Pastor, God Grows Churches

God is LoveWhen I finished writing this post I had a toss up over what its title should be. So here is the alternative heading: Pastor, Neither Men Nor Methods Grow Churches. Theologically I am hugely indebted to Gerald Bray. This is true in part because in addition to being a world class scholar and superb writer he endeavours to make difficult theological concepts not only accessible but applicable and pastoral (see these two recent posts, on mixed-sex friendships and the Bible). In addition to the above, Bray is delightfully witty. These attributes were recently on display when Bray was asked a question about the church growth movement.

Bray asked us to imagine a conversation taking place soon after the events of Pentecost in Acts 2. A man says to his friend, “Hey, did you hear about Peter’s new church in Jerusalem?” “No,” replies the friend. “He’s doing incredible work there: 3000 conversions last week. It’s still really early but I heard he’s going to start offering seminars to outline his ministry model and impart strategic tips.” “Amazing. Do you know what books he’s been reading: Julius Caesar or Philo? Maybe Plato’s Republic.” “Let’s be honest, it’s definitely Julius Caesar. Everyone knows when he came to Rome it was a city of stone but he’s left it a city of marble.”

Bray’s point was simple. Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem resulted in 3000 conversions, but that incredible success had very little if anything to do with Peter. He was not a dynamic leader, visionary, or master strategist. In fact, he stumbles his way through the Gospel accounts and falls at the last hurdle—only to be graciously reinstated and commissioned by Christ. Peter did actually go on to write two books, or letters (1 Peter and 2 Peter), which tragically omit his secrets to successful ministry and church growth. Or did they? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Paul puts it another way, in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “God gave the growth…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” 

Bray’s imagined conversation, which I have taken liberty to embellish, highlights a few related and dangerous trends in the church today. One, which I have highlighted in its own post, is the overemphasis of secular leadership principles. But it is a short step from enshrining corporate gurus to treating pastors in the same vein. Today coming from almost every corner, from social media to conferences and seminars, church leaders are being called to imitate more successful church leaders. As one friend often says to me, ‘Everyone is trying to clone success.’ This is because we wrongly attribute growth to men and women, to human strategies and ministry paradigm shifts. We forget what both Peter and Paul express clearly above: God grows churches. We forget what is evident in Acts 2: God saves sinners. Listen to F. F. Bruce on the latter passage, “Their numbers were constantly increased as more and more believers in Jesus were added by Him to the faithful remnant. It is the Lord whose prerogative it is to add new members to His own community; it is the joyful duty of the community to welcome to their ranks those whom Christ has accepted.” As John Piper often reminds us, ‘The one who does the work gets the glory.’ Therefore, even if only unwittingly, when we ascribe the growth of a church to men or methods we rob God of his glory.

Let me bring another passage from Acts to mind. In Acts 8, Peter and John lay hands and pray for the Spirit to descend onto the Samaritan believers. This episode is theologically laden so I will tread lightly. But notice how one bystander reacts. Observing their success, for the Spirit comes upon the Samaritans, Simon offers Peter and John money saying, “Give me this power” (Acts 8:18-19). Peter’s rebuke is fierce, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (8:20-21). I wonder if those would be Peter’s words for many today. Do we really think we can buy power or success, in the form of ministry strategies and newfangled models? Can we create growth through the imitation of powerful leaders and growth gurus?

Grace alone sola gratiaA few years back I showed a video series titled Echoes of the Reformation, to offer a crash course in reformation history and theology at my church. It was filmed as a table discussion between Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung and Trevin Wax. In the session on Sola Gratia (grace alone), one of the speakers says, “You’re not the centre of all things. You don’t have to be the center of all things. And you’ll never have the joy that you can have in Christ until you realise that that burden is not meant to be yours.” The danger today is that when we make men, strategies and models the centre of church growth we inadvertently begin to think the same thing about ourselves—that we are responsible. This is not merely an unbearable burden but an impossible and crushing expectation. Subtly, I wonder if it is the reason church leaders and pastors believe growth can be created or manipulated. Hear DeYoung, in the same video mentioned above, “If I know how to grow this church using means other than preaching the Word and prayer then I’m aiming at something different to what God desires.”

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Church Growth: Must We be Passionate about Numerical Growth?

