Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Church Growth and Methodology

There is within us all a unique way of operating and a personality that is somehow different, in some shape or form, from all other people. We can see the differences in people's personalities and characters when we're confronted with tough situations or controversial subjects. Our passions arise and tempers can sometimes flare. At the same time, when presented with a project we can all have a slightly, or largely, different approach on how to solve it. This is an incredible trait that God has given us and we, as the whole human race, are better for it. We all have a method for operating, some as specific note-takers and others as hip shooters.

What happens when you get a bunch of people in the Lord's church who have these different personalities? Is there a right way and a wrong way to practice a method when running God's church? Where do we draw the line between creativity in church growth and preaching and a specific way the Lord may have us run his church?

These are not just rhetorical questions, but practical ones that demand understanding, especially in an age where "church" has come to mean so many different things to so many different people. I challenge you to consider this post.

The first issue I want to discuss is that of church growth. You may have heard of terms like the “church growth movement”, or “seeker sensitive” churches, etc. The idea behind these movements, or even the local church philosophy, is to increase church attendance. Bring people to church who don’t normally go to church. Make the church a place that outsiders feel welcome so they stick around. Fair enough, but I’ve already thrown a yellow flag. To many church’s credit, they are rallying behind a noble cause: they want to see people get excited about God and accept him! Or, on the slightly more devious side, a church may just want increased attendance for the increased income from tithes and offerings. I don’t want to be standing next to those leaders when we’re standing before God someday!

So, what are the goals: Bring non-believers into church and make them feel welcome; Create an atmosphere that is non-threatening to a non-Christian; Make them feel loved so they keep on coming; Do not do or say anything too dogmatic, lest they become offended and leave and, worse yet, don’t like you anymore, scorning you as a Christian.

Is this so bad? I mean, really? What am I getting at here? While the goal of increasing church attendance can be noble, it is the wrong goal. While the method of being loving and making a comfortable church environment can be a good one, it does not trump preaching Biblical truth and confronting sin. The method is everything and, yes, there is a right and a wrong way to bring people into the church and here’s a hint… it has nothing to do with the ambience of your church building.

Let me reference a shocking story from Acts 5: “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.

Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"

"Yes," she said, "that is the price."

Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”

This story shows two important details. One, is that God dealt with, rather quickly and severely, two blatant liars who were trying to act pious in front of the church. It doesn’t say whether or not these people were true believers, but I would assume they were not and they were just trying to do some work for a good look. God taught the whole church that was standing there that day a very valuable lesson: God does not tolerate sin.

Nevertheless, point two is that even though this had happened in front of the church’s very eyes, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. The church grew! This was a healthy growth because they knew what they were getting into. They knew they were giving their lives to a God that hated sin, but loved them enough to sacrifice his Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross for their sins.

This is an absolute essential part of salvation: recognizing and confessing sin. 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

The church that does not preach against sin and the consequences of it is doing a grave injustice to those who listen. The pastor would be cheating them out of a real understanding of salvation. For if you do not know what you are being saved from, then why would anyone think they need to be saved in the first place? In order to experience the joy of salvation you need to grasp the depth of human depravity and understand that Hell is a place that is reserved for those who do not turn to Jesus for his saving grace. Hell is such a buzzword now that does not get enough attention. For a Christian, Hell is not scary because we’re not going there. Hell is only scary for those who come to grips with the fact that they are heading there ever since they’re born and they need Jesus.
Once sin is repented of and Christ is accepted into the heart of a person, the joy is unfathomable because we realize the vast difference between what we deserve and we were given from God…eternal life. Hell is no longer a threat once someone has trusted in Jesus for salvation.

This is precisely why the methods behind seeker sensitive churches are so dangerous. If you start reducing the talk about sin; reducing the awareness of Heaven and Hell; and reducing the importance of repentance for salvation, you are in danger of misrepresenting the words of God. That’s bad news for those who are behind the pulpit of these churches because they are held to a higher degree of accountability for their ministry.

So what do we do then to be effective? What were the messengers of God saying back then? What were they doing to get this increased following of Christ? Look at Acts 2:38-42:

“Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call."

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Then in the last part of verse 47: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”.

If the church needs anything today, or in any time period, it is faithful proclaimers of the full revelation of God. No picking and choosing what will fare better with the people who are listening. If we are dedicated to the Word and preaching it accordingly, the Lord will bless that ministry and bring people to a true salvation in Him and joy will abound.

Here’s the last main point that I believe is often forgotten by the church. That is, the church, in itself, is made up of people all over the world who have common fellowship in Christ and the salvation he bestowed on us. So when we “go to church” we are going for the explicit reason to join other believers to hear the preaching of God’s Word from the Bible for our edification.

This is key and I want this to stick out in your mind: The church does not exist for unbelievers, it exists for believers.

Therefore, if we are making the church a more comfortable place for unbelievers to reside then we are decreasing the effectiveness of the ministry, even to the very people we are wanting to come in! The only way to make people “comfortable” in church is to water down the Bible. This is because when the light penetrates a dark heart, it becomes uncomfortable. That’s a good thing anyway as it prompts people to make a decision either to accept Christ, or reject Him.

For the church, watering down the message is not an option. It is counter-intuitive and can give a false hope to people who really need the Lord. Faith needs to be placed in God to do the growing. He wants faithful leaders who are dedicated to the Bible and faithful congregants who live a life of love that is based on biblical truth so that when people come into church they feel convicted and ready to hear more of God’s word. Remember, God is the one who convicts. Please don’t think I am condoning Bible-bashing, blame throwers. That’s not it at all.

When Paul was addressing the issue of tongues at the church of Corinth, he said that there needed to be a translator, one at a time, to tell the people who were listening, what it was that the tongues-speaker was saying. The message needed to be clear. He said this so that when an unbeliever came in they wouldn’t think that everyone was crazy if they were all speaking gibberish. Instead, this is what he says will happen if God’s Word is being proclaimed rightly in the church: (1 Corinthians 1:24, 25)

“But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

Wow. See what happens when a church is committed to preaching the Bible for all its worth and allowing God to do the rest? Don’t we want to see people come to the Lord like that anyway? Truly amazed at what they see and then admitting that God is there, at your church!

I am not condoning tongues, as that would be missing the point of the passage. Even Paul said that tongues would be worthless if no one could decipher them to edify the people. He would rather have a just a few intelligible words than a lot of unintelligible tongues (vs. 19).

The method to advancing the gospel is by preaching all of it. It does not require contemporary music, nor traditional music. It does not require espresso machines, although that isn’t inherently wrong either. I am huge fan of espresso! It does not require a pastor who can make people feel entertained or a pastor who can shock people with his crude sense of humor. We don’t need more of the world to get through to the world. We need faithful Christians who can love people without compromising the truth of the gospel in its entirety. Preach against sin, teach Heaven, teach Hell, teach about God’s plan for salvation, teach repentance and preach his redeeming grace and let the Lord build from there.

That is the right method to church growth. We should not be concerned with the growth, we should be concerned with getting the message right. The Lord will build His church. We just need to be conduits of his message and let the Holy Spirit do the hard work of getting into the hearts of people who need Him.