FIRST-PERSON: Is the Bible 'enough' for church growth?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--I have been privileged to pastor a number of wonderful churches filled with godly men and women who love the Lord. I have learned numerous lessons from those with whom I have been privileged to serve. One evening I learned an invaluable lesson about the sufficiency of Scripture from a layman who was my visitation partner.
We were following up with a home visit to a couple who had expressed interest in joining the church. The woman and the man had filled out visitor cards with the same address but with a different last name. The gentleman was not present, and the young lady was a bit nervous during our visit. It was obvious she was concerned about her present living conditions and wanted a little free counseling. My friend indicated that we would be willing to stay as long as necessary to help her deal with issues of concern but that she first needed to answer a few simple questions to help him determine whether we could be of help.
I listened intently as he patiently asked the following three questions: 1) Are you certain that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? She responded "yes." 2) Do you believe that the Bible is God's Word and is sufficient for all our needs? Again she responded in the affirmative. 3) If I show you truth from God's Word that deals with the issues that concern you, will you obey them immediately and completely? My friend did not elaborate at this point, but the lady began to exclaim that we wouldn't understand. She pointed to her financial need and loneliness. My friend listened patiently and then started again repeating the three questions.
The implication was obvious. If we pointed her to Scripture which she confessed to be a "sufficient guide" and she refused to obey God's Word, we had no other advice to give her. It would be like going to the doctor and refusing to follow his prescription.
While you might smile in agreement, let me pose a question: "Is the Bible sufficient for church growth and health?" I'm not suggesting that we don't need to organize for Bible study and outreach. God is not a God of confusion; He works through orderly strategy. But do we really agree with the Apostle Paul that it is "God who gives the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:7)? And if it is God who actually causes true growth, it only makes sense that we find His design for these matters in His Word. We face the temptation of relying too heavily on the next model, method or marketing strategy to grow our church, rather than looking primarily to Scripture for our growth strategy. I believe that if we search the Scriptures and apply their emphases, we will experience the growth and health the Lord desires. Consider these points with me.
GOD'S WORD -- IN OVERCOMING SPIRITUAL MYOPIA
As I have indicated in earlier articles, I am convinced that a primary obstacle to church health is our spiritual myopia which generates apathy. Many Christians behave as if the church were established to meet their needs and to keep them comfortable and entertained until Christ returns. I refer to this as the "Love Boat Syndrome." We behave as if the Ship of Zion is the Love Boat. The role of the captain and staff is to entertain and cater to the needs of the passengers while they enjoy a pleasurable cruise to Glory. Everything is fine as long as the food is sufficient, the music restful, the waters calm and no one moves my deck chair. But in reality, the Ship of Zion is a hospital ship and there are no deck chairs on a hospital ship!
So if we are going to cultivate healthy, Kingdom-focused churches, we must challenge this myopic apathy. There is no program and no method which can overcome such apathy. I resolutely believe that nothing changes anyone's mind and attitude except the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God. Thus, the beginning of changing any church must begin with our knowledge of, and obedience to, the Word of God. This singular conviction has been the guiding strategy of the entire Empowering Kingdom Growth focus. All of the EKG materials are designed to be concentrated studies through which God's Word changes the heart ("EKG: The Heartbeat of God"), transforms the thinking ("Eternal Impact"), and provides the resources ("Making Change") through understanding and obedience to God's eternal truth.
GOD'S WORD -- IN PRODUCING DISCIPLES
In Matthew 28:19, the Risen Lord gave His followers a singular imperative -- "make disciples!" Of course, this imperative is fleshed out through three participles that can be translated "going," "baptizing" and "teaching." The context of this command is "all the nations" and "the end of the age." In other words, it knows no geographical or temporal boundaries. Your church has been given the task of making disciples of the nations. But what else does the Bible tell us about the task?
