Is This the Time to Expect Bible Fellowship Church Growth?


Donald T. Kirkwood

presented at the 1972 Ministerial Convention


Upon receiving this assignment, I immediately thought, “Why me?” I have not had the joy of experiencing unusual growth. Then I thought of the Old Gospel Herald Society practice of assigning a man to speak or write on a subject with which he was least familiar. Then I knew why I was assigned this subject.

In preparing this paper I have read most of the bibliography recommended by Pastor Daniel Ziegler in addition I read some books not an the list. I will not, however, review any books in detail–time will not permit. Furthermore, I don’t like reviews which do nothing more than quote here and there, then conclude. What I have to say has been influenced by my reading. At times I have gained new information, on some occasions already-held opinions have been reaffirmed or modified, on some issues I am of the same opinion still– only more SO.

Is this the time to expect Bible Fellowship Church growth? If this question were asked and you were required to give on-the-spot answers, you would probably answer in somewhat the following way:

I. Factors Indicating an Affirmative Answer

1. The promised blessing of God – God has promised to bless the sowing of the seed, to honor the preaching of the word. The Bible Fellowship Church proclaims the word of God, therefore it should grow.

2. The expected population explosion – If the reports are accurate and the expected population explosion occurs ( but don’t forget Malthus), churches should also grow, the Bible Fellowship Church not excepted.

3. The normal internal accessions – The children born to Bible Fellowship Church members should more than make up for those lost by death and attrition.

4. The results of a vigorous church extension program – By extending the Bible Fellowship Church through church planting one can expect numerical growth.

5. The new building programs of the recent past –

II. Factors Indicating A Negative Answer

1. The apostasy immediately preceding the Lord’s return precludes any expectation of widespread church growth. Hearts will be hardened and the churches true to the Word will experience numerical decline. Since Christ’s return is expected in our lifetime, one ought not now

 expect numerical growth, but rather apostasy.

2. The record of the recent past – The record shows a loss of 167 members between 1957 and 1967, a loss of 51 between next to the last and the last year. Thus on the basis of the record, there is no indication of expected growth .

3. The lack of a vigorous program of church planting – Discounting the few churches that were planted by already existing Bible Fellowship Churches and congregations that already existed in embryo form before uniting with us, we have done little in the way of planting new churches in virgin territory.

4. The lack of manpower – To establish new Bible Fellowship Churches we need men to shepherd the congregations. The record of the immediate past does not provide a basis far optimism in the recruitment of new laborers.

Now let us go beyond top-of-the-head answers, polite palaver, the innocuous and inane and let us ruminate, analyze, objectively criticize and seek to come up with something constructive. To answer the charge, “You are overly negative,” let me quote the following:

I should now like to dwell a bit on the difficulties in physics in the present day. The reader who is not an expert in the subject might get the idea that because of all these difficulties physical theory is in pretty poor shape and that the quantum theory is not much good. I should like to correct this impression by saying that the quantum theory is an extremely good theory. It gives wonderful agreement with observation over a wide range of phenomena. There is no doubt that it is a good theory, and the only reason physicists talk so much about the difficulties is that it is precisely the difficulties that are interesting. The successes of the theory are all taken for granted. One does not get anywhere simply by going over the successes again and again, whereas, by talking over the difficulties people can hope to make progress.

                     John A. McIntyre, Christianity Today, March 15, ’68, p. 6.

III. An Analysis of the Question

Before attempting to answer the question which serves as the subject of this paper, we must have some common ground on which to begin. Finding this will not be as simple as one might expect. For some the criterion of growth is mere numbers; for others the matter of numbers is immaterial to genuine church growth-it is spiritual; there are still others who consider each of these important without relating either to one’s raison d’etre. Thus there must be some unanimity of criteria for measuring growth before we can speak meaningfully of Bible Fellowship Church growth. After all, malignancy is growth, but who wants it.

Criteria of Bible Fellowship Church Growth – According to Kenneth Stricken.

