A Growing Church

growth1 Cor 3:1-15; Col 2:19 and John 15:8,16

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?  easter bunnyHow 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).  quote-at-bottom-god-is-nothing-more-than-an-exalted-father-sigmund-freud-230062There 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.  thinsoupPreaching 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).seed emerging

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.

milewideI 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.

the-sowerFaithfulness in the soil where darkness turns to light.

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.

Amen.

We don’t do grace too well

selfrighteous-art

We are in a bind are we not?  I mean, a church is a community of mixed people, at every conceivable stage of life and experience, but together never-the-les.  The bind though, is that we are in this community as individuals gathered to love and serve the Lord and each other – and by-and-large, we want to do that, yet not without the occasional burp of dysfunction.

It would be fair I think, to take the hit on the proverbial chin, that the church is where one finds more hypocrites than anywhere else on the planet.  I know I am a hypocrite and I’m the minister!  But that is also the very reason why I am a Christian.  I am a sinner, I do sinful things, I think sinful things, I desire sinful things.  But thanks be to God there is a cure for sin, and that is salvation, a Christ-won salvation!

Salvation of sinners, hypocrites, liars, murderers, God-deniers, and the like, is God’s direct and effective self-revelation….in Christ….always and only in Christ……that opens the eyes of sinners, that they see him as a loving Father who has invited them into the joy and fellowship of His own self, the God-head of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And this should, I say should, set us free.

Most of the time, for many people, we respond to grace as we respond to a generous gift from a friend, “Oh you shouldn’t have.”  We take the gift and immediately the plotting starts on how we are to pay the person back for their gift.  That’s because we don’t do grace too well at all.  And this then leads to a fruit, a product, a worldview, a consequence of thinking about grace wrongly:  we become workers, doers, activists, organised, efficient.  In theological language we become nomians, law makers and law keepers and often law-seekers, the more laws the more po-faced we become, and the more po-faced the more righteous and religious -right?  It’s as if the whole book of Galatians was written for us, and we simply deflect verses such as 5:1 as being for others, them…out there….and certainly not us!!

When there is a law, what need of grace?  Grace language becomes a part of our religious discourse for sure, but its power, its truth, its vitality is simply not grasped.  Oh how we must nod sagely as we read in Ephesians 2 “…by grace you have been saved…” but inwardly shudder, maybe even mumbling something about the book of James balancing out all this nonsense about grace language with a works language.  After all, isn’t activism, busyness, practical-ness a contemporary virtue of our present day?  Now a works language we get, “Tell me what to do?”  It’s all a bit mixed up.  We don’t know what to do with Jesus’ own words about works:  “The work of God is this: believe the One He has sent…”  (John 6:29).

When we truly do get this kind of work, believing the God-man Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, the Word of God with skin on, the eternally begotten, the One who holds the universe in the palm of His hands and sustains it with the word of His power, this Jesus, is the One who offers salvation by grace to wayward sinners.  How on earth can that salvation offered by such a God ever be skewed to the degree that we think we’ve got to add to it or earn more favour (like what? What could we possibly add to that?).  Jesus died for you.  Your sins curse has been trumped and trashed by God’s salvation cure!  “Oh you shouldn’t have!  For me….really…..Oh I must pay you back….”

I’d like to end with a personal account from the 17th century of what I’m trying to say.  It’s about 1653 and a man named Humphrey Mills, who believed Christ – but under law, until one day he heard the sweet gospel preaching of the great Puritan Richard Sibbes.  Humphrey writes,

“I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing; looking for Heaven that way.  And then I was so precise with outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above their ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies.  But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint….Dr Sibbes, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit.  His sweet soul melting gospel sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world….and my heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.”

That’s what salvation does because salvation is from Jesus, the Saviour of the world.

Met with Mercy

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I was met with mercy.  And so sings the entire Christian  community with every new day.  “I was met with mercy” – when my heart was hardened against God, when I was following my own path of sin, when I loved my sin more than I loved God, when my sin had led me into sorrow and misery, when I had gone astray and couldn’t find the way back – it was then that I was struck by God’s Word, and I heard:  God loves me.  It was then that Jesus found me; he was with me – he, and he alone – he comforted me and forgave all my sins, imputing none of my evil to me.  “I was met with mercy.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ’s Love and Our Enemies – A Sermon, 23rd January 1938

The Crookedness of Sin

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The problem with sin is that sinners like me can’t really grasp the gravity of the situation because I/we are sinners.  How can someone crooked tell someone else to be less crooked?

I’m not talking about sin as what we do (don’t murder, don’t lie, don’t do this that or the other), I’m talking about sin are what we are, the fancy word for what we are is our ‘ontology’ – the heart of our very being, and not mere out-workings of it.  That’s why it’s not really about our doing sin, but our being sinful.  We need inner change not outward rule-keeping.

That’s why the human race needs Jesus, because only Jesus can change our ontological nature: be born-again; be transformed; be renewed.  Only Jesus.

To my shame and utter ruin, I haven’t mentioned Karl Barth on this blog yet.  I will amend my ways immediately with a quote on what this magnificent theologian says about crookedness and sin.

