Gospel-Centered Church Growth (2)

Part 2 of the revised text of a lecture for the Bible Seminary in Aguascalientes, Mexico in February, 2008.  See here for Part 1.

Numerical Growth

If we teach our people to value the gospel and if they listen and treasure it, then they will want to share it with others.  However, if we teach our people with our preaching that the Christian faith is first about living a certain way, that will not make them want to share their faith.  More likely, it will just make them prideful – they are the ones living a good Christian life and the unbelievers are not.  However, we know from God’s Word that we are sinners.  And James says that if we have broken one of the commandments, we have broken them all (James 2:10).  The only difference between us and unbelievers is Christ.  We are only beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.

This is where the connection is between spiritual growth of our members inside and numerical growth from outside.  If our people value the gospel, this is what they will take to their neighbours.  They will tell their neighbours that this is what is preached at their church.  They will say, “If you want to hear good news every Sunday, come to our church and listen to our pastor.  Every Sunday you will hear about Jesus Christ and what he has done!”

There are no tricks or techniques or programs in what I am saying.  This is all about people hearing preaching about Jesus Christ and his gospel, loving that gospel, and then talking about it with family, friends, co-workers, and fellow students.  Some years ago somebody did a study about the ways in which people become Christians and become committed members of a church.  In this study, 0.001% became Christian church members through crusade evangelism.  About 25% came through a variety of other ways.  But 75% of the people came through family and friends.  That study was done some years ago, but there is every reason to believe that it is still valid.  Forget about techniques and programs.  Preach the gospel to your people and have your people share the gospel with their family and friends.  Let them go everywhere evangelizing with the Word as the early church did in Acts 8:4.  It’s that simple.  Focus on the message, not the method.

Jesus said in John 10 that when the sheep hear his voice, they will come.  When the sheep hear the voice of Jesus in the gospel and in the preaching of the gospel they will come.  Who are the sheep?  According to John 10:11 and John 10:15, they are the ones for whom Jesus Christ laid down his life.  According to John 10:29, they are the ones who were given to Christ by the Father (cf. John 17:9).  They were those chosen to everlasting life.  The spreading of the gospel is the way through which God’s elect are brought to faith and are brought into his church.

When the gospel is spread whether through witnessing by church members or by the preaching of pastors, we must remember that the results are not our responsibility.  We are called to get the message out there, but we cannot control what happens from there.  In Mark 4:26-29, the Lord Jesus tells us a parable about the kingdom of God.  It is like a man scattering seed on the ground.  That is the preaching of the gospel.  The man sows the seed and he goes about his business.  Then one day he comes to the field and there is grain growing in the field.  Before he knows it, there is a crop and it is time for the harvest.  The message of this parable is that there is surprising growth in the kingdom of God, but God makes that growth happen.  Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 3.  In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.”  In other words, church growth is something that belongs to God.  He uses human tools or instruments.  He uses us and our congregation members, we have our responsibility, but we should never forget that church growth is ultimately God’s work.

A Lesson from History

Here I want to say something about the history of the church in the United States.  The United States has had a lot of influence on Christianity everywhere in the world.  It has influenced Canada and it has also influenced the churches where I am a pastor.  I am sure that it has also influenced the churches here in Mexico.  Because that is true, we should think carefully about the history.  We should try to learn from it.

We have to go back to the 1700s.  This was the time of the First Great Awakening.  At that time, a revival came through the United States.  Many people were converted and churches grew in numbers and in maturity.  The pastors of the First Great Awakening believed that the message was more important than the method.  The emphasis was on good Biblical preaching teaching – people did not think about whether or not it would work.  One of the pastors of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards wrote many books and preached many sermons.  One of his most famous sermons is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  By today’s standards, Edwards was not a great preacher.  He read his sermon.  He had a high-pitched monotone voice.  He never looked up at his congregation.  Yet the message he preached was sound and biblical.  God used it to convert many people to true faith in Jesus Christ.

When we go to the 1800s, we find the Second Great Awakening.  This was a turn from truth to technique.  The method became more important than the message.  The gospel was being watered down and the teaching and preaching was not as biblical as it had been with the First Great Awakening.  One of the key figures in Second Great Awakening was Charles G. Finney.  There are two important things to note about Finney.

First of all, he believed that revivals are not supernatural miracles of God.  Rather, if one could only find the right method or technique, then people would be converted to Christ.  For him, it was not about the message and God working the miracle of regeneration through the message, but about finding the right method.  If you found the right method, people would be converted and your church would grow – he compared it to growing a crop using the right agricultural methods.

Second, his idea of what Christianity was really about can be seen by looking at his book on Systematic Theology.  Finney’s Systematic Theology is not about theology, but about ethics.  It is not about what God has done, but about how we must live.  It’s not about the gospel, but about the law.

At the beginning of his Systematic Theology, Finney writes that many people were looking for religion that deals with matters of practical importance and now in this book they can find it.  That’s what the Second Great Awakening was all about:  finding a religion that works for people.  We call this pragmatism and it is a disease which continues to afflict not only Christianity in the United States, but everywhere in the world.  If you doubt this, go to just about any Christian bookstore in the United States or Canada and have a look.  There are huge sections on Christian Living, but a very tiny section on theology – there may not even be a section on theology.  This is also illustrated in all the trends we see in American Christianity.  A number of years ago, it was the “Prayer of Jabez.”  Then it was the “Purpose-Driven Life.”  Today it is the Emergent Church Movement, with men such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller and Leonard Sweet.  The movement from one fad to another, fits with the thinking of American Christianity and its obsession with method, technique, and programs.  And the simple gospel message gets lost.

Conclusion

Let me conclude then with a warning.  be suspicious of programs that promise growth for your church.  Programs, techniques and methods are marketed to us – they are part of American big business.  They are dressed up in Christian clothes, we are told that it is “ministry,” but it is all about making money for somebody.  Furthermore, the programs, techniques and methods of today are usually taken from the world of business.  There are Bible texts here and there, but when you dig deeply, you find that it has more to do with Donald Trump than Jesus Christ.

We want to see our churches grow in maturity and numbers.  More importantly, God wants that as the Great Shepherd.  But then we must follow God’s Word.  We must simply preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Sow the seed.  Let the gospel do its work.  Then, at the end of the day, we will not praise man.  We will not say that man is so smart that he used this technique or that program.  Then we will praise God, because we know that it is his doing.  Let us finish with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5,

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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