When I was travelling in the 1990s in the interests of the Langham Partnership International, I would often ask an audience how they would summarize the Christian scene in the world today. I would receive a variety of answers. But when invited to give my own answer to the question, I would sum it up in just three words, namely ‘growth without depth’.
There is no doubt of the phenomenal growth of the church in many parts of the world. The statistics of church growth are amazing. ‘Explosion’ is not too dramatic a word to describe it. For example, the church in China has grown at least one hundred fold since the middle of the twentieth century. More Christian believers now worship God every Sunday in China than in all the churches of Western Europe put together.
At the same time we should not indulge in triumphalism, for it is often growth without depth.
There is superficiality of discipleship everywhere, and church leaders bemoan this situation. A leader from South Asia wrote to me recently that although the church in his country is growing numerically, ‘there is a huge problem with lack of godliness and integrity’. And similarly an African leader has written that although he is well aware of the rapid growth of the African church, ‘this growth is largely numerical … the church is without a strong biblical or theological foundation of her own’.
More striking still is a statement made in April 2006 in Los Angeles by Mrs Cao Shengjie, at that time President of the China Christian Council:
Some say the church is doing well when there is growth in numbers … and we want to see people added to the church every day. But we are not only looking for numbers, but for the increase in numbers to go in parallel with the confirmation of the faith of the church.
These three quotations from Majority World leaders are enough to show that ‘growth without depth’, or statistical growth with no corresponding developing discipleship, is not a judgment imposed by the rest of the world—it is the view of the leaders themselves.
More than that, this situation is serious because it is displeasing to God. We dare to say this because the apostles whose letters we find in the New Testament rebuke their readers for their immaturity and urge them to grow up. Consider for example Paul’s critique of the Corinthian church:
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere human beings? (1 Corinthians 3:1–3).
John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010), 19–21.
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