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:

Bray on Scripture: Experiencing God’s Love

Gerald BrayThe denomination I belong to has been labelled many less than positive things. In fact, I was recently asked about a written statement I made in 2016, where I called REACH “exclusive and condescending.” Presiding bishop, if you are reading this, I still love our denomination. But returning to what other people have called REACH, I’ve heard: dry, cerebral, bland and academic. And that was just this past week. While these descriptions are true to varying degrees, another label I wear proudly is that we are bibliocentric. Though some Christians are irked by our staunch commitment to biblical preaching and teaching, it is a mistake to conflate being fully persuaded about the centrality of the Bible with boring bookishness. Previous posts in this series have argued that without Scripture we will worship idols; Spirit filled ministry is Bible saturated ministry; and God’s Word is sufficient to sustain faith. I hope those older posts went some way towards persuading my readers that the Bible is a staple for the Christian life, now I want to challenge believers who know that but no longer delight in reading God’s Word. In other words, knowing about the Bible is not the same as treasuring it because we experience God himself when it is read and preached.

In God is Love, Gerald Bray writes, “Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect from the Word of God. Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself but which it confirms and supports as the standard against which everything else must be judged.” Bray makes two linked points: firstly, our expectation when we read the Bible should be that we will not only learn of but experience God’s love, for his words speak to our hearts; secondly, this does render the Bible less than authoritative or objective, so while we encounter God in his words we must also pay attention to what he says. This can be illustrated with the conversations we have every day: someone is behind speech so I cannot divorce what is being said from who is saying it. Conversation is personal. This is no less true of Scripture than it is of speaking to my neighbour. Bray wants us to remember that behind the Bible is a lover, the God we were made to enjoy and delight in. Studying the Bible is therefore where we experience the love of God, as he addresses us and answers our hearts’ longings. We would do well to approach our devotional reading or the preached Word on Sundays with that expectation, for “the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself,” which brings us to another point Bray makes.

Even though Christians reject the idea of holy or sacred objects “there is Holy Scripture because the Word of God is present in it, proclaimed by it, and made efficacious thought it.” Similarly to the previous point, Bray writes, “We treasure his words…because we sense his presence in them.” If it is true that behind the affectionate words found in Scripture is a person then we must affirm that he is present when they are read. Sadly many Christians today limp between Sunday highs, ecstatically powerful times of worship, which usually means the band was tight. But if we understand the points Bray is making we would forget such a limited view of God’s presence and exchange it for a more biblical understanding and expectation. We are not merely hearing the words of God when the Bible is read we are being invited, or ushered, into his presence by those very words. God is no more present in the spine tingling atmospheres many churches manufacture than he is when the plain Word is read. When we open the Bible and seek God’s presence in his speech we can actually experience him in a way that far surpasses engineered emotions. If only we believed this when we opened our Bibles.