The starting point of making disciples is the evangelization of those who do not presently know Christ. This has become a sticking point for many churches. Baptisms have been declining since the 60s. Fifty-one percent of Southern Baptist churches baptized five or less in a recent church year. I often hear people complain that people are just unresponsive to the Gospel. Here is where we must allow Scripture to shine its light on our analysis. The Lord told His disciples that "the harvest is abundant, but the workers are few" (Matthew 9:37). In other words, the seed is good and the ground is receptive, but few are working the field.
Do we believe and obey God's Word? According to some studies, less than 4 percent of evangelical believers have ever told anyone about their relationship with Christ. Yes, the Word is true; the laborers are few. So what should we do? Let's follow the Lord's prescription: "Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest" (Matthew 9:38). Do you have a designed time of prayer when you pray for God to thrust out laborers? We generally resort to tactics of guilt and coercion rather than following God's prescription. Are we praying for the lost by name? Perhaps we aren't bringing in the harvest simply because we haven't recognized and obeyed what the Bible commands.
Do we believe what the Scripture says when it comes to witnessing? Paul declared: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God's power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Some people fail to witness because they are too bashful, they believe that evangelism is not their gift or they believe they could never convince anyone to believe. But boldness in witnessing is not a personality trait, but rather a work of the Holy Spirit. Just contrast the timidity of Peter prior to Pentecost with the boldness of Peter after the filling of the Spirit. "Witness" is who we are before it is what we do (Acts 1:8). Further, our job is sowing the seed; only the Spirit can bring conviction and conversion. If we believe the Word, we must appropriate the Spirit's fullness, tell our story in His power and allow the Gospel to reveal its power for salvation.
Disciples are developed in community through the teaching of God's Word. It is important to note that God's Word identifies baptism as the next step in the discipling process. I often paraphrase the word "baptizing" as "congregationalizing." While we believe in and practice believers' baptism by immersion, baptism is more involved than the simple act of immersion. It refers to the incorporation of the believer into the body of Christ by the Spirit. Paul declares to the Corinthians: "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body -- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13). This declaration is followed by the imagery of the human body and the declaration that God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body as He chose (1 Corinthians 12:18). In other words, it is the activity of the Spirit that knits new believers to the body.
But after they have been brought in, what discipling program do we use as we teach them to observe all things? Here again, we must believe that Scripture is sufficient. Listen again to these familiar verses: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We speak often of the inspiration and inerrancy of God's Word, but do we truly believe that it is "profitable?" Is it sufficient and powerful, adequate to equip us for every good work? Is it enough for our teaching and equipping efforts?
The Word can do what we can never do. It can judge the thoughts and intentions of men, shattering unbelief and challenging spiritual apathy. "For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
GOD'S WORD -- IN LINKING SUPERNATURAL POWER AND HUMAN EFFORT
How does God accomplish His supernatural work through His Word in our churches? Paul writes about this process in several of his letters. When Paul explains the ministry of Apollos and himself in Corinth, he describes them as servants and gives God the credit for all the growth that occurred through their ministry (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Don't be confused. Paul is not belittling his work in sowing or Apollos' work of watering. He actually refers to himself as a "wise master builder," who served according to God's grace. We are the instruments through whom God manifests His activity on planet earth.
In case you think he was only talking about apostles and "ordained ministers," he warns each to be careful how he builds (1 Corinthians 3:10). We are all "graced" to build upon the foundation which God Himself laid with the death of His Son.
Paul provides even more detail in Ephesians 4:11-16 when he indicates that the work of the pastor/teacher is to equip saints for the work of ministry. It is through the ministry of every individual part, empowered by its head, Christ, that the body builds itself. Listen to the Word of God: "From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part" (4:16).
Do we believe that God's Word is true? Do we believe it is sufficient? If we respond with the affirmative, then the healthy growth of your church is not dependent on human cunning or strategy, but in working in cooperation with the purposes of God through the power of the Spirit as we seek to know and apply the living Word of God.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC's national strategist for Empowering Kingdom Growth.