I distinctly remember it was Jesus who said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” (Matthew 16:18).
Even so, we live in a global business age of organisation, efficiency and profit, and there are thousands of books on growth. If you are more organised, more efficient and more profitable, you will grow….but only if you stick to our new-fangled formula!
The Western church has been swallowing this bitter idolatrous pill for decades. We’ve put down our Bibles, and picked up secular ideas and initiatives – why? church numbers are declining, people are leaving the church, pews and seats are becoming empty, coffers are down, bills are up, and then someone said, “Hang on a minute, if we just branded ourselves like Nike, or glamorised ourselves like L’Oreal, or popularised ourselves like celebrities, we too can achieve what they achieve! And should the gates of hell get too close, we’ll just sloganeer them out of town with a TV ad campaign!
What does it mean to be a growing church in this context? In fact, what does it mean to be a growing church and be faithful? Can the Church ever be faithful and successful? Can we do sexy marketing, or shall we just stick with cheesy slogans to do with babies and mangers, bunnies and daffodils? How can we claim to proclaim something better, something the world needs, something unknown and un-buyable? Can the church compete with a world that clamours for everything but Christ and him crucified?
Can we ever be faithful and successful? What does it mean to be a Growing Church?
I’ve had experience in small and largish churches in my twenty three years as a follower of Jesus. At various times I’ve loved the many and at others I’ve loved the few. I suspect we would all love to see our own churches grow. But I bet most of us have some particular and peculiar idea of what we expect when we think about a “growing church.”
And almost all of us have been shaped by growth as defined apart from the Gospel.
During the post-war decades, the church did not refuse the idolatrous impostor of superficial techniques for church growth. The Evangelical mission mistook discipleship for cloning! We made precious converts to Christ in our image, not His!
It was especially the decades of the 60’s-90’s that witnessed the meteoric rise of growth techniques apart from covenantal faithfulness to Christ. Even before the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land, God reminded them that any “success” they would have would be because of His grace and gift. They had to remain utterly dependent upon God – not the result of their own efforts, expertise, skill or technique. It was God. Later, Jesus would say “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
Jesus understands the depravity and severity of our sinful nature. We distort everything through our distorted desires. Love distorted for lust. Faith distorted for safety. Ministry distorted for egotistical self-promotion. Marital sex distorted for a sickening free-for-all pornography culture. A potty culture for a potty-mouthed people. That’s sin.
And even when the saving grace of God breaks in through the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, we still get pulled and pushed by our old desires, but now we apply that to the Gospel and to church. Unaware of what we are really doing, we get tempted to pursue non-gospel goals using unbiblical motives.
We cry out “Where are you God?” when we suffer because we haven’t understood that Jesus is with us and in us and around us in our suffering. And the One who is near is thought to be far; the One who is present is thought to be absent. So we conclude: “God must be far; God must be absent. This Christian thing doesn’t work too well, so now I too will take myself far from “the church”; I too will absent myself from Christ. I will find other gods.”
We become forgetful of such earth-shattering verses as, “My grace is sufficient for you, my grace is perfected in your weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). There is only one god that failed here, and it is often the one we imagined (we are so Freudian), because our imaginations had not seen the glory of the Living God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus Christ.
So how we view God must not based on our expectations (ha! as if we know!!), but on God’s revelation in the Scriptures. In several surveys conducted before 1993 on preaching within contemporary evangelical churches (documented by David Wells in No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, p.223), less than half were shown to be explicitly biblical and only 19% were grounded in or related in any way to the nature, character and purposes of God. Less that half were biblically deficient! This is a scandal that should outrage us (holy outrage of course – but let’s be outraged in moderation, less than 50% should do it)!!
One of my favourite NT scholars is Professor Anthony Thiselton, he similarly comments on this in his brilliant study of the Apostle Paul when he says, “Much preaching today consists of anecdotes about human life, Paul’s preaching was mainly about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is why we miss some of the sheer excitement of the Gospel.” He’s right! Ever heard the derogatory remark, “He’s so heavenly minded he’s of no earthly use!”? What manure! We need more heavenly minded people! Even our own cultural proverbs stand in opposition to the Gospel (see Colossians 3:1-4).