“The growth of any movement is in direct proportion to the success of that movement in mobilizing its total membership in the constant propagation of its beliefs.” (Revolution in Evangelism, W. Dayton Roberts, p.34) Let us use this criterion of growth and apply it to the Bible Fellowship Church. Our beliefs are contained in our Faith and Order — not that we equate this with the Word of God. We do, however, sign our names to a statement which indicates we believe our Faith and Order is a verbal expression of the system found in the infallible Word. Thus for Bible Fellowship Church growth to be genuine, it must be in harmony with our Faith and Order. The measure of our growth is in proportion to our involvement of our total membership in the total program of the Bible Fellowship Church. To be genuine it must be voluntary, inwardly motivated involvement. Thus numerical Bible Fellowship Church growth to be genuine must be obtained by enrolling members who know what we believe and agree in principle with our system of doctrine and practice.

The spiritual growth in the lives of the members of the Bible Fellowship Church must be measured in terms of breadth and depth of understanding of and commitment to the beliefs which provide the church with its raison d-etre.

The recruitment of laborers–in Home and Foreign service–must be measured by the same standard. In fact, the whole denominational program mast be measured by the criteria of what we as a particular denomination believe.

With this criterion in mind, let us examine the Bible Fellowship Church in three dimensions: Vertical (Theological), Internal (Ecclesiological) and Horizontal (Evangelistical), each in terms of expectations of church growth .

Part Two

IA. What about the Bible Fellowship Church in its vertical relationships would lead one to expect growth?

1. Its adherence to the fundamentals of the faith.

2. Its concern for holy living.

3. Its emphasis upon personal witnessing.

IB. What about the Bible Fellowship Church in its vertical relationships would lead one not to expect growth?

1. The lack of a raison d’etre – We had a justification for our existence, we lost it. We now have a raison d’etre but are reluctant to establish it.

The loss of justification for existence is not unique to churches; it happens in the secular world as well. Some organizations such as the March of Dimes are quick to admit their loss, find a new cause, acquire a new Image and embark on a new crusade. In doing this they undoubtedly lose some supporters and gain others.

A hurried survey of our history reveals that we have changed drastically. We were:

Arminian – in theology

Methodist – in ecclesiology

Anabaptist – in world and life outlook

Somewhere along the line, probably as a result of the visits of John Darby to the U.S.A. (6 between 1859-74) and the resulting Bible Conference Movement and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909,1927), we were influenced by dispensational theology. Slowly but surely this system encroached upon our Anabaptist heritage. And since what was taking place in the Bible Fellowship Church due to Darby’s influence was taking place elsewhere in American ecclesiastical life, the results left the Bible Fellowship Church a twin brother to the average independent dispensational church. We shared the strengths and the weaknesses of the system, but being a connectional church we were never able to compete on equal terms. Darbyism has a built-in antipathy to ecclesiastical organization.

With the introduction to the New Faith and Order, the picture was changed. The Bible Fellowship Church was no longer a typical independent dispensational church, no longer just like other fundamental churches.

Instead there was a church:

Reformed – in theology

Presbyterian – in ecclesiology

Undecided – in world and life view

Baptistic – in mode of water baptism

Our present lack is not that of possessing a raison d’etre, but that of acting as though we did not have one. There is a blurring of issues to prevent the bifurcation of the Bible Fellowship Church, and with this the loss of a de facto justification of our existence. But consensus theology like consensus politics does not truly satisfy or produce fervent followers. It might offer short term gains, but at best it is ephemeral and insipid. It is always reflective, never creative; always a thermometer, never a thermostat.

Our present ambivalence puts the church in a position analogous to that of the keeper of the corner store. If one has little to sell, or if one is selling what everyone else is selling, only in less attractive form, with limited customer service and at a higher price, he will become like the corner store – the last resort except in a blizzard, when one can’t pay or when it is inconvenient to go elsewhere.

Pastor Robert Jordan of Lansdale, Pa. attracts people not because of his theology, but because he stands for something. To be sure, it is something most of us reject, but to Lutheran and Reformed church members who have received nothing but bland ecumenism, outdated liberalism and situation ethics, Pastor Jordan is a voice in the wilderness.

