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:

Galatians: No Other Gospel

GalatiansFor the next two quarters my church will be working through Galatians in our small groups. I have decided to attempt a translation of Paul’s letter, with the hope that it will aid insights into the details of the text and illumine the overarching purpose of the book. It must be noted: I am not promising this will result in regular posts on Galatians. In this short post I want to reflect on a point that you certainly do not need Greek to uncover: there is only one gospel. But while Galatians 1:6-9 is fairly straightforward to understand, a closer reading lends striking colour to Paul’s assertion.

The churches of Galatia were deserting – not Paul but – God, the one who called them in grace, for a different gospel (1:6). We might even conclude that they were deflecting to another god. But how and why did this happen quickly? I think the answer partly comes in 1:7-9. The troubler makers had not entirely reinvented the apostolic message but subtly distorted it (1:7). I imagine they still used words like “grace,” phrases like “the gospel of Christ,” and called people to faith in Jesus. However, they had introduced irreconcilable elements that destabilized the gospel, without altering it beyond surface level recognition. As we read through the letter we learn that the Galatian issue was the confusion between our works and Christ’s sufficient work. The success of the false teachers in Galatia, like many today, was due to them being barely distinguishable from Paul. They did not appear to change much; perhaps they claimed to simply emphasise different aspects of the gospel message. But the results are always the same: a different gospel leads us away from the true God.

GalatiansI promised myself that these posts would be short, and therefore not too onerous on you the reader, or my time, so let me make one more point. In 1:8-9, Paul twice uses the verb ‘proclaim good news.’ The false teachers came to the Galatian Christians with an appealing message, something happily received as good tidings. The verb is the same one used throughout the New Testament to speak of God’s salvation. And so as we saw above, the greatest danger of other gospels is when they are difficult to discern from the true gospel of grace. Politicians, advertisements, and preachers proclaim good news. However, the major distinction between the gospel of Christ (see 1:10-12) and the many gospels championed around the world is that only the former tells us what we desperately need to hear, while the others are shaped by what we want to hear.

I have also previously written on Galatians 3, discussing what it means for the Christian to be free from law.

Bonhoeffer on the Cost of Discipleship

Photo of BonhoefferEarlier this year I was asked to preach at the first of our quarterly youth rallies. After deliberating for a few days, I decided to preach on discipleship and the cost of following Christ. In my preparation I planned to frame the talk with writings from and references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death. This was not to be, since wisdom told me most 15 year old South Africans would simply switch off at the mere mention of World War 2. That is a pity, because fewer stories from history epitomise the cost of Christian discipleship more than Bonhoeffer’s.

At the age of 31 he wrote his outstanding Nachfolge (German for ‘Discipleship’). Largely a critique of the nominal and secularised Christianity rife in Germany, this work is legendary, and should never be forgotten, for Bonhoeffer’s illuminating distinction between costly and cheap grace. Read it. In the preface Bonhoeffer asks where answering the call to discipleship will lead, what decisions and partings it will demand. And his answer is that we need to go to Christ, for only he knows the answer. “Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (p40, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4).

Flossenberg concentration campFor anyone who does not know the rest of his story: Bonhoeffer died 8 years later in a Nazi concentration camp for plotting to assassinate the Führer. When Bonhoeffer penned the words above he had no inkling that faithfully following Christ’s call to discipleship would lead to his own death. Did he still consider it joy when he sat in Flossenbürg concentration camp awaiting that fateful hour? Did he wonder where Christ’s mercy was in his latter life and execution? I think Bonhoeffer would tell us that the costliness of the call is unavoidable, yet full of God’s wondrous grace. Perhaps the most famous quote from his Nachfolge is this, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ” (p45). Note how he saw God’s grace and Christian cross bearing as inseparable, and far from divergent.

Bonhoeffer bookApparently the last thing Bonhoeffer said to anyone was a relayed message to George Best, through a fellow inmate at Flossenbürg: “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.” But Bonhoeffer approached that end as he had lived his entire Christian life, well acquainted with the intertwining of grace and cost, discipleship and death, and was not deterred from trusting his God’s sovereignty. A doctor at the camp wrote of Bonhoeffer’s last moments, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Quoted in Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p531).

Jesus said this about such disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” While Bonhoeffer undoubtedly gained life, I fear many of us consider loss to be incongruent with faith in Christ. We all long for cheap grace. In our age of consumerism we spend eagerly and enthusiastically. But when discipleship becomes costly we shake our heads. Many Christians today are unwilling to be disciples who know and experience the cross to be part of our discipleship. To these Bonhoeffer would pose this question, ‘How can we cheapen something that was so very costly to God?’