And all these observations and trends influence how we got where we are and why we are here and in large measure, what to do about it. Fellow Baptist minister Ian Stackhouse of Guildford Baptist Church, in his Gospel-Driven Church (p.108), says that much in church life, especially preaching, is based in ignorance of the Gospel and thus simply consists of communicating vision and motivation – both of which are driven by a concern for success.” Ian’s friend and fellow pastor Dave Hansen told him, “The church is there for Gospel proclamation. Preaching my ideas and visions for the church is cheap leadership and is not preaching – it is thin soup!” Wowzers!
The Gospel is the vision and the idea is the Gospel. When the post-war church in large chunks, not everywhere of course, but when the church bought into the values of secular gimmickry and the thin soup of its mission and purpose, the damage was done.
A growing church, or a fruitful church (both are biblical), is an organic community, like a farmer, not a business man; like a shepherd, not a politician. It is organic not mechanical (think industrial revolution); it is Spirit-led not organisational (think big-business).
Holding on to the Gospel, in gift and grace, is very, very hard. It requires self-awareness of the Old Adam; it requires faith and trust in the New Adam Jesus Christ; It requires the eyes of faith to see what God is doing; and it requires the boldest of people to join in with Him; to get out the boat; to look up; to obey Jesus.
When we secularise the sacred or forsake faithfulness; when we grab but don’t give; when we preach ourselves not Christ, then we have abandoned being the church. This is what Eugene Peterson calls ‘whoring after other gods’ and I’m sure he got that from the many passages on idolatry in the Bible!
As usual, he goes even further, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God, week after week, in towns and villages around the world. The HS gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called the paster (ahem!), and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastors responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades” (Working the Angles, p.2).
Apart from Me you can do nothing. One plants, another waters, God gives growth!
The church that looks for quick results in the seed-planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If we want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, we don’t plant the seeds today! There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and harvest. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and the planting of still more seeds.
“My ways are not your ways, declares the Lord!” The Western Church doesn’t need new ways and good ideas, it needs the Old Ways and God’s revealed idea. The Ways of the Lord. The Way of Jesus. “I am the Way” Jesus said, it is narrow I know, but it is my Way. It is marked with suffering and persecution, I know, but it is my Way. It will lead to the Cross. Your Old Adam must die, but the New Adam will rise in You. Adam will die. Christ will rise. You will live. Knowing this Way, the ways of the Lord in life, death and resurrection, is the business of the Church.
I am much less interested in church as numerical growth, but in spiritual depth. Growth of just one person in Christ. That’s success. That’s fruit. That’s Gospel grace and gift. My experience of mission work in several African countries confirmed what many have said about the African Church that it is a mile wide and an inch deep. Although that’s by-and-large true, I think it very unfair to limit this observation to Africa. Consider the impact of a church that is an inch wide and a mile deep!
Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, Principal of Regent’s Park College in Oxford University reminds us that the Christian community is not the wish fulfillment dream of any individual who envisions a community according to his own ideals. The sooner we are disillusioned by the unhappy and ugly aspects of any community the better. Why? because by sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. Why? because living in illusions (a product of our distorted desire), makes us into accusers of others when they seem to fall short of our own imagined aims. The church is not a human ideal that we must realise, but is a gift of God (Fiddes, Under the Rule of Christ, p. 11-12).
A bunch of sinners, gathered in gift and grace under the proclamation of the Gospel, learning together what it means to be “on the Way of Jesus”. Stumbling, but being helped back up. Turning round only to discover Jesus really is the Way, the Truth and the Life. You may want to leave too! But where shall you go? Only Jesus has the words of eternal life – you know that already!
Being fed up with people, only to realise that these people are saved, sanctified and deeply loved by a God of miracles – big enough miracles to even save sinners like you and me. Now that’s Gospel power!
A growing church exists in grace and gift, is shaped by the Gospel to grow everyone in Christ-likeness, as we gather week by week. In season and out of season. In sickness and in health, ’til death us do eternally join! Church is the enactment of our marriage vows to God. We are His bride.
No gimmicks. No secularism. No formula. No techniques. No cheap Gospel.
Just sinners, watered by the preaching of the Gospel, planted in good soil by God’s Word, and grown slowly and securely by God Himself.
Faithfulness in the water, where the flood becomes the baptism of our salvation.
Faithfulness in growth by the Word, whereby we live in joy with the great mystery: Christ in you, the hope of glory.