The Thriving Church: The True Measure of Growth, will be released December 6. This interactive resource engages church members and leaders with the most detailed and complete biblical description of organic life in the church, Ephesians 4:1-16.
I invite you to work with me through this truth-packed passage of Scripture and find the answers to these questions:
What is church growth?
How is it defined?
Can it be measured?
How can you help your church thrive?
The first church I pastored experienced a steady increase in attendance, membership, financial resources, ministry programs, pastoral staff, missionaries we supported, and facilities. People in the community were hearing the gospel, trusting Christ, and attending our church. Some who already knew the Lord were hungry for the Word and found their way to our fellowship.
Our auditorium was overflowing, so we started a second morning service, then a third. We rented classroom space in an office building across the street. Finally we relocated and moved into a newly constructed facility.
People in the community who knew about the church commented, “Your church is really growing!” Increase in the size and scope of ministry is one kind of growth. It’s the kind we usually desire, work for, and get excited about when it happens.
But is this the kind of growth Ephesians 4 is talking about?
The second church I pastored went through a period of increased attendance, financial abundance, and adding ministry initiatives. But the church also experienced periods of fluctuation in these usual markers of prosperity and growth.
If you were to look at the numbers from one year to the next during some of those times, you might not see tangible indicators of growth. Does this mean the church was not growing?
For our churches to fulfill God’s intention, we must understand His template for growth and align our endeavors with it. In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul tells us the areas in which the church should be growing and the standards by which growth should be measured.
Let’s dig in together and learn about the growing body and how you can help your church thrive.
Imagine with me that on Christmas morning, one of the gifts you receive is a small box. You hold it in your hands, and it isn’t very heavy. You shake it and it rattles a little. You know that good gifts come in small packages, so you tear off the paper with anticipation. Inside you find a key. Would you be excited?
What thought goes through your head? “What does this key fit?” It could be the key to a car. That would be a nice gift, wouldn’t it? It could be the key to a boat, or a Wave Runner, or a four-wheeler, or maybe a snowmobile.
The point is, you know that the key itself is not the gift. The key represents the gift, and it gives you ownership of the real gift and the ability to use the gift, whatever it is.
The Bible talks about a key that is associated with our celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Three different people are said to have this key. The key represents authority and control. Each person uses the authority and access that comes with the key differently.
As we look at what the Bible says about this key, see if you can think of how it connects to Christmas. No Googling!
This key is called the Key of David. We find it first in Isaiah 22. Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah, which was the southern kingdom of the divided nation of Israel, about 700 years before Jesus was born. He spoke of the Key of David in connection with two men in Judah.
Thus says the Lord God of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him: What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock?
Behold, the Lord will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you and whirl you around and around, and throw you like a ball into a wide land. There you shall die, and there shall be your glorious chariots, you shame of your master’s house. I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your station.”
Isaiah 22:15-19, English Standard Version
Shebna was a steward, like an administrator or a manager, who served under the king in Judah. He oversaw the king’s palace – the residence where he lived and from which he ruled. The text does not say, “Shebna had the key of David,” but later implies that Shebna had it and it would be taken away from him and given to another (v. 22).
The key of David may have been a literal key hanging from the steward’s tunic. Or it may have been a symbol of his role and responsibility of controlling access to the palace. The steward determined who had access to the palace and, ultimately, to the king.
Shebna, steward of the king’s palace, had a position of authority and privilege. But rather than using his position to serve the king, or the nation, or God, he used it to advance his own agenda, to elevate himself above others, and to indulge his appetites. Through Shebna, we see the destructiveness of a self-centered life.
Look how the prophet Isaiah describes Shebna:
First, he was self-important. Isaiah challenges him in verse 16, “What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock?” Wealthy or very important people had tombs, caves hewn out of a rocky hillside where the bodies of family members were placed when they died. Common people would rent tomb space from the wealthy.
Shebna wanted one of the perks that came with being wealthy and important – his own tomb. So he commissioned workers to construct an ornate tomb. He thought he deserved VIP treatment.
