by Tim Pyles
The second decade of the 21st century finds American society grappling with multiple uncertainties and trudging through a dark valley of economic hard times. National debt, national security, wars on foreign soil, distrust of government, corporate greed and fraud, a volatile stock market, high unemployment, personal bankruptcies, and home foreclosures head a long list of cultural anxieties and concerns. On the individual level, Americans both young and old, male and female, are feeling the angst and despair of having reached the point of experiential overload on the things of this world (media, money, sex, drugs, etc.) and are caused to cry out, “Is that it?” “Is there nothing more?”
Can the church of Jesus Christ experience growth in such a culture? A more relevant question might be, “How could the church not grow in these times?” Does the body of Christ possess a substantive, meaningful, and relevant message to offer in response to the world’s greatest needs? Absolutely! Does a family of believers exist where faith can be nurtured and matured, relationships strengthened, burdens shared, and physical and emotional needs met? Without a doubt! Is there a Savior who can remove guilt, affirm worth, and restore hope to desperate hearts and souls? How loudly can “Amen” be shouted?
The fact that the church can grow in our current culture does not always ensure that it will. First and foremost, all measures of spiritual growth and magnitudes of expansion in the Kingdom are ultimately dependent upon the will and activity of God (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Church growth rests within God’s own divine economy of timing and blessings, and it cannot be coerced, manipulated, predicted, or demanded by man. Yet, on the human end of this partnership and covenant with God, there is still much that can be done within churches to more effectively plant, water, and nurture seeds of faith and create spiritual environments that are conducive to growth.
At the heart of any congregation’s ability to grow is a commitment to being a “both/and” church instead of surrendering to misguided human pressure to be an “either/or” church. “Is your church focused on meeting people’s spiritual needs or their physical needs?” “Does your congregation stress a strong, personal relationship with Jesus Christ or a deep knowledge of the Scriptures?” “Is your church concerned with doctrine or with serving the people in your community?” These false dichotomies and manufactured dilemmas dupe and bind churches into being far less than what God has called them to be. Examine Jesus’ ministry to both body and soul as recorded in the four accounts of the gospel. Notice the beautiful balance of spiritual and physical ministry within the rapidly growing Jerusalem church in Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37; 6:1-7. Search in vain for any evidence in Scripture that allows for a choice of one to the exclusion of the other.
The church must be dedicated to the faithful and loving proclamation of what the Father has revealed, what Jesus has spoken, and what the Holy Spirit has inspired in Scripture. No substitute exists which possesses the power to convict hearts, nourish souls, and mature faith. While it may be permissible to consume cotton candy, funnel cakes, and deep-fried Twinkies on an annual trip to the state fair or indulge in an occasional tub of buttered popcorn at the theater, long-term consumption of these would quickly lead to a ruination of physical well-being. Similarly, only a consistent diet upon the word of God’s grace can build up His saints (Acts 20:32), cause growth in respect to salvation (1 Pet. 2:2), and sustain spiritual health.
One of the most widely accepted lies in our culture (and in some of our churches) is that very few people possess a spiritual hunger or a desire to know Jesus Christ. It is an untruth straight out of the mouth of Satan, the father of lies. Multitudes are looking for real substance in life, healing for their wounds, freedom from the guilt of their failings, and deliverance from enslavement to addictive behaviors. Mass media consistently serves them up an endless buffet of glitz, excess, and dysfunction. Reality TV is as vacuous as it is ubiquitous. When people finally muster up enough courage to visit a place of worship on Sunday morning, they are seeking an alternative to the prevailing culture, not a mirror of it. If all they encounter in a worship assembly is slick production, self-promotion, and shallow sentimentalism, they will (and should) keep looking.
God’s revelation in Scripture is ageless, timeless, living, and dynamic (Heb. 4:12); it is at once ancient and contemporary. There is no need for proclaimers of the Gospel to presumptuously spin it, disguise it, dilute it, or re-engineer it in order for its message to connect with our culture. God has divinely infused it with built-in pertinence to the human condition. “We don’t ‘make the Bible relevant’; we show its relevance.”[i] Still, “showing its relevance” requires heralds of the Good News to complete the circuit of practical application and clearly connect the dots between Biblical truth and the everyday lives, relationships, and moral dilemmas of those who hear.
While healthy church families have a strong sense of identity and mission, such a mindset does not allow for an attitude of spiritual superiority or ungodly pride. In order to facilitate growth, the church must be a place of open hearts, open arms, and open minds. The effectiveness of the sword of the Spirit to impact hearts and lives will be severely diminished if believers wield it within a sheath of self-righteousness or with a projected persona of perfection. If the church ever confuses God’s call to faithfulness with an achievement of flawlessness, it cloisters itself away in its own world of spiritual delusion and destroys its ability to reach those who are sincerely struggling with temptation and sin.
People are looking for a place to belong. It is a trans-generational need felt equally by teenagers, college graduates, newlyweds, new parents, parents of teens, empty nesters, retirees, the widowed, the divorced, and single parents. “Every newcomer ventures into the strange land of the church asking, ‘What are these people really like? Will I fit in? Will I make friends? Will I be accepted? Will I like it? Will there be a place for me?’ These are very real personal obstacles in making the transition to becoming part of the local church community.”[ii] Whether those obstacles are overcome or further magnified is largely determined by the receptivity of the church. By their attitudes and actions, churches choose whether they will militantly function as obstructionist guardians of the gates (Matt. 23:13) or serve as welcoming ushers into the kingdom of God.
Growing churches honor the word and the will of their Savior and Lord. “The New Testament is the greatest church-growth book ever written. For the things that really matter, you can’t improve on it. It’s the owner’s manual for the church.”[iii] More precisely, it is the user’s manual for the church; any claims to ownership are unique to Deity. As an incarnational expression of the ministry of Christ, growing churches serve as nurturing havens and beacons of hope in their communities for the seeking, the hurting, the poor, the damaged, and the lost.
Tim Pyles preaches for the Broken Arrow Church of Christ in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma where he lives with his family. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Haddon Robinson, “The High Calling of Preaching,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, ed. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 24.
[ii] Robert Lewis, The Church of Irresistible Influence (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 94.
[iii] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 18.