Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Depiction of Church Growth in Acts

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Depiction of Church Growth in Acts

Article excerpt

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The book of Acts tells the story of how Jesus's small, ethnically homogenous group of disciples grew to become a fledgling multi-ethnic movement sweeping across the Mediterranean world, all within the span of a single generation. Acts thus affords the preeminent picture of church growth in the NT, and so it is unsurprising that pastors, church planters, apologists, and evangelists have frequently turned to Acts for inspirational and practical models of ministry.1

What is surprising is how seldom the theme of church growth in Acts has been treated in a sustained way within the realm of academic biblical studies.2 At the historical level, the contours and extent of the early church's growth have surely received a good deal of attention, as sociologists, historians, and exegetes have sought from various angles to assess the historical plausibility of the portrait of exponential numerical growth in Acts.3 Similarly, a number of works devoted to other considerations have touched tangentially upon facets of the depiction of the quantitative growth of the church in Acts.4 For the most part, however, the theme of church growth per se (e.g. the features of the precise language and literary forms that are used to describe the growth of the church in Acts, the contexts within which reports and examples of growth and expansion occur, the causes to which growth is attributed, the purposes which the varied depictions of growth accomplish within the narrative) still remains largely neglected within Acts scholarship.5 Hence, while practitioners eagerly appropriate the book of Acts in the hope of supporting church growth in their ministry contexts, much exegetical work remains to be done in order to understand what Acts actually has to say about church growth.6

I hope that the present article will provide some preliminary conceptual clarity in this regard by developing a taxonomy of the diverse material in Acts that bears upon the theme of church growth. The numerical increase of the church and the progress of the Christian mission in Acts is depicted through (1) periodic summaries of church growth; (2) occasional numerical references; (3) numerous conversion stories and reports; (4) statements about geographic expansion; and (5) depictions of outsiders expressing anxiety or opposition toward the growth of the church.7 Most often these strands of data are considered in isolation from one another. However, each of the categories in this proposed taxonomy contributes to the overall picture of growth and expansion in Acts, and each functions in its own distinct way within the narrative. The present article will examine each of these strands of data in turn, highlighting the main features of each class of material and the contexts within which they occur. The article will then conclude with a few general reflections regarding the theme of church growth in Acts and its implications for those who seek to appropriate Acts for the growth of the church today.

I. SUMMARIES OF CHURCH GROWTH IN ACTS

The passages which most directly convey the growth of the Christian movement in Acts are the numerous statements that refer in general terms to the ongoing numerical growth of the church (Acts 2:47; 5:13-14; 6:1, 7; 9:31; 11:21, 24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20).8 These statements are frequently conceived as growth summaries, because with the exception of 6:1, these brief statements consistently follow the detailed narration of particular actions, events, or circumstances, advancing the pace of the narrative and offering a summary of the general conditions which either accompanied or followed from the specific episode that has just been depicted.9 For instance, the statement about the growth of the church in the vicinity of Jerusalem in 5:13-14 follows the detailed depiction of the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and the statement about the growth of the churches in Asia Minor in 16:5 follows the account of Paul and Timothy's ministry in the region. …

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