In the academic Spring of 2004, I was enrolled in Freed-Hardeman University’s Masters in New Testament program. I took a course entitled, “The Education Program of the Church.” One of my favorite experiences was reading the book, Balance: A Tried and Tested Formula for Church Growth (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1983), written by Ira North (1922-1984).
Judging from North’s accomplishments, it is reasonable to assume why his last contribution to congregational development was selected as mandatory reading for the class. After all, North came from a strong Restoration Heritage pedigree of church leaders, was an accomplished student (Ph.D. Louisina State University), a “known” preacher throughout the Nation, editor of the Gospel Advocate (1977-1982), and educator in Speech and Bible at David Lipscomb University for 18 years.
Aside from the bright red sport-jacket that has become iconic Ira North, it is his relationship with the Madison church of Christ (Madison, TN) which has memorialized him among church leaders. From 1952 until his death in 1984, North worked with the Madison congregation and the effect of his collaboration was the development of the largest church of Christ in the world in 1984 (from about 400 to well over 4,000 members).
Despite the fact that in 1959 North authored, You Can March for the Master, his most celebrated work is Balance; some might say, it is his ninth symphony. Surely, then, the experiences (the good, bad, and ugly) North pulls from, and articulates in meaningful aphorisms is worth the time and energy it takes to read through the book’s 156 pages.
10 Main Points to Explore
In order to have a strong congregation, North places a high premium on common sense. It is the most general of all the points in the book, but common sense is particularly emphasized in the maintenance of the balance of organization, never overly emphasizing one program to the exclusion of all the others. Ideally, when the teaching program is strong, the congregation is mission minded, and is diligent to provide benevolence, church machinery will be in a balance homeostasis. The church symmetrically pushes forward in each biblical emphasis.
Proper usage of time is vital to the well-being of a congregation in two ways: building use and worship time. North asserts that the church building usage should reflect the business would model – everyday and with regular hours. After all, North argues, the building was designed to be an avenue to serve Christ. More functional and meaninful use of the building is good stewardship of facilities, time, and money. Time management likewise applies to the worship period. “Dead air” should not exist, but instead the worship service ought to be well organized, streamlined, and spiritual. Whenever a congregation keeps its worship and Bible class time within the specified time mentioned in the bulletin or other public notices, then it is obvious that the church is focused upon being an asset to the spiritual development of its members and visitors, without being taxing on the individual time needs of each family. In six words: worship can be timely and spiritual.
Designing a broad program for the work of the church is vital to secure a well-rounded, inclusive labor “in the vineyard.” An approach to implementing scriptural programs should not isolate a few members to do the work of the church. The local work was never designed to run on the backs of a few people (Acts 6.1-4). Thus from the beginning of design, the Bible school curriculum, benevolent programs, and other endeavors for the church, a key component should be that any member of the congregation may participate and contribute their abilities to the cause of Christ (i.e., the vineyard). In other words, make it church policy that the work of the church be inclusive so that all may “enlist.”
The delegation of responsibility to qualified members of the congregation stimulates congregational mobilization. In other words, use “in house” abilities, or to use another slogan, “keep it in the family.” When brethren in a local congregation have responsibility in their hands for specific “church-related” tasks, it alleviates the entire burden from being on a small group of people. More work can be accomplish. Add to this the use of members qualified through their own particular skill sets (accounting, management, baking, encouragement, etc.), then two things are accomlished; The maximization of quality work and specialized work. Because members are in place to accomplish tasks they are familiar with, then personal ownership of the work of the church materializes and the need to serve the Lord is satiated. A true benefit to the congregation is to have members serving in ways they already have the “know how” for Christ.
Another staple for church growth, according to North, is to remain creative and willing to try new ways to help the congregation look for creative and Scriptural ways to fulfill biblical commands. For example, the building can be used as the hub of so many programs as the church develops benevolent programs and evangelistic outreach programs which puts the church in a positive light in the community. A congregation that is busy can generate interest and appreciation from the community, which may encourages people to consider the Gospel. North’s point is not to engender a “stay busy for busy sake” disposition, but instead to break the stagnant complacency found in many congregations. Sometimes a program sounds good on paper, but not in practice. However, whether the programs “work” or not, the church should try numerous biblical ways to serve Christ in the community.
Maintain a positive and optimistic attitude, because it raises a congregation’s atmosphere to higher spiritual altitudes. Since Christianity is a positive religion, it follows that those who subscribe to its teaching out to be so infused with its goodness that it flows over into the atmosphere of a congregation. Joy, peace, thankfulness, and love are not the hidden fruits of the Spirit, instead they are those things which have become manifest, so these are emotions and blessings that we should expose to the world. It is true that Christains are people, and consequently it is not always the easiest thing to be “happy go lucky.” North feels it is better to be proactive in encouraging and fostering a congregational atmosphere to is positive and loving. This reinforces the attractiveness of the Christian religion, as set forth in the Scriptures (1 Pet. 4.10; Rom. 13.8-14), as being a vibrant and good force in the world.
It is absolutely necessary that the work of the church is inclusive(i.e., social, economical, and age demographic). An extension of designing the congregations programs for all groups in the church, North emphasizes that attention needs to be paid to each individual person in the church. This will make them feel as if they are a part of something and not left out. Members of the Madison congregation would shake hands with each other and with their visitors before each service. North affirms that a strong church needs to implement ways for personal contact and interaction that develops the feeling of mutual dependency among its members.
Evangelistically, North advocates that in order to grow, a congregation ought to search for the one. Whether it is VBS, a “Gospel Meeting,” or a regular service the evangelistic emphasis ought to be on the one, i.e., the individual person. This is echoes the Scriptural teachings of Jesus in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (Luke 15.1-32). One more person stimulates constant growth and encourages others to be evangelistic. To be successful, evangelism does not have to be by “the thousands and ten thousands”; it can be a simple and steady stream. There is no reason a whole congregation cannot do this. In order for a congregation to thrive it must continue to search for the one.
At all cost a congregation ought to “give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3; emphasis added). Unity is one of the bedrocks of the Christian religion and must be established in order for true benefit to occur for the church. This affects the atmosphere and purposeful drive of the church in the work of the Lord. Attitudes needs to be set aside, personal ambition ought to be cast away, differences must be “handled with care,” and the goals of Christ must be realized. Members must truly work together and respect the various roles they play in the congregation.
North advocates that in order to grow, a congregation ought to go all out. This seems to be an extension of the broad church program, the focus upon the individual, and keeping the unity of the church together. All ages ought to be considered for care. If any group in the church needs special attention, all must be done to secure a spiritually invigorating program to help those needs. The widows and the orphans are not the only ones who are “afflicted.” The church can help in those areas where God has desire for there to be help.
This brief reflection cannot emphasize sufficiently the various beneficial observations North has provided in Balance. North’s “common sense” advice is balanced, focused, and all encompassing; moreover, this common sense served him well while he ministered to the congregation in Madison, Tennessee for 32 years. It is desired that these reflections portray the power of the book in some fashion. All ten points have been thoroughly infused into each chapter and underline the point that there are many factors involved in church growth; it is not simply “a” single factor which is the key.
It is not our conviction that should these principles be employed in the life of a congregation that the church will grow by the thousands, but we believe it is better to say that a congregation that incorporates these principles will breed the right atmosphere for great things to be accomplished for the cause of Christ.
- Gospel Advocate 126 (1984), 124.
- Robert E. Hooper, “North, Ira Lutts (1922-1984),” Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, eds. Douglas A. Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 569-70.