Doodle: Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints

Persevering with the world on our shouldersIn my first year at theological college, one of my lecturers warned students away from beginning essays with dictionary definitions; let’s hope he doesn’t read this post. If you survey a few dictionary entries on perseverance you will notice the word is unmistakeably active, not passive. Perseverance carries with it the idea of persistence in spite of opposition or discouragement; the steady continuation on a course of action in the face of difficulties and obstacles.

I find this quite interesting because the resounding note of perseverance in faith is that it is guaranteed by God’s electing, redeeming and calling (Horton, The Christian faith, p683). In other words, Christians are assured of their perseverance because of God’s grace, which has already been experienced by the believer at conversion, a result of regeneration. Justification by faith announces an irreversible verdict in the courts of heaven and union with Christ, the communion mediated by the Holy Spirit, doesn’t merely signify that the glorious future of the gospel has begun in the creature’s present, but it also guarantees that future. Why then do we speak about perseverance?

Preserving ChristiansWouldn’t we be better off talking about preservation of the saints? If you’ll forgive another definition, preservation seems more consistent with what historic or confessional Reformed theology affirms: to keep safe from destruction and decay; to protect from harm and maintain unchanged, without injury and away from peril. Well, that doesn’t really cover it either, especially if preservation conjures images of jam jars and your kitchen pantry. I don’t think the doctrine can be understood as God simply hiding us away until glory. That being said, God’s preservation of the elect is, in my opinion, more assuring than my perseverance as a saint.

In conclusion the notion of preservation fails to give proper ground to a believer’s persistence, with saints being spared this life’s suffering from sin and the ongoing struggle with it. On the other hand, perseverance might overstate the believer’s effort in faith. Preservation moves us towards a kind of “quiescent passivity” (to steal John Murray’s phrase), yet perseverance could be seen to exaggerate the creaturely endeavour in faith. Both extremes undermine grace. For Calvin’s duplex gratia (double grace) emphasises God’s initiative which is first experienced in justification and then expressed in sanctification, positional before progressive. But the duplex gratia doesn’t render believers passive. Therefore, perseverance is both the call to cling to Christ in faith and the wonderful assurance that he will not lose anyone the Father has given to him.

Reflection: God’s Grace in Gilead and Reductionism

Marilynne RobinsonLast month I found a second hand copy of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead. The book is a collection of moving memoirs (for lack of a better word) written by an elderly man, whose heart is failing, to his young son, whom he will soon leave behind. John Ames, the father, never expected to have a young wife in his old age, let alone that he’d be leaving a child to the world in his flight from it. And so the warmly honest diary touches on many things, from grieved apology to wondrous reflections on human life and creation, to the painful recounting of his mistakes and pensive thoughts on his sermons and pastoral duties. Gilead is a tale of untold beauty.

One of the features in John Ames’ letter which I found myself rereading over and over was his theological musings. I want to quote one of them and offer my own brief reflection. As he approaches the close, John Ames writes, “the Greek word sozo, which is usually translated ‘saved,’ can also mean healed, restored, that sort of thing. So the conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations. I thought he [Jack Boughton] should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” What John Ames wants his son to bear in mind, and what struck me, is his caution to narrow and impoverish grace, for God’s initiative to save presents itself in a number of ways. When Jesus Christ saves people he gives life, affirming the goodness of creaturely existence and undoing the disastrous effects of sin.

In my experience, an all too frequent characteristic of Reformed theology is the tendency towards reductionism. Words and concepts are reduced so that they fit snugly within our larger systematic structure and ‘party line’ truisms. Michael Welker defines reductionism as, ‘limiting our understanding of an area to one guiding principle or single key at the expense of all other tools.’ N. T. Wright warns us against an overly reductionistic approach to Scripture. In his essay New Perspectives on Paul, Wright confronts those who would diminish the gospel to a system of salvation, ignoring that Israel’s Messiah was being proclaimed as the world’s true Lord who calls all people to faith. Grace writes us into the greatest story ever told.

Night SkySalvation is more wonderful than a system whereby God makes us right with him, for he remakes creatures for righteous living. Grace is much more than ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense,’ it is the magnificent divine movement that captures sinful creatures and takes them from rebellion to glory. Being saved is not God’s extraction of sinners from a hopeless world; it is their experience of his new creation both around and in them, as the Lord renews what was broken. As Michael Horton says in The Christian faith, “Scripture does not present us with a choice between the personal and cosmic dimensions of the new creation” (p560). Behold, he makes all things new! That is the greatest tale of untold beauty.