“This is what God is now doing in the world: Spirit-backed gospel preaching leading to the salvation of souls. It’s his program, his agenda, his priority, his focus, his project, or whatever business related metaphor you’d like to use. And by it, he is gathering a new Christ-centered people as his very own; a quiet, steadily growing profusion of leaves on the great vine of his Kingdom.
This is what we see happening in Acts. We call it the Acts of the Apostles, but a better name would perhaps be “The Acts of the word and Spirit of God through the Apostles’, because that’s how it seems to go. The apostolic task is to preach; to bear witness; to proclaim the word; and to do so under the power and enabling of God’s Spirit. The apostles affirm this priority in Acts 6 when they indicate how determined they are to keep devoting themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Then four times in Acts we are told that the “word of God (or the Lord)” increased and multiplied and spread, almost as if it had a life of its own. And at every step of this growth, the Spirit is there at work, filling the preachers with boldness and the power to speak, and granting faith and new life to those who hear – such as in the massively significant conversion of Cornelius and his house in Acts 10, where the Holy Spirit falls on “all who heard the word”, even as Peter is speaking. It is interesting how this event is later described, when Peter relates the story in Jerusalem in chapter 11. When Peter is finished, even those in the skeptical circumcision party are forced to glorify God and say, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Salvation and new life come as the word is preached, but only if God grants repentance – only if the Holy Spirit falls on those who hear the word, so that their dead hearts might spring to life in response.
Paul describes the progress of the gospel among the Colossians in much the same way. Epaphras had preached the word of truth to them, and Paul thanks God that when they heard it they responded with faith. And as in Acts, Paul then describes the gospel as having a vibrant, growing life of its own: “….the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing – as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth……” (Col. 1:5-6).
Throughout the world, the gospel is spreading, propagating, budding, flowering, bearing fruit. People hear it and by God’s mercy respond and are saved. But it doesn’t stop there. Once the gospel is planted in someone’s life and takes root, it keeps growing in them. Their lives bear fruit. They grow in love and godliness and knowledge and spiritual wisdom, so that they walk in a manner worthy of their calling, fully pleasing to the Father, bearing fruit in every good work (Col. 1:9-10, 2:6-7).
We talk a lot these days about church growth. And when we think about our lack of growth, we think of the lack of growth of our particular congregation: the stagnation or decline in numbers, the wobbly sate of finances, and possibly the looming property issues.
But it’s interesting how little the New Testament talks about church growth, and how often it talks about “gospel growth” or the increase of the “word.” The focus is on the progress of the Spirit–backed word of God as it makes its way in the world, according to God’s plan. Returning to our vine metaphor, the vine is the Spirit–empowered word, spreading and growing throughout the world, drawing people out of the kingdom of darkness into the light-filled kingdom of God’s beloved Son, and then bearing fruit in their lives as they grow in the knowledge and love of God. The vine is Jesus, and as we are grafted into him, we bear fruit (John 15:1-11).
This results, of course, in individual congregations growing and being built. But the emphasis is not on the growth of the congregation as a structure – in numbers, finances and success – but on the growth of the gospel, as it is spoken and re-spoken under the power of the Spirit. In fact, New Testament congregations, as far as we can tell, were usually small gatherings meeting in houses. They were outwardly unimpressive, and had minimal infrastructure. But God kept drawing people into them by the gospel. Or to put it another way, Christ kept doing what he said he would do in Matthew 16. He kept building his church.”
Copied from Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s book “The Trellis and the Vine.” (Pages 35-37)