Roberts in his book Revolution in Evangelism, page 61, says “Calvinists and Arminians, Dispensationalists and Pentecostals, Christians of all varieties, discovered that, as far as evangelism was concerned, they had everything important in common.” To a degree we have tried this – the salt of Calvinism, the sugar of Arminianism, the pepper of pragmatism, well stirred with animation and garnished with prayer. Perhaps this is acceptable when the only alternative is paganism, but this is hardly acceptable or even possible when Christianity becomes developed and doctrinal differences arise. This is for certain unsuited for the American scene; futhermore, it can hardly be termed Biblical evangelism in the strictest sense of the word.

2. The lack of direction and drive – This is to be expected when one lacks a de facto justification for his existence. As in the realm of personal witnessing there must be an inward suasion, a holy constraint so in the realm of church growth there must be a deep-seated belief in the justification of one’s existence. A firm conviction of the rightness of one’s beliefs should supply the drive, the direction to which others are to be pointed in this system of beliefs.

We are currently lacking in both direction and drive. Formerly we looked to the office of District Superintendent to furnish both. Gradually, however, this office was divested of many of its prerogatives and responsibilities – either through the office holder’s voluntary forfeiture or through Annual Conference action. But because we came to many of our present ecclesiological conclusions via pragmatism a expediency, without a realization of the implications of what we had done, we lack in both direction of movement and drive to get there – wherever that: is.

Our present state can be described by taking a figure from one of Donald McGavran’s books and applying it to the Bible Fellowship Church. In Bridges of God, McGavran speaks of bridges that provide a means of leading men to Christ. Applying this figure to the Bible Fellowship Church we find a situation somewhat like this. As a church, we have erected a new bridge. We have abandoned the old bridge. Some think of the old bridge as burned. Others think of it as still standing; they do not use the new bridge. Still others think of the situation as optional – they use both bridges. Still others use the new, but the people who sit in the pew don’t know it; in fact they are unacquainted with the very existence of the new. Those using the new exclusively erect signs directing people to the new bridge, but confusion results when periodically the old signs reappear. The two sets of signs contradict each other. The results: loss of direction and drive.

What is the solution to the problem? Let us speak negatively and say what it is not:

1. It is not to be found in maintaining the status quo and praying a little harder.

2. It is not to be found in returning to the old under which a measure of growth was experienced. The Ford Motor Co. faced a problem similar to ours at the time of old Henry’s death (1947). The company was losing its share of the market. What should they do to reverse the trend? Someone probably said this: “I have the solution to the problem; let us return to making Model T’s – after all, we sold over two million in one year” (1924). This was NOT the solution. The trend was reversed with the coming of Robert McNamara and his forward-looking team.

3. It Is not to be found in the proliferation of present activities .

This is what many schools did to correct reading deficiencies:

1. First elaborate courses in reading

          2. Then remedial reading courses

          3. Then advanced courses in remedial reading

          4, Then specialized instructors in training teachers of remedial reading,

          5. Then a bureaucracy for renedial reading.

Then someone got wise and introduced phonics, discarded the elaborate remedial program to the dismay of the county administrator of remedial reading, Result: The children learned to read!

We must be careful lest we resort to a similar proliferation of traditional schemes in an effort to avoid the painful but fundamental changes necessary to provide direction and drive.

3. The lack of wide-spread involvement. The lack of a raison d’etre and the lack of direction and drive naturally result in a lack of involvement. One produces the other in a concatenation of cause and effect.

True, there are occasions and activities which generate the old dynamic, but all too frequently it is the momentum of the past or the quasi juridical authority of the denomination that guarantees numerical strength and seeming “success.” An illustration of this is the Mizpah Grove program. Our summer Bible Conference is not reaching the dynamic element in the particular churches. This is regrettable and tragic, but not the only example of our failure to secure involvement.

To experience growth we need grass-roots support for the theology and programs of the church.