A few weeks back I posted on church attendance and the role numbers might play in evaluating ministry, both positively and negatively. I argued that unqualified numbers indicate little more than trends, can be misleading or even deceiving, and easily become a source of discouragement. One of the catalysts for my own reflection upon the church growth movement and its principles has been Andrew Heard. I have critiqued an aspect of his teaching (here), but in this post I want to interact with his point from Acts that being passionate about numerical growth is a necessary part of the gospel fabric and ministry. When presenting this at a conference, Heard admitted that being passionate about numerical growth leaves us wide open to compromise, providing a sort of tension. However I believe that being passionate for growth also requires careful qualification. I hope to develop that, in part, with this post.

Growth in Acts was a result of the church’s passion for Christ

Church growthBefore we get to some of those qualifications, we must ask if does Acts does show that being passion for numerical growth is necessary for gospel ministry. I have written previously on the purpose of Acts, arguing that by embedding gospel sermons in narrative Luke’s aim was to: (a) call its readers to repentance and faith in Christ while (b) emphasising that the success of the gospel is owed to the Holy Spirit. More simply, we might say that Acts emphasises the word about Christ and the work of the Spirit. There is no denying that Luke records numerical growth throughout (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 11:24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). But in holding to the aforementioned twofold purpose of Acts, this numerical growth resulted from the faithful proclamation of Christ made effective by the Spirit, which is why we repeatedly read that it was the Lord who added to his church. To risk being accused of splitting hairs, I think we would do better to argue from Acts that the apostles were passionate about Christ and dependant on his Spirit, rather than passionate about growth and dependant on methods. With that in mind, let us consider two qualifications for the statement, ‘Being passionate about growth is a necessary part of gospel fabric.’

Numerical growth must be measured by real conversions to Christ

I mentioned some of the dangers of metrics in ministry in my previous post. One of those is the misuse of numbers; we can, as one commenter said, seek “data-comfort” through metrics. This is not to say that this will always be the case but we must ask both why we are counting on Sundays and what those statistics show. The problem with counting heads on a Sunday is that the number of people who attend services is not an indication of how many Christians belong to your church. Therefore what we can infer from numbers is confidence of growth, perhaps of “seekers” but not an indication of conversions. Commenting on Acts 2, John Stott writes, “Salvation and church membership belonged together; they still do.” All of the numbers in Acts refer to conversions, not adherents or visitors. History tells us that tens of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost and therefore we can safely assume that Peter addressed more than 3000 people. In fact, Acts 2:41 makes it clear that not everyone who heard received the word and baptism. The incredible number in 2:47 was not how many listened to Peter but how many came to Christ.

Conversions have little to do with us

Church growthAnswering the question, “Who grows the church?” in The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells strongly expounds the sovereignty of God. He writes, “Nothing…is more absurd than the panic that now grips the evangelical church. It is terrorized by the specter of postmodernity. Reading today’s “how-to” literature, one has to draw the conclusion that the church’s days are numbered unless we rush in to prop it up with our own know-how. God, you see, has more on his hands than he can possibly handle.” Wells concludes that section of his book with an appeal for us to let God be God over his church, for this will liberate us from feeling or thinking we must do what we are incapable of doing: “We cannot impart new life.” Believing numerical growth can be unlocked by a better strategy comes close to unbelief. Wells continues, “We turn to structures and programs, appearances and management, advertising and marketing. Our preoccupation is with what we do and therefore with what we control.” Strategies, structures, and ministry models do not deny the sovereignty of God but the confidence we put in them to grow God’s church might.

My hope in writing this post is not to promote theological knit picking and it certainly is not to discourage being passionate about growing God’s church. But, working backwards through my points: we must remember the place of human effort and planning within the sovereignty of God. The most God-glorifying expression of our passion for growth will be seen in impassioned prayers for conversions. Finally, if we are truly passionate about growth we will preach Christ and him crucified, in the power of his Spirit. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will grow the church.

Galatians: Did Paul Deny the Truth of the Gospel?

Acts 16Acts 16 starts thus: Paul came to Derbe and Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there and the brothers spoke well of him. He was the son of a Jewish woman, a believer, but his father was Greek. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, so he had him circumcised because the Jews in that region knew his father was Greek. The account is short and seems fairly insignificant, except for Timothy. But when placed alongside Galatians 2 it raises some heckles, not just Timothy’s.