Why would Shebna be so intent on owning a tomb? When this took place, according to 2 Kings 18, Shalmaneser king of Assyria was attacking Jerusalem and had it under siege. Shebna devoted manpower and resources to constructing a tomb. It seems he thought, “If I’m going to die, I deserve to go in style.”
Second, he was self-indulgent. Verse 18 speaks of Shebna’s “glorious chariots.” This can be translated literally “chariots of your glory.” Shebna evidently had a fleet of custom-built vehicles so he could ride in ultimate comfort and style, displaying his importance to all who watched him ride past. Shebna used his position to advance his own agenda, indulge his appetites, and display his importance.
Do we have this kind of problem today? Do people in authority use their position for their own advantage?
My wife and I now live in Iowa, where you would not think corruption and abuse of power would be a problem. However, I read this news item around the time we moved here:
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Rob Sand said special investigations into public corruption have steadily increased over the last 15 years, a revelation made during the sentencing of a former Poweshiek County sheriff. The former sheriff, Tom Sheets, was convicted of stealing thousands of dollars from the county, and his sentencing memorandum reveals how common embezzlement and other types of corruption are in the state of Iowa. “The criminal activity that we located and that he has now pled guilty to is in regard to the gas card usage,” Sand said. An extreme case happened in August 2014 when a former city clerk in Casey set the City Building on fire after she admitted to using the city’s credit card and funds — $50,000 worth — to purchase items for personal use without the knowledge or approval of the City Council. “You do hate to think that in the Midwest, that we have that much of a problem,” said Don Avey, of Ankeny. “I’d like to think (we’re) a little more honest in the Midwest.”
People become ambitious and greedy and use positions for their own advantage and gain. It happened in Jerusalem, it happens in Iowa, it happens everywhere. It even happens in our own sinful hearts. We are all susceptible to greed, ambition, envy, and using our place in life to serve our own desires.
God singled out this man Shebna and called him out publicly through Isaiah’s prophecy. He told Shebna, “I’m going to play ball with you, and you’re the ball (verse 18)! The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to him, but Jewish historians say he may have developed leprosy, been banished from Judah, and died in isolation.
God caused Shebna to be removed, and put a new man in his place. The next man to have the Key of David is Eliakim.
“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand.
And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. And they will hang on him the whole honor of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.
In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way, and it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah 22:20-25, English Standard Version
God sovereignly removed the authority that belonged to Shebna and transferred it to Eliakim. He was given the “key of David,” which included control over who had access to the palace and the king. Through Eliakim we see the inadequacy of a benevolent leader.
Eliakim had some good qualities. We would probably classify him as a nice guy and a good person to have in a position of responsibility.
He was loyal to God. Notice the contrast in how Shebna and Eliakim are described. In verse 15 God refers to “this steward . . . Shebna.” In verse 20 He refers to “my servant Eliakim.” Evidently Eliakim loyally served, not only his king and his country, but God.
He cared for the people. Look at how he is described in verse. 21 – “He shall be a father . . .” He would not be a self-serving leader like Shebna, but an affectionate, caring, guiding leader, like a father to his beloved children. Eliakim had this care for the people themselves – “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” – and for the nation as a whole, the kingdom – “the house of Judah.”
While Shebna used his position to indulge his selfish ambitions and appetites, Eliakam used his position to protect and provide for the people. He was loyal to God and cared for the people. But he was inadequate, imperfect, and temporary.
Verses 23-25 picture Eliakim as a peg, driven into a crevice between the stones in a wall and hard to get out. It is securely fastened with items hanging on it. The point is he would do his job well and fulfill his purpose. But a day would come when, as secure as Eliakim’s position was, he would be removed. The secure peg would work loose and “the burden that was on it” – whatever was hanging on it at the moment – would fall to the floor.
Eliakim, a good man, doing his job for God and country, wouldn’t be in that position forever. And the load he carried would come crashing down.