While disagreeing significantly with some of the opinions expressed in the article denouncing ecumenism in the current issue of Fellowship News (though agreeing that the N.C.C. is to be opposed), I sympathize with the lady. She is looking for somethlrmg she is apparently not getting in the Bible Fellowship Church but which she is obviously getting elsewhere, and you and I both know where. He takes a stand, stands there and invites others to join him; many join him – some to whom we regularly preach. Perhaps a little information could correct some of the lady’s misguided zeal, and zeal is what we desperately need.

The lack of fidelity to our Faith and Order on the denominational and particular church level. Our church paper, our camp meetings, our Sunday School conventions and church convocations in general, display a woeful lack of concern for fidelity to our Faith and Order.

Our situation is not unlike the situation of one of our former pastors, G. F. Yost. Bro. Yost’s wife was a health-food faddist who carefully regulated her husband’s diet. He was fed the usual fare of wheat germ, black strap, yogurt, and the like – all of which he dutifully ate. But when he made his afternoon visits he indulged himself by eating his pie a la mode, unbeknown to his wife who wondered at his inability to lose weight. We don’t force our constituency to do this; we are gracious–we supply our constituency with the desired fare under our own auspices – even though contrary to our Faith and Order. This may be “gracious” but it is hardly conducive to inculcating our beliefs in the hearts and lives of our people. It does not aid in the development of denominational distinctives, and unless we are distinct we forfeit our raison d’etre. Rather than being distinct we choose to blend into the mosaic of American fundamentalism. But once we place ourselves here we find that there is a clash because we do not really belong here either. We are a connectional church, with a Reformed Faith and Order; we can’t really blend into the picture.

5. The lack of a positive effort in selling our product. – Granting the validity of the above mentioned lacks, is it any wonder we suffer from a lack of positively declaring what we believe. Instead of a conscious, concerted effort to lead our people into the deeper truths included in our Faith and Order, we tend to glide over them, fearful lest we disturb or alienate.

Speaking along this line, Eugene Nida says, “Since a hybrid faith catches on more quickly, there is always a tendency to compromise certain basic tenets of the faith in older to promote rapid development of a church or movement.” (Church Growth and Christian Mission, p. 101)

6. The lack of agreement between our de jure and de facto existence – This difference results in a failure to attract some we might hold and to hold some we attract. A perusal of our Faith and Order indicates one thing, a perusal of our practice indicates another. Since one of these must change if we are to experience grouth, and since the new Faith and Order came into being to correct this same disparity, it would seem that the existential situation should be brought in line with the de jure, rather than vice verse.

So much then for the vertical criterion for measuring church growth.

IIA. What about the Bible Fellowship Church in its internal relationships would lead one to expect growth?

1. The fact of a Faith and Order should guarantee a remarkable degree of uniformity of doctrine and practice.

2. The face of a connectional church polity:

          a church-related school

          a summer conference program

          a home for aging

          the coherence supplied by Annual Conference

3. The fact of a rather closely knit church due to geographical locale. Some denaminations not much larger than ours are scattered from coast to coast. This prevents united action and produces significant differences.

IIB. What about the Bible Fellowship Church in its internal relationships would lead one not to expect growth?

1. The lack of a cohesive force – When churches or pastors are held together by artificial ties, the situation is not conducive to growth. Property, retirement benefits, loss of security, juridical authority, tradition and sentiment, and the like, are not sufficient ties to bind in a harmonious relationship.

2. The lack of denominational distinctivcs – True, we had them – but not now. To enumerate the past distinctives is painful and usually brings a prompt defense, coupled with a charge of disrespect for the past. The loss of past distinctives is not here lamented– what is lamented is the lack of concern for any distinctives, and the failure to inculcate distinctives latent if not patent in our present Faith and Order.

3. The lack of communications between churches and between pastors – When problems arise and differences develop we have a tendency to act as though they do not exist, are unimportant or will fade away if we sit on them long enough. Then after a long and unnecessary delay, action is taken.

Sometimes we suffer from delayed action, We often reflect what was the ecclesiastical vogue– sometimes after it is out of style; we often act after the apogee has been reached. Since we are a connectional church, we need to communicate with each other lest the whole suffer due to a lack of concerted action; unless we want each church to so its separate way together. This is a sure method of retarding growth. Unless there is communication between churches, the Bible Fellowship Church will deprive itself of the benefits of a connectional church and magnify the liabilities.

