We live in a scientific age. The scientific method has enabled us to do things that never would have entered the imagination of previous generations. I can still remember how we used to gather around our TV sets to watch the Apollo Moon missions less than fifty years ago. Back then it was exciting to think that scientific advances had enabled us to land a human being on the moon. By today’s standards, the Apollo technology was primitive. The computer aboard the Lunar Exploration Module held no more memory than one of the original floppy discs — 1.4 MB!! Imagine that! Today home computers have terabytes of memory.
Given our ability to solve so many problems with the scientific method, is it any wonder that we have become enamored with technology? We have come to believe that we can solve almost any problem if we just apply the right methodology. This pragmatism has carried over into the practice of our faith. No longer content to leave the work of regeneration to the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word of God, we have resorted to human methods to grow the church. We use seeker friendly services, special evangelistic techniques, and Christian counseling to attract people to our services. But when it comes to church growth, there is precious little text devoted to methodology in the Bible. The book of Acts describes the initial explosion in church growth at Pentecost this way:
“And with many other words he [Peter] bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:40-41)
There were no evangelistic techniques or special evangelistic events or programs, no gospel tracts, no raising of hands, and no altar calls or other evangelistic gimics at Pentecost — just the preaching of the word of God, the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and acceptance of the word through faith and repentance.
GOD’S WORD IS POWERFUL
There is nothing that can take the place of the word of God or assist the work of the Holy Spirit in producing salvation. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Salvation is produced by faith in the word of God alone. It needs no support or assist from the means and methods of man. First Corinthians 1:23 says that the gospel is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. For the modern Evangelical it is just too simple to do the job by itself. Bereft of methodology, it requires promotion, performance, and the application of modern counseling techniques to be effective.
Scripture says the word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). The Bible is more than just words on a page. It is the only book that has the power to probe the heart of the reader. It is the lifeblood of the church, the source of nourishment for the body of Christ.
Only Jesus’ words can give life. They raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mk 5:35-43) and resurrected Lazarus three days after he died (Jn 11:38-44). So too Christ’s words bring spiritual life. Jesus told Nicodemas, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Just like the wind, the Holy Spirit comes unseen and unbeckoned to produce spiritual life. Sometimes that wind blows like a gentle breeze, bringing a growing awareness of the holiness of God and sinfulness of self. Less often it comes like a tempest, restoring spiritual life to the whole church. But it can never be bottled and administered in doses via evangelistic techniques and church growth methods.
MAN’S METHODS ARE INADEQUATE
I remember a series of evangelistic meetings at our church that were conducted by an itinerant evangelist. This person used a special technique to identify unbelievers. First she asked for a show of hands from those who felt guilty for something they had done. Of course, everyone raised their hand. Then she asked those who had sought forgiveness from Christ to lower their hands. Every hand that remained raised was a potential convert. She then distributed tracts and explained the plan of salvation to to this group, coaxing them to pray a prayer of salvation. She may have persuaded a few people to raise their hands and say a prayer, but it is unlikely many were genuinely converted by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Evangelistic strategies and Christian counseling and church growth trends are fads that come and go because they ultimately prove inadequate. They are based not on eternal realities, but the ever changing conditions which they are supposed to address. As the flaws of the methods are exposed, their effectiveness wanes and they pass out of fashion. Meanwhile, great damage is often done to the body of Christ through the spread of false teaching. This has become manifestly evident in the seeker-friendly movement. Although it has drawn masses of people into the church, it has at the same time watered down the gospel and resulted in church buildings that are filled with unregenerate people who think they have eternal life but live just like the rest of the world. That is why the incidence of such maladies as divorce, sexual addictions, spousal and child abuse and sexual addictions are now common in the church. The result is that the rest of society sees Christians as a bunch of hypocrites and the name of Christ is disgraced, setting back the cause of Christ rather than advancing it.
Ephesians 2:1-10 describes the human condition this way:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…“
There is absolutely no way in the world that any man-made method can take someone who is “dead in trespasses and sins” and impart spiritual life to him. Every man is controlled by his sinful passions, a captive of his own selfish desires, and destined for divine judgment. How can one person possibly help another when he is in the same lost condition? Only God can impart spiritual life to such a person and he does it through his word and the work of the Holy Spirit, not by human means.