As we saw in my previous post, it was Paul’s contention in Galatians to present and defend the one true gospel. At one point in the autobiographical section spanning chapters 1-2 he recalls his visit to Jerusalem where he met with some of the “influential people,” most likely the church leaders there. But what Paul met was an illustration of the larger issues Galatians is written to settle. Titus was compelled to be circumcised (2:3). The Greek, and most translations, emphasises that Titus was a Greek, just like Timothy. Only, here, Paul flatly refuses the idea of circumcision, much to Titus’ relief. He explains in 2:5 (using very similar language in 2:14), We did not submit or yield to them, so that the gospel of truth would be preserved.

GalatiansSo what about Acts 16? Can we conclude that, at Derbe and Lystra, Paul compromised the gospel of truth, the only true gospel? Or is this another instance proving the Bible to be an inconsistent collection of theological opinions and loose ends? I think it is neither, and instead reveals the zeal with which Paul preached God’s grace and his commitment to as many hearing of that grace as humanly possible. “Paul had thought long and hard about these things. He was…a remarkably flexible man himself…he could happily circumcise Timothy so that this young man could have as ready access to synagogues as the apostle himself (Acts 16:3). By contrast, Paul refused absolutely to allow Titus to be circumcised…because the demand for his circumcision was being made in a context that jeopardized the gospel” (D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places).

Carson goes on, “If someone argues that a Gentile must be circumcised in order to be a true Christian, Paul forbids it absolutely, because that would annihilate the exclusive sufficiency of Christ; if no one is making that sort of demand, Paul is happy to circumcise a believer if it will advance the interests of the gospel.” Therefore at Jerusalem (and Antioch, both recounted in Galatians) Paul boldly opposed those whose practices threatened the true gospel of grace, even the Apostle Peter. On the other hand, at Derbe and Lystra (in Acts 16) he was willing, and we imagine Timothy agreed, to do whatever it took to reach more people with that same gospel of grace. Such an observation puts what I am willing to suffer for Christ and his gospel into stark perspective.

Why Acts? Luke’s Purpose for Writing the Sequel

Luke-ActsWhat are we to make of the book of Acts? There is no other book like it in the New Testament, bridging the Gospels and the Epistles. Most agree that it is a precious aspect to the beginnings of the Christian church, Calvin wrote of it as a “great treasure”. F. F. Bruce went as far as to call it a source book of highest value for the history of human civilization. But above these generous compliments, Acts is a vital contribution to our understanding of the apostolic church and spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:47). Though it is a carefully structured, meticulously written history, garnering eye-witness accounts, Acts is much more than a mere window into the past. For the book does not simply inform us; it transforms and challenges us.

But how does Acts do that? In his Gospel, Luke reports that he set out to provide an orderly account of what had been accomplished among them, so that Theophilus might have certainty of the things he had been taught (Luke 1:1-4). The Acts narrative begins by saying ‘in his previous book he dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach(Acts 1:1-3). So Acts covers what Jesus continued to do and teach, through the apostolic witness. Luke-Acts consists of two volumes forming a single work, so the primary purpose of Acts cannot be considered in isolation from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke-Acts we see “the beginning of the gospel, the establishment of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and the proclamation of salvation by the early church” (F F. Bruce). Therefore, it is unavoidable that Acts is evangelistic, proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ to its readers, who may not have witnessed Jesus or his apostles’ ministry first hand.

The purpose of this two volume work is to call its readers to repentance, which is almost always seen as the result of preaching in Acts (see 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:30). Luke puts great effort into recording sermons that were preached by those in the apostolic church. As Calvin has noted, they touch on sound and pure doctrine, the great mercies of God, the grace of Christ, our hope and blessed immortality, God’s calling, repentance and the fear of God. Far from simply retelling the story of the God’s fledgling church, Acts invites its readers to hear those sermons afresh and respond to them in faith and repentance. As Jesus Christ is preached, from Judah to Samaria and to the ends of the world, we are enveloped in the expanding kingdom that reaches into all four corners of God’s world.

Luke-ActsIn closing, Luke makes it clear that the success of the preached gospel came about because the Holy Spirit was at work through those proclaiming Christ (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:4; 6:3; 8:17; 10:45; 16:6; 20:23). Luke is emphatic that the progress of the Christian faith is due to the divine agency and work of the Spirit. In reading Acts we are encouragingly reminded that faithfulness to the message of Jesus and the effective superintendence of the Spirit will bring about faith in our hearers. This should give us confidence and challenge us to do as the apostolic church did, boldly preach Christ. The book is a detailed history, proclaiming Christ, calling its readers to repentance, and assuring the church that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through preaching the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.