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Church Growth

Greetings All, 

    This week's 'thought' is for those of you who love the Church, and because you love it, desire its health and vitality.  It's a selection which someone else came across, and when he handed it too me, said: "I think you'll like this."  He was right, I did.  It resonated with something in me because it expresses so well something I've always felt but have struggled to express as well as the author of this selection does. 

     It comes to you from Dr. Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois and is taken from the book: "Wayfaring:  Essay's Pleasant and Unpleasant." Enjoy, and be challanged, and never stop loving the Church Christ loves and for which Christ gave His life (Eph. 5:25) -- Dr. Jacobs tells us one of the ways we can.
     "We Christians cannot set as our goal the becoming of a counterculture for the common good.  Nor can we directly seek the elimination of the vices and illusions that constrain our attempts to love our neighbors as we should.  We will strip away our self-deceit and become a true light unto the nations only by seeking and becoming faithful to the call of the Gospel.  If we eventually become a true counterculture for the common good, that counterculture will simply be the product of our faithfulness. 
     All too often Christians think even of faithfulness as a means to an end, that end being (usually) something called 'church growth.'  We think so because in our culture goals are always products; quantifiable goods that, because they are quantifiable, can be produced by techniques.  Thus our true ancestor is Charles Finney, the 19th century evangelist who believed that his evangelistic techniques were fully scientific:  'The right use of means for a revival is as philosophically sure as the right use of means to raise grain and a crop of wheat.' It is truly wonderful that Finney and his many modern heirs fail altogether to notice that whenever the Bible compares soul-winning to agriculture, it invariably does so in order to emphasize the inscrutable sovereignty of God: Paul planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.  And we never get an explanation of why the ground on which the sower sows is so variable in quality, in receptiveness to the seed of the gospel. Obedience, not results, must be our watchword. 
    Last Christmas Day my pastor, Martin Johnson, spoke of his youthful habit of walking in the forests of British Columbia at night, guided only by moonlight. It was remarkable how far he could see, how delicately beautiful the landscape. The only problem was that he couldn't see where to put his foot for his next step.  The light that is Christ, said Martin -- is just the opposite: it illuminates with perfect clarity your next step, but blots out the surrounding territory.  It's worth remembering that when people ask Jesus cartographic kind of questions -- 'Will many be saved or only a few?' -- Jesus tells them to mind their own spiritual business.  I think that if we try to formulate a plan for becoming a counterculture for the common good -- if we draw up a map and an itinerary -- we may well receive a similar rebuke.  'What's that to you? Follow me. One step at a time.' 
    Yet there is a sense in which a focus on today's obedience makes a long view possible: it does not yield a map, but it does yield a confidence that He who has called us is faithful, and will conduct the whole church to her journey's end. About a dozen years ago, Pope John Paul II answered a question concerning demographic predictions that Muslims would outnumber Catholics by the year 2000.  To this inquiry the Pope replied placidly. After all, Jesus Christ himself proposed a still more frightening question: 'When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?' (Luke 18:8)  The whole business of counting the adherents of religions in order to find out which of them 'has a future' is a process at best distracting from, at worst hostile to, true faith... 

     The church must insist on the integrity of its witness, because only such countercultural integrity will save the church -- and therefore serve the common good -- in the long term.  George Weigel points out that Pope Benedict is fond of quoting the old Benedictine maxim, Succisa virescrit -- 'pruned, it grows' -- but as every gardener knows, the immediate result of a vigorous pruning is an apparently lifeless remnant.  It is only in the next season that the luxurious growth appears... 
     How delightful it would be to drive past an empty megachurch and tell an unbelieving friend that the congregation couldn't pay their bills after they gave too much to rebuilding churches in New Orleans... We must remind ourselves that we can insulate ourselves from surprising uncertainties or setbacks only by the kind of false prudence that insulates us also from surprising blessings.  Indeed, we need to ask ourselves what, exactly, in our prudence, we are afraid of.  Sometimes I suspect that it is God himself, or at least life itself."   
          Duplicating the ways and methods of the world in the Church only produces worldly churches.  Whatever good Finney may have done in his own lifetime, his attempt to turn revival (or mass conversion) into a matter of duplicatable human means, methods and gimmicks, rather than a sovereign, miraculous and supernatural move of God where we are entirely dependent upon His grace, has left us with scores of people who have said a prayer under pressure from another, but never experienced true, saving, supernatural heart change through the implantation and germination of the seed of the Gospel in the soil of their soul.   Prof. Jacobs is right -- we are called by God to be obedient and faithful, not successful by the world's standard of measure (Rev. 3:7-13).  
           Loving the Church for the sake of the Lord of the Church, 
Pastor Jeff