I think you can see parallels to much that is happening around us today. I am not trying to draw a parallel to any specific individuals. You can’t do that. But we do see both kinds of people, and especially leaders – in government as well as in business, even in the church! There are self-serving leaders, and there are caring benevolent leaders. The self-serving leaders eventually crash and burn. The caring, benevolent leaders eventually fulfill their terms, or just grow old, retire, and die. Even the best human leadership is imperfect and temporary.
You can also apply this on a personal level. Spouses, parents, kids, supervisors at work – all can be self-serving, like Shebna. Even people you love and who are caring, benevolent, and provide guidance in your life, like Eliakim, will not always be present. They grow old and die, or just move on to another place, and no longer fill that role in your life. God allows us to experience disappointment with things and people on this earth to awaken us to the need for something – or someone – else.
If we’re honest, we will admit that there is self-centeredness in all of us. We all have selfish ambitions and desires. Even when we are at our best, we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God and who one day die.
What happened to the key of David? It disappears from view for centuries! Then it is claimed by One who is completely capable of fulfilling the role and responsibility, and we realize the key represents more than access to an earthly palace and human king.
Who ends up with the key of David? To find it, we move forward from historic Israel and Judah to the current church age, here and now.
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
Revelation 3:7-8, English Standard Version
We’ve seen the destructiveness of a self-centered life and the inadequacy of a benevolent leader. Now let’s look at the perfection of the loving, self-sacrificing Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Who is “He who is holy and true, who has the key of David”? Each address to the seven churches in Asia in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 begins with a description of the one talking. All refer back to the one described in Revelation 1:12-20 – the Son of Man, who is the eternal Son of God, who became a man, was crucified, rose from the dead, and returned to heaven – the crucified, risen, glorified Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Look at His attributes as described in Revelation 3:7. He is“holy.” There is no sin in Him, He is completely righteous and pure. He is the complete opposite to Shebna, who was corrupt. Even Eliakim, at his best, could not be described this way. In fact, only Jesus can be described as 100% holy.
He is “true” – He embodies all that is real and all that is right. Again, He is the complete opposite of a corrupt abuser of power. Jesus lived a fully human life, faced every kind of temptation we face, including opportunities to use His power and position for His own advantage, yet maintained His integrity and honesty.
He is a striking contrast to corrupt, self-serving leaders. In fact, you cannot say these things of any human leader – “holy and true.” This can only be said of Jesus.
He opens the way to a heavenly kingdom. He has possession of the key of David, which gives Him authority to determine who enters His kingdom and who does not. You can see from verse 12 that He uses His authority to allow or deny access, not to a stone palace made with hands, but “the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God.” He wasn’t speaking of an earthly palace, but of heaven and the kingdom of God.
He is the caring, benevolent leader who gives assurance to those who trust and follow Him. Notice another important insight. Jesus was speaking to the church in Philadelphia, a first-century city in Asia Minor. There were Jews who had heard of Jesus as Messiah, trusted Him as Savior and started following Him. The Jewish community disowned them – cast them out of the family and said they had no part in the kingdom of God. In verses 7 and 9 Jesus was saying, “I determine who comes in – who is in the household and kingdom of God. I open the door and no one can close it. I close the door and no one can open it.” He reassured them that, though they were rejected by men, He claimed them, and He loved them.
There is also encouragement here for the local church as a whole. Jesus not only has the authority and ability to open the way to heaven. He also opens doors of opportunity for effective and fruitful ministry. In verse 8 he told them, “I have set before you an open door.” Because this church was loyal to the Word of God and to Jesus Christ, He had a plan and purpose for them. He intended to put opportunities before them for spreading the Gospel and building the church. The Apostle Paul spoke of such doors of opportunity being opened.
For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:9).
Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord (2 Corinthians 2:12).
Jesus who holds the key of David, the position and privileges of authority in the church and in the kingdom of God also promises to vindicate and deliver the persecuted (verses 9-10) and honor those who are faithful (verses 11-12).