The only hope of deliverance is through the sacrifice of the only Righteous One who has judged sin and Satan at the cross and set us free from the bondage of sin and death. Mankind has no wisdom that can contribute anything to God’s word and his work. If it were merely a matter of intellect, perhaps human logic would be helpful. But salvation has nothing to do with intellect. As Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Lk 10:21)
IF YOU PREACH IT, THEY WILL COME
When it comes to the practical matters of church growth, we deny the power of the word of God. We ask, “How are we going to get people to church?” “How are they going to know about our beautiful facilities, our great musicians, the oratorical skills of our pastor, and our many programs that meet all their needs?” So we make our services as attractive as possible to people who are accustomed to being entertained at beautiful concert halls or ornate theaters or by modern media. We install state of the art video systems, employ the most sophisticated sound systems, find the most talented musicians, and liven up the messages with personal anecdotes and lots of therapy and self help talk, thinking that is what will draw people in.
I belong to a church that is three congregations in one. We have an English congregation, a Cantonese congregation and a Mandarin congregation. Only one of these congregations has a pastor who devotes the majority of his time and effort to preparing for and preaching the word of God at the Sunday worship service. The others supplement an inconsistent pulpit ministry with evangelistic meetings and Christian counseling and personal evangelism based on simplified gospel presentations and human persuasion. They do not provide a consistent diet of sound Biblical teaching.
As the one pastor faithfully expounds the scriptures week by week, the congregation is steadily growing. New people come almost every week. In many cases, no one has even invited them. The Holy Spirit draws them because the pastor honors Christ through the faithful preaching of the Word of God week by week.
This pastor models his ministry on a very well known pastor in California who does the same thing. He has faithfully preached the word of God for over forty years to the same congregation. This church holds no evangelistic meetings. There are no altar calls. There are no special evangelistic events or presentations. Yet there are baptisms every week. People simply come to Christ as they hear the word of God preached faithfully week in and week out.
This man’s messages now go around the world in digital format and on radio and TV, not because he developed these outreaches to attract people, but because more and more people began listening to his preaching. They want to hear the word of God preached line upon line and precept upon precept, systematically, accurately, and thoroughly. He and his congregation have responded by doing everything in their power to give them what they want. He now has 3000 sermons on line and has started a new initiative to put 600 of these sermons in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French and Arabic. He often reads letters from grateful listeners whose lives have been profoundly changed by the preaching of the word.
This pastor spends a minimum of thirty hours every week studying the Bible in preparation for his messages. He draws on the English and original texts, archeology, history, the writings of the church fathers, science, current events, geography, and just about anything else that provides context to unveil the original intent of the authors. If you were to walk into his study during sermon preparation, you would find him surrounded by books opened to passages he plans to reference during his message. He very rarely uses personal anecdotes and never tries to enhance the message with visual aids.
Many people dislike this man because he speaks the unvarnished truth, pulling no punches where scripture conflicts with contemporary culture, science, psychology, or political correctness. He is unafraid to talk about judgment or to lay down a marker where he feels the contemporary Christian church has gone astray. Nonetheless, his audience has continued to grow to the point where today his messages are downloaded an average of over one million times a month in countries all over the world.
THE GREAT DISCONNECT
Given the power of the word of God to give spiritual life, why are so many Christians unenthused about reading it, listening to it and committing it to memory? It may be because they don’t really connect with it. They are reading it from a purely human perspective. If you listen to popular preaching and read popular Christian authors, it is clear the average Christian hopes to find the answers to his questions and the solutions to his problems when he reads scripture. He wants to know how to improve his marriage, manage his relationships, raise his kids, cope with stress, and find happiness, health, peace and prosperity.
But God had something else in mind when he inspired the Biblical writers. He wanted to reveal himself in all his glory and majesty so that we would know him and love him for who he is. Knowing God was the highest aspiration of the Apostle Paul, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil 3:8-9). Far from seeking temporal blessings, Paul was prepared to give them up for the far greater privilege of knowing God. Paul had the right perspective on the word of God. For that reason, the Holy Spirit opened up the most precious truths about God to him. Read Ephesians 1:3-11 and listen to the excitement in his voice when he describes the blessings of knowing God intimately. Then read his prayer in the following verses to see how it affects his desires.
Many professing believers fail to find the blessings that God intended for them because they aren’t even on his wavelength. They are like the spouse who is never able to enjoy true intimacy with his partner because he hears everything she says through the filter of his own selfish desires, never making an attempt to understand her point of view. So the two just talk past each other and forfeit the intimacy God intended for their marriage. That blessing only comes with the kind of sacrificial love Paul describes when he talks about knowing Christ.
Coming to scripture with the desire to know the One who loved us enough to sacrifice his only Son to save us is the only way to find all the treasures that are hidden in its pages. We have such a loving, gracious Father and yet we aren’t as interested in getting to know him as we are in getting all the good things he has to offer. We are so like the prodigal son who spurned his father’s love, took a reduced inheritance, and wasted it on his own selfish desires when he could have stayed home and enjoyed the privileges of serving his father as a son and waited patiently for an inheritance that would have lasted forever.