“Men (er, and women as well Karl), preoccupied with themselves have no eyes to see this (sin) or categories to grasp it…… Access to the knowledge that he is a sinner is lacking to man because he is a sinner….

….This is revealed in the fact that he does not see beyond the natural inward contradiction of his existence, in face of which he is capable of remorse and pity and melancholy, or even rueful irony, but not of genuine terror, in face of which he can always quieten and excuse himself, remaining obstinately blind and deaf to the contradiction which is his guilt and the breach which is his need.

He sees and thinks and knows crookedly even in relation to his crookedness.”  (Church Dogmatics IV, p.360-3610)

Thank you Karl Barth.  He has shown us the deep, deep need for Jesus, and it is only on the Cross that our deep, deep need is met and and overcome by the deep, deep love of Jesus.

Counterfeit Happiness

 

People want counterfeit forms of “happiness” that do not involve us being confronted with or reformed out of our sins.

We do indeed want to reinvent God after our own image, as though God was indeed a subservient disengaged kindly spoiling senile uncle who both allowed us to continue in our sin, and yet instantly delivered us when this led us into trouble.

We don’t want God’s ethics, but we want a kind of “mob-ethics” or “chav-ethics” where everything centres on our not being stopped from realising our interpretation of our happiness.

God’s Sovereignty & Japanese Fighting Fish

JapFish

I asked Dr. Robert Knowles to give us a snippet of a smidgin of the theological behemoth that is Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will.  Now make yourself a cup of tea and read it.  You’re welcome….

“God’s omniscience and sovereignty are so exalted that God can easily turn our rebellions into the service of his good purposes. God is like a master chess-player who easily capitalises on the hostile moves made by much more junior players.

But, to my mind, (a), God is even greater than this. And, (b), I believe that human freewill is much more constrained and limited than many seems to suggest. To my mind, God is so great, that the Fall of humanity was infinitely predicted by him, but is also infinitely contained by him too.

To provide an illustration, then Japanese fighting fish are pretty vicious creatures, and have to be kept apart to be prevented from killing each other (a bit like us at times). But, as fish they are still constrained to fish-tanks that the fish-owner can move around at will. More than that, the owner can at any moment reach into the tanks and overrule the will of any or all of the fish in the tanks.

Furthermore, the fish-owner can buy and sell the fish at will, decide to feed or not to feed the fish at will, and pretty much do anything he likes to the fish. At no point is the fish-owner’s “scope of sovereignty” affected by the freedoms enjoyed by the fish. And yet the fish do still enjoy limited freedoms as they swim around within their tanks.

Another example is a parent’s relationship to their toddler in a play-pen. At any moment, the parent can stop the toddler performing a particular manoeuvre with the play-bricks in the pen. At any other moment, the parent can refrain from stopping the toddler from performing that same manoeuvre. At any time, the parent can lift the toddler out of the pen, whether for the purposes of bath-time, bed-time, a trip out to the play-ground, or to the nursery, and so on.

And yet, within certain parameters – parameters that keep changing – the toddler has what in mathematics is called degrees of freedom. At no point is the sovereignty of the parent under any threat whatsoever, and is in no way constrained. The toddler’s freewill, however, is constrained, contained, and predicted and yet – very often if not always – seemingly completely liberated, from the perspective of the toddler.

So then, parental freedom is not “one kind of thing”, not like a “solid shape”, in practice, but varies according to the relational particularities of love. Similarly, the toddler’s freedom is not a “fixed solid shape”, but changes in shape and extent according to the particularities of relating that are going on at any particular time.

In the same way, the notion of “divine freedom versus human freedom” can be misleading if seen to be like a thermometer in which “two lengths” (the “mercury versus the empty part of the thermometer tube”) “battle it out” as though one can only advance at the expense of the other – as though if our freedom “increases”, God’s freedom must somehow “decrease”.

In reality, these two freedoms are not two simple “substances” pushing against one another, but two relational dynamics that are in fact both maximised together in heavenly relating – though divine freedom is never actually maximised since it is never threatened or reduced. Even if God restrains himself, this is his free choice, so his relational self-constraint is not a constraint of freedom. Self-constraint only limits the “freedom” of sin; self-constraint never limits the freedom of love, but is part of the freedom of love.

That is, biblically, freedom is either freedom as love, or “freedom” as self-negation that leads to slavery. Love is a “freeing” mode of being. In right-relating to others, we become ourselves, coming into our own identities as beings that are actualised when we are God-centred and others-centered.

That freedom, when used to choose to sin, not only leads to enslavement, but also leads to a place in which God’s sovereignty – which is never even remotely threatened – has an even easier task of pre-empting and predicting our actions.

Divine sovereignty even more easily contains our actions when we are in the prisons of repetitive sin than when we are relating rightly in freedom. It was less often sin and faithlessness that surprised Jesus, and more often righteousness and faith that surprised him. Even we can predict and pre-empt the actions of people who are trapped in sin – how much more can God predict and pre-empt their actions?”

Thank you Dr Knowles.

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