Jesus is not a self-serving leader, but a self-sacrificing leader. The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
He is a caring, benevolent leader, but so much more. He loved us and gave Himself for us! In fact, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Shebna worked in the palace and traveled by chariot. The baby King Jesus was laid in a manger. He made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey! Shebna commissioned his own private tomb. Jesus’ body was laid in a borrowed tomb. Eliakim was caring, like a father. Jesus gave His life, not only for His friends, but “while we were yet sinners.” Even benevolent Eliakim passed off the scene and died. Jesus died, and rose again!
So what’s the connection of all of this to Christmas? There’s an old, old song we sing at Christmas. It was written to represent the cry of the people of Israel, exiled because of their unfaithfulness to God. They are longing for Messiah to come and deliver them. Each stanza of the song uses a phrase from the prophets describing the promised Messiah.
O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel . . .
One stanza says,
Oh, come, O Key of David, come, And open wide our heav’nly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
The song represents Israel’s longing and praying for coming of Messiah. Good news – He has come! He has the Key of David – the authority and ability to open the way to heaven and save us from the eternal misery of hell.
If you know Him, rejoice that He came the first time to give His life so that all who trust in Him can enter His kingdom, and that He will come again to bring to pass all that has been promised. And realize that disappointment in people, possessions, and circumstances point us to the One who is faithful and true.
If you do not know Him, take this opportunity to consider placing your full confidence in Jesus Christ to save you from your sin and open for you the way to eternal life.
What are you afraid of? Besides spiders in your bed.
Kids fear the dark, mean dogs, being kidnapped, and someone they love dying. Teens are afraid of test-taking, not being accepted by their peers, and the future. Common adult fears include money problems, making bad decisions, biopsy results, and aging.
I am afraid of rejection, being closed in (I can’t stand the window seat on flights), and of sinning so badly I ruin my testimony, my family, and my ministry.
Ahaz, king of Judah, was afraid of being conquered by invaders. With good cause.
The Assyrians aggressively expanded their empire during the 700’s BC. As they pushed westward, the little Mediterranean coastal countries were next up to have their armies slaughtered, their cities flattened, and their citizens enslaved. Judah was at the top of the Assyrians’ to-do list.
Ahaz’ two neighbors to the north had a bright idea. They asked Ahaz to join them in an alliance against the Assyrians. Ahaz refused. So those two kings turned against Ahaz. Their countries were Syria and the northern section of the divided Jewish nation, Israel.
Israel marched in from the north and the Syrians circled around from the south. Ahaz was surrounded. The prophet Isaiah described Ahaz’ fear: “So his heart and the heart of his people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). He was shaking like a leaf.
God takes care of His own. Isaiah delivered the promise of deliverance.
“Take heed, and be quiet; do not fear or be fainthearted for these two stubs of smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria, and the son of Remaliah, . . . thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, Nor shall it come to pass’” (Isaiah 7:3, 7).
Don’t be afraid. Your enemies’ plan will fail.
Isaiah then warned Ahaz: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (v. 9). God wanted Ahaz to exercise faith rather than be controlled by fear.
He wants you and me to do the same thing. But reining in our fears isn’t easy.
God knew Ahaz would have this struggle. So He gave Ahaz an unusual opportunity. “What sign would you like God to do for you to help you trust Him to protect you against these armies?” (my paraphrase of Isaiah 7:11).
Ahaz’ answer sounded pious: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test” (v. 12). But he was defying God’s instruction. Our unwillingness to adopt God’s way of handling our fears is stubborn resistance to His sovereign rule in our lives.
But God pushed His grand purpose forward. Isaiah proclaimed, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name, Immanuel.” (v. 14).
Likely a woman in Judah, unmarried at the time of this prophecy, would soon marry, give birth to a son, and name him Immanuel. After he was weaned from his mother, but before he reached the age of making moral choices, the kings of Syria and Israel – the nations Ahaz feared – would no longer be in power (vv. 15-16).
Did God’s merciful persistence change Ahaz’s mind?
It’s sad. What might have been. Instead of believing the promise God sent him, he messaged Tiglath-Peleser, king of Assyria, “I am your servant and your son.
Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me” (2 Kings 16:7).
