For the sake of those who were not here last week, because you were traveling over Memorial Day, let me cover a few points by way of introduction.
I began by asking the question before you on the screen. It is: What if we were serious about church growth? As I spoke about that I did my best to make sure everyone understood that I wasn’t saying that I don’t think we are serious about church growth. But, I did suggest that we consider rethinking our understanding of what church growth is all about.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: Church growth isn’t simply a matter of filling empty pews. I suggest to you that the empty pews are not the priority, at least from God’s point-of-view.
Church growth involves growth of the members of the body of people whom God has called out of the world into a relationship with Himself through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what “ekklesia” is–it’s not the brick and mortar that surrounds us now. This Greek word, “ekklesia” is translated “church” in the New Testament. Too often our view of “church” is to think of it as a mini-kingdom of sorts, with each of us having ownership of our little part. The reality is this is not our church, your church, my church…this is Christ’s church!
When we think of the church we need to think of the body of Christ—the body which Jesus gave His life’s blood for–as we were reminded in the prayer before the Lord’s Supper.
And, when we talk about growth it’s important to note that the thing God always emphasizes—that which is always a priority with God—is spiritual maturity. This is the growth of members of the body of Christ into the likeness of Jesus. That which God is most concerned about is the growth that takes place in the hearts and lives of individuals who compose the body of people called from the world through the gospel.
As we think about church growth the question is not so much “what if we were serious” about it? The real question is do we have the same ideas about church growth as God has? Do we have the same ideas about church growth that God has? Do we want what God wants?
A lot of times the matrices that have been set up to measure church growth are things that measure what I want. They measure whether or not my needs are being met. Or, they measure whether or not my interest is being held. This is often given priority over what God wants. A lot of times we think: Is the church satisfying me? Am I getting from church what I want? This is a concept which, for the most part, is foreign to the Scriptures.
Now, there is a certain element of this that needs to be taken into consideration. God wants us to grow and mature. God wants us to develop spiritually. Thus, we need to be in a spiritual context in which we are realizing our hunger and thirst for the Lord being satisfied. In that respect, we need to be getting what we want. That is, of course, if our ultimate goal is to grow to be more like Jesus—if what we want is what God wants!
If we are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, then we should be getting what we want. If we want simply to fill pews…Or, if we want to be able to say that we reversed a negative “growth” trend, I don’t believe for a moment that God is going to bless that idea. Because we are outside of what God wants at that point.
God wants us to focus on our spiritual relationship and our responsibility to Him—not just to know things about Him—but the embrace what the Apostle Peter wrote about in his last know correspondence. Here he said, “…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (2 Peter 3:18).
That’s really the standard by which we should be measuring growth. It’s one of the things that has been a question of mine for many years. How do you grow in grace? The answer is contained in the thing Jesus was doing in Matthew 9, when he was having dinner at home of Matthew, the tax collector.
Jesus was criticized for eating with “tax collectors and sinners”. His response was, in essence, sick people, not the healthy. I came so that I might do just what I’m doing. If you had a real understanding of the God you offer sacrifices to, you would know this. Go, now, learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
You guys have it backward. You put the emphasis on the things that can be seen and therefore measured; but God puts emphasis on the things that are not seen. They, therefore, can not be so easily quantified or measured. God says that His main concern is with where our heart is. Where is your heart? If your heart is with me, then I can do with you the things that will bring honor and glory to me. If your heart is not right, then you are just building castles of sand that will easily be washed away when the rains come and the winds blow.
The truth for us is that when we talk about growth is that God does not want us to say: What can I do to make this church grow?
In fact, the answer to this question is:
Perhaps it would be ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!
There is nothing I can do to make the church grow! There is nothing we can do to make the church grow! The emphasis in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 is on the fact that God makes things grow. Let’s read these two verses:
I planted the seed; Apollos watered it, but GOD HAS BEEN MAKING IT GROW. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but ONLY GOD, who MAKES THINGS GROW.
Paul planted the seed of God’s word; Apollos watered it; but, God caused the increase! Neither the planter nor the waterer is anything! When it comes to making the seed grow, God is everything!
It’s God’s business! When we think about our attitude towards growth, if we are to realize growth, then our hearts must be enveloped by the idea that it is God who makes the church grow.
If we have this attitude—if we have this understanding—then this is where I believe Jesus wants us to be. Look at where He started in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3).
All this nonsense that goes on out there on the airways in our world is far removed from this teaching of Jesus. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The slick preacher who has his teeth whitened and his Bible cradled in his arm strikes an oblique pose and smiles into the camera while he preaches his health and wealth gospel. He reaches the conclusion and says with all sincerity: You, too, can be like me!
This notion that this is what the gospel is about is the very thing that god is against. I believe that Jesus would contend earnestly with these people, if He were to walk amongst us today. This would be the case not just because of the message, but because many people are listening to the message.
The problem with this is that it’s only a temporary “fix”. It’s a spiritual rah-rah session, the spiritual benefits of which last about 20 minutes. It’s a moisturizing ointment cream applied to a malignant melanoma. It’s a dog-and-pony show that only has its impact on our lives as long as we pay the cast to perform for us. The emPHASis is on the wrong sylLABle.
