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Posts Tagged ‘growth’

Series on Witness

We are in a series of messages on witness that is meant to challenge us to become more outwardly focused as a congregation. Whether this is helping the church’s mission here in SW Chambersburg or whether it is in your own areas of outreach where you live or work or hang out. As a congregation we need to be less concerned with being comfortable and with what we get out of church, and more concerned with taking risks to reach out and with what we should be giving to others as we reach out.

Last week we began with the letter ‘W’ of the word “Witness” – Why we reach out. And we learned from the Scriptures that our motivation is Christ’s love for people. When we have Jesus’ heart of love we will have a different perspective on people, whatever they might be or seem to be according to the flesh. From the perspective of Jesus’ love they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd and need his salvation and grace.

Well today we focus in on a wrong reason to reach out, and this is the ‘I’ in witness – Idolatry and reaching out. And the idol is the desire to get big; to have a large church, thinking that this is what success means. This is where we idolize growth and getting big as the goal in itself.

Now yes, let me be clear, we very much do want to grow and have people come to know the Lord and become workers for his kingdom. But this can easily and subtly be distorted into an idol. And I think this takes place under the influence of American culture where big is the sign of success. And it comes from using a business model where the bottom line is profit and this is compared to getting more people in the congregation. And it can also just be from envy of other churches that are big and seem to be doing well.

So let me share with you three problems with this thinking:

1. The idolatry of big has a wrong understanding of success

According to this thinking a successful church equals growing and being big. And so if you are not growing you are a failure. But according to the kingdom of God a successful church equals being faithful to reach out, which can lead to growth and being big, but it might not. Do you see the difference in terms of what counts for success? Bigness in itself vs. faithfulness to do what God says whatever the results might be?

That this is true just think for a moment about the parable of the soils. What if a church is in a context where there is rocky soil – trials and persecution, or thorn filled soil – where everyone is focused on the good things of this life? If you are consistently reaching out, but with little or no results are you unsuccessful?

Here’s a more concrete example. What if a church is in a Muslim context and you are consistently reaching out but with little or no results. Does this mean you are unsuccessful?

Here’s an example from our congregation connected to the block party last week. I know a person who invited someone and he came. I know another person who invited 35 people and none of them came. But who would say that the second person was less faithful than the first?

And finally, think of Jesus. Was he a failure because at the end of his ministry he only had a handful of followers? Certainly not!

The point is if you are reaching out, you are successful, whether you are growing or not. Because it is the reaching out itself that is the mark of faithfulness, not the results of reaching out. So you can be amazingly, abundantly, fantastically faithful but have little outward fruit to show for it.

After all, Jesus said “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8) not you must have many converts. And so the bottom line is that we are witnessing, not that we are growing; it is that we are loving and obeying God, not that we are big.

2. The idolatry of big will distort our outreach

Anything that we make into an idol will take us down the wrong road. The most prominent example here is that we water down the gospel to get people to come. Right? If the goal is to get people, you need to do what it takes to get people. So you lower the bar to suit your audience so that they will respond. You take away the things that are hard or that challenge people’s sin.

Well, Jesus flatly rejected this approach. We see this first in Luke 14:25-26. It says, “Now great crowds accompanied Jesus.” And we think, way to go Jesus you’re a success! You’re a winner! You have a crowd. But what does he do? “he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’” What? Jesus you have to keep the crowd. You can’t go telling them to give everything up for you. They won’t follow you anymore!

But this shows us that Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God. So when there was a temptation to choose between having more people and watering down the gospel, he chose speaking the truth.

Another example of this comes from John 6:26. Before and after Jesus fed the 5,000 a crowd was following him. And in this case he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me . . . because you ate your fill of the loaves.” What Jesus? Why would you challenge them like this. They wanted to make you a king!

But again, Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God.

He went on to talk about faith in him in such a way that most deserted him and he had to even ask the 12, ‘Will you leave me also?’ Jesus wasn’t interested in just getting a crowd. His goal was sharing God’s truth with everyone, even if the crowds went away.

3. The idolatry of big leaves God out of the equation

Yes, you can grow a church without God being involved. Indeed there are non-Christian religious groups that grow very rapidly and are large. But God is not in it. And there are churches that have grown because of a dynamic leader who was later found to be full of sin all along. And there are churches that grow because they tickle itching ears and tell people what they want to hear. But God is not in this.

So yes, you can grow a church without God, but this isn’t true growth. It is based on the flesh; on us and our skills or personality or techniques.And so this puts the spotlight on us. Look what we did. And this is in part why so many have become famous, celebrity pastors. They made their church grow! So they write their books and they go on tour and so forth.

But true growth only comes when God moves and people’s lives are changed. And he does this is thousands of different ways, not through some specific technique or strategy or leadership style.

In fact God loves to use the weak and the lowly; those who no one expects to do anything great. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” This brings the glory to God.

As Paul said, we may work, but “only God (is anything), who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:7. It’s all about God, not us.

Now, none of this is meant to excuse not reaching out, and we have work to do here, as do most churches. And it is good to look at how we are doing in our outreach – if it is ineffective – to see if we are doing it poorly and to make corrections.

And you can also turn all this around and make an idol out of being small or not growing. You know, we are small because we are so much more faithful than other groups! When really it is because we don’t reach out or we have created cultural barriers that keep people away.

My point in all this is to have –

The right focus

So let’s focus on being faithful to God to reach out, taking risks and giving of ourselves to others. This is the measure of our success in the kingdom of God. And even if we are not bursting at the seams we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

Let’s focus on presenting the full gospel to others, even if it means that fewer people will come. Let’s not change his word and gospel message just to get our congregation bigger. If people don’t come or leave because of this we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

And let us focus on praying for God to move as we minister in his name, to change people’s lives. If there is not much fruit, this isn’t a matter of discouragement, so much as it is a call to greater prayer and reliance on God to bring about the growth, which only he can do. And we will give him the praise when he does his work.

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