Praying for Church Growth (HC LD 48, Q/A 123)

What companies have the most physical locations around the world? The answer may surprise you. No, the top dog is not McDonald’s. Ranked number five with 25,860 locations is Kumon, the learning centers. Number four is Starbucks with 29,324 locations. McDonald’s ranks third with 37,240 locations. The second is Subway with 44,610. And the gold medal goes to none other than 7-Eleven with 62,105 locations. [1] Can you get Twinkies at all those locations? I hope so. I like Twinkies every now and then.

For these companies to expand into the pervasive presence they enjoy today, they needed aggressive growth strategies, at least at some point in their history. Seven-Eleven began in 1927 with several icehouse companies. Eventually, one of the icehouse locations began selling food. In 1946, 7-Eleven got its name because of its operating hours – 7:00 am to 11:00 pm, seven days a week. In 1974, there were 5,000 locations. Now, there are over 60,000. [2] From an icehouse selling food to tens of thousands of convenience stores. That’s growth.

The executives of companies like 7-Eleven, Subway, and McDonald’s are driven to see their companies increase, not only in locations but in profits. They want their companies to be successful. But these executives at these companies, in fact, the entire companies themselves, are fallible human beings. They can be stopped. But Jesus, the King of kings, said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I don’t think 7-Eleven can say the same. The growth strategy of God is unstoppable; the church will continue to grow because Jesus promised he would continue to build it. When Joseph DePinto, John Chidsey, and Chris Kempczinski, the CEOs of 7-Eleven, Subway, and McDonald’s, try to build, they don’t have the sovereignty, power, and trustworthiness of the King of kings. They are all fallible and subject to consumers’ spending habits, and though their companies are juggernauts, they are also stoppable.

There is nothing more important on earth than the church. I’m talking about the covenant people of God, even the institutional church organized and held together by the Holy Spirit working through the preached Word, sacraments, prayer, and church discipline. The church, the bride of Christ, is of utmost importance to God, and since Jesus promised to build his church, we ought to pray for the preservation and increase of the church by the sovereign power and grace of Christ. We ought to pray for it because we long for it because Christ is building it.

Heidelberg Catechism 123 asks about the Lord’s Prayer, “What is the second petition?” It gives this answer:

“Thy kingdom come.” That is: So rule us by Your Word and Spirit that more and more we submit to You. Preserve and increase Your church. Destroy the works of the devil, every power that raises itself against You, and every conspiracy against Your holy Word. Do all this until the fullness of Your kingdom comes, wherein You shall be all in all.

We’ve prayed it many times, but do we know what we’re asking for? The kingdom is the universal reign and rule of God. Zacharias Ursinus said, “The kingdom of God is that in which God alone rules and exercises dominion over all creatures; but especially does he govern and preserve the church.” [3] Ursinus is right. Nothing that exists is outside the sovereign rule and reign of God. That said, we especially see the reign and rule of Christ in the church. It is a spiritual kingdom. Throughout history, God has been saving a people to Himself through Christ in order to be their God, their King, their divine Potentate, for their eternal good. There is a sense in which the kingdom of God is the consummated eternal kingdom, however, if we want to see the kingdom of God today, we need only to look at the church, for there Christ is reigning and ruling, and there the people submit to the King with joy.

Zacharias Ursinus writes many helpful things on the kingdom of God in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. The subject of the kingdom is too big for one episode, so I’ll zero in on one truth today. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are in part asking God to “increase [His] church.” McDonald’s wants to increase their locations and profits; Christians want their heavenly Father to increase His church. Ursinus explains this desire like this:

The sense is, let your kingdom grow amongst us and increase by continual advances; and always by new accessions, O God, let your kingdom which you have in your church, be enlarged and multiplied. [4]

We love our King. We love his power, sovereignty, goodness, and comfort. We long to be in his presence. Therefore, we want him to win everywhere. We not only want his reign and rule in our hearts, lives, families, and communities, we want his reign and rule to be revered and enjoyed across the entire earth. We want to see Jesus Christ the King advance his kingdom in all the earth for the good of his people. We see this in a few ways.

When the law and gospel are preached, the truth of God’s Word advances and achieves its purposes. [5] Sinners hear, believe, and are saved. Sinners hear, believe, and are sanctified. The kingdom advances when people are saved. Think of all the people you know who are rebelling against Christ. You want them to be saved. The kingdom advances when people are sanctified. Think of your brothers and sisters who struggle with sin. You want them to make progress in holiness. This is what we’re praying for God to do.

The growth of the church is not like the growth of 7-Eleven. Sure, when someone is saved by the preaching of the law and gospel, when they are broken over their sinfulness and how they have offended God, when they repent to find comfort in God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ, we can measure it to a certain extent. But, conversion is not always measurable. Sometimes it happens that someone who assumed they were saved, someone in the church, actually gets saved. Perhaps no one would know, accept that person. Conversion includes someone putting to death their old man more and more and coming to life to live as the new man more and more. This is a process that is not always immediately noticeable.

Every Sunday when you go to worship with the church, Jesus Christ is building. Jesus builds his church through the preached Word and sacraments to transform and grow his people. You can’t see that like you can see a new 7-Eleven location being constructed down the street. It’s more subtle. Someone sits in the pew listening intently. The preacher explains a verse, and for the first time, the truth of that verse lands in the heart of that listening. By grace alone through true faith alone, God transforms that sinner’s heart a little bit more. They get it a little bit more. They desire holiness a little bit more, and no one saw it, no one touched it, perhaps no one knew. The church advanced. The church grew. The church increased. This is Christ powerfully building.

One of the ways that Satan wants to discourage the church is by keeping Christians silent about their sinful struggles and progress in holiness. We need to celebrate sanctification, for this is our Savior and King advancing his kingdom. But how can we celebrate when few people are sharing about how Christ brought them through a struggle.

Text a friend. Email them. Call them. Invite them to lunch. When you’re together, share about what Christ the King is achieving in your life. In fact, when you notice a change in your brother or sister, tell them. Tell them you’ve seen Christ advance his kingdom in them. Then pray that Christ continues to build his kingdom by the advance of the gospel, the salvation of the lost, and the sanctification of the church. This kind of encouragement in the church is incredibly helpful and exciting as we watch our King build what he promised to build – us.



[3] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, Trans. Rev. G. W. Williard, A. M. Electronic version Ed. Eric D. Bristley, TH.M. (2004), 1118.

[4] Ibid., 1117.

[5] These thoughts are borrowed from Zacharias Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 64-65.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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