Now, with this as our background let’s thing about the 1 Corinthians passage again. If our hearts are in the right place, based on the thrust of this verse, we might say in response to the question “what can I do to make the church grow?”
Look at it again:
I PLANTED THE SEED; APOLLOS WATERED IT, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
What if the seed had not been sown? What if the seed or seedlings had not been watered? There was/is no alternate plan. This seed sowing and plant watering function is God’s plan. If we see ourselves as God’s instruments—God’s fellow-workers—we realize that we are nothing in and of ourselves, but we are everything God needs in His hands.
God has called us out of the world for a purpose! He didn’t call us to idle away the years while we wait to die and go to heaven. We are, according to Ephesians 2:10 here to do the good works He prepared for us to do in advance. If we understand this, then we understand that as God’s instruments our lives have everything to do with the growth and development of the body of Christ.
The implications are significant:
—We will look afresh at the one another passages and renew our commitment to being a blessing and encouragement to each other in the Lord.
—We’ll also realize that God is not pleased if we tear down the body of Christ. This is God’s family. We are God’s holy people. His plan is to tell the world how much He cares through us. Just think what a mockery is for God’s messengers of mercy to be backbiting and devouring one another.
Whenever God talks about kingdom growth, although none of us is anything of ourselves, we are something in God’s hand. Everybody is somebody in Christ’s body. Each of us should live like we believe this. Each of us should treat others like we believe this!
Colossians 1, beginning in verse 21, talks to us about the application, or perhaps, the implementation of this idea. Look at these verses with me. Here we see that:
There are few ideas more astounding than what is brought to light in these verses. God continues to work in the world. He works through those who emulate His Son; those who are willing to fill up in their bodies the things that remain to be suffered for the sake of the Messiah’s mission on earth. In fact, the Messiah’s mission continues still through those who yield their lives to the Spirit’s call and decide to walk in the Savior’s footsteps. What Jesus began when He walked on this earth is what God is doing in the world through us! WOW! Doesn’t that just stir you up on the inside!
What is the objective, with respect to those who respond to the gospel call, that is? What was the Apostle Paul’s growth strategy? What is your matrix for measuring success in church growth? Paul said that his goal was to may present everyone fully mature in Christ!
This suggests that we can no longer travel under the umbrella of satisfaction with numeric growth as a substitute for church growth! It’s not about getting people wet—dunking them in the baptistery. We must realize that God has a call on every single Christian’s life! This call is for each one of us to become more like Jesus. This gets down to the core of where every single one of us lives.
Paul concludes by saying, in essence, I can do nothing of himself to make the church grow when he says, “to this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” But, when God is working through me, I can do everything necessary to be part of what God is doing to make the church grow!
This is a principle that needs to be embraced by all. This is not something that applies to the clergy, or a select group of laborers, this is something that every person who has been called from the world and brought into a kingdom-relationship with Christ in order to be a part of what God is doing in the world.
How do we get to this point in our thinking?
(1) We must embrace Jesus’ kingdom claim!
We must realize that He made it and then embrace it. Look again at Matthew 28:18. This is another of Jesus’ kingdom claims. He has stated: I am reigning! The time has come for you to embrace this reality. We can build mega-church; mega-denominations; mega-movements—it’s been done over-and-over through out Christian history—but it is all to no avail if what we do is not under Christ’s authority and by His command. We are not part of the corporation of Christ, ruled by a board of directors. We are not the country club of Christ, ruled by need to maintain membership. We are not part of the social order of Christ. No! We’re part of the kingdom where Christ now rules in human hearts for the glory of God.
(2) We must heed the kingdom call of Christ!
See: Matthew 28:19-20. There is basically one point: Jesus wants us to make disciples. He has not called us to build churches. There is not a point in this where Jesus focuses on bricks and mortar. He doesn’t teach us the best techniques for counting nickels and noses. He is not concerned about the number of bucks we have in the bank or the number of buns we have on the pews. He calls us to build lives by making disciples for Him. We are to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of people. As this happens numbers will increase, but it appears, when you read through the book of Acts that it’s God’s business to keep up which these numbers. Clearly, in Acts God was counting. But, He was not just counting noses. God was also counting on His people to be faithful to the kingdom call of Christ to make disciples of all nations—every ethnic group.
This was/is God’s master plan for inclusion of the marginalized. He has an open admissions policy. All who are will to follow Jesus are welcome. This is our message for the world! Are we sharing it? God knows those who are His! It all boils down to knowing what the kingdom is about and remembering that God has called us to a task.
(3) We must be willing to be used by God to help others do the same!
Our message for the world is really quite simple. We ask: Can I help? Or, how can we help? What is the church supposed to be saying to the world? Can we help? There are so many needs. Our responsibility is to work that which is good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of God (Galatians 6:10). When it is within our power to act, we should act (Proverbs 3:27).
The most valuable thing we have to offer is to pass along Christ’s kingdom call to the world—the light of the knowledge of the glory of God which shone in the face of Jesus. This is the greatest treasure we possess in these jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:5-7). God has given us all this so that we might share it with those in need.
May God help us to embrace the kingdom claim of Christ and heed His authoritative call on our lives and help others to do the same!