteed results of rapid and tremendous growth just like in the early church. The saving of souls and spiritual growth are a divine work, where any growth in the church is subject to the will of the sovereign Lord. A small church or ministry with few souls added over a long period does not mean that there is no spiritual growth, or that it is not faithfully following the biblical pattern.

On the other hand, one cannot go to the other extreme to dichotomize the physical and spiritual aspects of the church entirely. A church cannot claim to be spiritually growing when it ignores the work of earthly missions and evangelism, physical meetings, fellowship, etc. A case study of the early churches in the Book of Acts will show that these two aspects go hand in hand.

As Christianity continues to decline in the last days, the focus of the modern often revolves around numbers in some form or the other. This is when the focus shifts away from the biblical definition of spiritual growth and fixates upon the physical. The numbers found in attendance, staff, funds, branches, and ministries, will form a measure of comparison with other churches, or as a yardstick to measure growth, decline, or stagnancy. The issue is not with having large numbers, as the early church in Jerusalem had thousands at its inception (Acts 2:41) and saw a rapid exponential growth daily (Acts 2:47). They might be considered to be doing a great work by the large amounts given and dispensed (Acts 2:45), so much so that deacons were needed to help disburse the church’s resources (Acts 6:1). If numbers are a true measure, then surely later, these same “poor saints” (Rom 15:26) in the church at Jerusalem which needed help and received the collection from the mission churches (1 Cor 16:1), should be seen as a shameful example of how the church had declined terribly, and that the Apostles there were doing a terrible job in managing the church. God forbid that any would come to such an unfounded and unbiblical evaluation of the church!

Therefore, there is a need to have the Scriptures define what is true biblical church growth. A brief case study of the early church in Jerusalem, and the other churches that would be planted and founded because of the disciple’s obedience to the great commission would help one to have the right biblical perspective.

(To be continued)

Pastor’s note: How does the biblical definition of church growth help us in understanding growth in the fellowship groups of the church?