4. The lack of concern for the correlation of theology and methodology – Our methodology is derived from our theology, Thus if there is a shift in theology, there should be a resultant shift in methodology. But we are all creatures of habit – some of us more so than others. Some of us are like the English – we will not change anything we can tolerate; others of us are like the Americans–we will not tolerate anything we can change. Once something is institutionalized it is often taken for granted as necessary, proper and even Biblical,- thereby making change extremely difficult. Writing in the current issue of “The Latin America Evangelist,” Horace Fenton says, “To that end, every aspect of our work must periodically be re-examined and evaluated on the basis of questions such as these:

Does this institution (Or ministry still fulfill the purpose for which it was founded?

Is the need that brought it into existence now more adequately cared for by other agencies?

With such Questions as criteria, we shall have to decide whether any particular part of our activity is to be continued, expanded, modified, cut back, or discontinued.” (May-June ’68, p. 1) When we do as Fenton suggests, we will make changes in our methodology, thereby conforming to our theology.

Our constituency will then understand the new methodology for what it really is rather than thinking of it as a departure from the faith They will learn the difference between departing from tradition and departing from the faith.

So much for the internal relationships and growth.

IIIA. What about the Bible Fellowship Church in its horizontal relationships would lead one to expect growth?

1. The gospel proclaimed is able to meet the needs of men.

2. The promise of the Spirit to accompany the preaching of the gospel. Salvation results when Word and Spirit unite to bring regeneration and conversion.

3. The erection in the recent past of many new buildings in which to worship. These should help to attract new people.

IIIB. What about the Bible Fellowship Church in its horizontal relationships would lead me not to expect growth?

1. A lack of cultural relevance which alienates even our own sons and daughters – This is an ever-increasing problem which is desperately in need of some hard thinking and serious attention on the part of the historic fundamental churches in America. Most of us have been nurtured on an “other world” theology which has only grudgingly conceded that Christian culture even exists, and which equates spirituality with making the piece of pie called “religion” the largest with spirituality increasing as this piece becomes larger and the other pieces termed “work”, “recreation” ,”culture”, and the like, are decreased .

Now with an affluent society and more and more of our own young people acquiring an education, we are finding it difficult to retain our influence. We gave the impression that culture was not Christian, that any development of one’s esthetic taste was less than spiritual. Some of those to whom we now appeal have acquired an esthetic taste, perhaps at a Christian college; now they are in a quandary. Their theology and their world and life view are in conflict. Are a conservative theology and a brand of Christian humanism compatible? If one is to be jettisoned, which one will go? Some opt for Christian humanism and we lose them. Others remain but long for the things left behind. Still others remain impaled on the horns of the dilemma. The Christian colleges which draw from independent fundamental churches and the independent fundamental churches which feed the Christian colleges are both reluctant to face the issue squarely.

In his book, How Churches Grow, Donald HcCavran says, “No Evangelical Church can grow greatly in numbers which has a program unsuited to men’s needs. Men turn to those places where their actual needs are met.” (Pg.16) Are we not failing the Bible Fellowship Church and our people by our reluctance to face this question head on? To be sure, our whole concept of separation and Christian liberty will come under review, but we are losing out numerically and spiritually by our “don’ t-rock-the-boat” attitude.

2. The lack of willingness to accept all those whom God as accepted – We retain the Anabaptist concept of the gathered church, and this is well and good. But we also retain the right to ” put a fence” around the church, therby barring those who do not meet our standards of church membership. A holy concern for the purity of the church is desirable, but the right to exclude those whom God has accepted is highly questionable. McGavran calls this the “tall towers of total Christianity.” However, he seems to argue for bringing people into the church and then bringing them to Christ.

To me, his exegesis of Matthew 28:19, 20 is faulty, his references to first-century Christianity defective, his criticisms of the gathered church principle not wholly convincing and his whole concept of winning men in stages is inappropriate for America, (which even he admits) if not elsewhere as well.