Ahaz secured the alliance with gold and silver from the temple.
Tiglath-Peleser launched a strike against the Syrians and killed their king. Ahaz and the people of Judah escaped being conquered, but Ahaz adopted Assyrian idolatry. God kept His promise, but Ahaz missed the opportunity to glorify God.
What might have been for Ahaz came to pass with another king of Judah. When Hezekiah became king, he rescinded the agreement with Assyria (2 Kings 18:7). Instead of relying on alliances with pagans, “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5).
Long story, here’s the short version. The Assyrians came back against Judah, attacked, took some captives, mocked the Jews’ trust in Jehovah, and told them they would die under siege while consuming their own filth. You can read the details in 2 Kings 18 and 19.
Hezekiah messaged Isaiah requesting prayer, and Isaiah responded: “Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me’” (2 Kings 19:6). See it? “Do not be afraid.” Overcome fear with faith.
Hezekiah chose to trust God rather than lean on human strength. He prayed:
“O Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.
Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God.
Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed.
So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.”
2 Kings 19:15-19
Answer? The angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian troops (2 Kings 19:35). Threat removed. Prayer answered. Trust in God rewarded. Promise fulfilled.
What does all this have to do with Immanuel? Do you remember the sign Isaiah told Ahaz about in Isaiah 7:14? The name Immanuel meant something. Do you know? In Hebrew, the language of the Jews, it means “God with us.” God. With. Us.
Isaiah had predicted the Assyrians’ defeat witnessed by Hezekiah. He pictured the Assyrian invasion as a river overflowing its banks and flooding the plain. “And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel. (Isaiah 8:7-8).
A clue emerges indicating Immanuel wasn’t just a little child, but the Sovereign of the land.
The flood of Assyrians was a dire threat to Hezekiah and his people, but they chose faith over fear. Isaiah’s prediction happened: “Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:9-10).
Do you see it? “For God is with us” translates the Hebrew “Immanuel!” Isaiah’s prophecy was God’s promise.
Ahaz feared enemies and trusted in alliances. Hezekiah faced the same enemies with trust in God. He saw firsthand the promise fulfilled: Immanuel. God with us.
God’s plan and promise reached far beyond 700 BC. He is establishing a kingdom now of people, not merely land – although one day He will reign with His people in Immanuel’s land.
The second fulfillment of Isaiah’s sign prophecy was recorded by an ex-tax collector named Matthew. But the messenger this time was an angel from heaven!
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”
This time the baby was not just a boy his mom named Immanuel. This mom was Mary, who while still a virgin miraculously conceived a child who was the Son of God.
Immanuel. God with us!
You have an archenemy named Satan. His fearsome weapons against you are sin and death. Jesus, God’s Son, conquered Satan, sin, and death once and forever when He died for your sins and rose again.
How can you escape the assault of Satan, the siege of sin, and the doom of death? The same way Ahaz could have been delivered from his enemies. The same way Hezekiah was protected by God. Refuse to be controlled by fear. Instead, place your faith in God. Trust in the promise of God, the promised Son who Himself is God who became a man – God with us.
If God neutralized the Assyrians’ power against Jerusalem, and if He has disarmed Satan’s power against you, don’t you think He can help you with all your fears? Losing your job, meeting the right person, serious health issues, money problems, aging, temptation?
If you are a Christian, He is with you because He is in you! You are indwelt by His Spirit.
God is with you. Trust in Him.
O come, O come Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel has come. What is holding you captive? Whatever it is will come to nothing. It will not stand, for God is with you.
Mom was 40 when I was born. Can you imagine? My earliest memories include learning to read. Mom wanted me to enjoy the blessing of books like she did. Before I even started school, she taught me using McGuffey Readers. We still have them!
Through her lifetime, Mom’s love for God and for the church has been evident to everyone who knows her. She lives with my wife and me now, and she still faithfully goes to church with us.
Mom’s love for reading, for God, and for the church have shaped my life inestimably. I wished to acknowledge her influence in formulating The Thriving Church. So I dedicated it to her.