McGavran says we are commissioned firstly to make disciples of all nations and secondly, to teach them to observe all things. (Bridges, p. 13) But while we must insist on one taking Christ as Lord simultaneous with his taking him as Saviour, we must also insist that there is growth in grace and the church has no right to exclude those whom God has accepted – something which those of the gathered-church tradition are prone to do.

3. A lack of concentration of effort in areas most likely to respond – We can deplore the suburban captivity of the church; but the church is needed here as well as elsewhere, and as long as the Bible Fellowship Church is what it is it will find the people of suburbia the most likely to respond to its message.

Pentecostalists go to the Word of God and find baptism of the Spirit, tongues, etc. This is their raison d’etre. When they go to Latin America they find their theology and ecclesiology congenial to the Latin temperament. They have unusual success. This does not mean that a Calvinist can fit his theology to the Latin in order to succeed in South America.

He can sing different hymns, to a different instruments unless, of course, he is a Psalm singer; but he cannot alter his theology.

From what segment of society should the Bible Fellowship Church expect its greatest success? Or, putting it another way, among whom should it concentrate its efforts?

          Student world


          Rural America


          One particular ethnic group

          Untaught Christians

We originated with an appeal to dissatisfied Mennonites in rural Pennsylvania, This is far behind us now. What happened to us will, I predict, happen to Calvary Mennonite Church of Souderton and the Ridge Road Church outside of Perkasie – each will become just like most other independent Baptist churches. With this will go their raison d’etre, their appeal to others in the community and their former rate of growth. As Bible Believing Christians we cannot make market surveys, find out what people want, what is most likely to succeed, and then tailor our theology and methodology to the public’s taste. Quite the opposite, we first go to the Word of God, find out what it teaches, bow humbly before it and then concentrate our efforts in areas mnsr congenial to our beliefs. Just as sponsor’s product and type of program are matched on TV, (Geritol and Lawrence Welk) so theology and segment of the Christian public and society should be matched in concentration of efforts. Not that all others are thereby excluded, but that efforts are concentrated on the areas most likely to respond.

Conclusion –

We will now summarize by succinctly restating what has been said. We must conclude that the Bible Fellowship Church must experience spiritual growth and harmony before it can expect any significant numerical growth. We have made a start in the right direction. We must not fail to follow through on the course of action on which we embarked when we introduced the new Faith and Order. If we are sure God is with us we can but press on. If we think we are departing from the faith, we can but resist the present trend. If we are not sure we can but mark time. Each of us finds himself in one of these categories. Apparently many are in the last category. Until we decide to go forward In our present course of action or to return to our former position, we can expect little growth.

If our aim is capturing the largest possible share of the market, we are selling the wrong product. Let’s face it, all men are by birth Arminian and we are selling a product that infuriates the non-Christian and humiliates the Christian, Our theological position is not congenial to the thinking of the natural mind and is opposed by many within the Christian church, especially when known only in caricature. But we can always remind ourselves that size and influence are not synonymous.

IV. Suggestions

1. That we have an Annual Retreat for Official Board members only, from Friday evening through Sunday noon, at the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City, pay your own way.

2. That we make better use of Fellowship News to inform our people on doctrinal issues.

3. That the Annual Conference be divided into two districts for quarterly, optional, one-day conferences for pastors, during which we would come to grips with issues and ideas, no innocuous back slapping, no church committee or board meetings allowed. Our aim: down-to-earth dialogue and grappling with reality.

4. That we make a concerted effort to utilize every denominational agency at our disposal, and bring into being new ones if necessary, to inform our people on what we are and what we believe.

5. That we seek to develop an openness, an active seeking – by prayer, inquiry, study and waiting on God – of ways of making the historic Gospel relevant to today’s world.

6. That if Berean Bible School and the Summer Bible Conference share the same grounds, every effort be made to make this place truly reflective of the Faith and Order of the Bible Fellowship Church – a place that would appeal to people of Reformed Baptistic persuasion.

I’ll leave the seventh for the Millennium!

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