Friday, March 5, 2010

New Testament Gospel Preaching and Church Growth

CAN "NEW TESTAMENT GOSPEL PREACHING" REALLY SUCCEED?

Perhaps some have wondered if I am so naïve as to suppose the preaching style I have called "New Testament Gospel Preaching" can actually "succeed" in today's culture. My prior entry spoke of 3000 converts on the day of Pentecost and thousands upon thousands being won before a single page of the New Testament scriptures was ever written. Is that what I really expect?

That kind of scenario would be nice but sadly I do not expect that anything like this will ever be seen again. The first century AD was a very unique time in history. As was said in my prior entry we no longer have eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Nor does our message have the endorsement of the astounding miracles that God provided in that day.

In addition, though the news of Christ's victory over death is still good, it is not new. The gospel is an old story in a world that is like the city of Athens in Paul's day (Acts 17:21). Everyone's interest is focused on the newest ideas all the time. Many of the people I know actually believe in Christ's resurrection. But their belief in Christ's resurrection is sort of like their belief that the earth is round and it has about that much impact on their lives, too. They believe Christ was raised from the dead but that doesn't mean they are going to go to church or anything.

HOW WE DEFINE SUCCESS

Culture tends to define the way we think and within our culture success tends to be measured by numbers. We therefore easily suppose that our message has failed unless it brings a good and growing number of members into our church buildings. There are additional and more spiritual reasons for wanting to see large numbers. All of us would love to see Pentecost's 3000 coming to the Lord. But we all know that 300 is a more realistic expectation.

The bottom line is that "Christian" people want to see as many people "saved" as possible. If we love God and our fellow man this desire is quite natural - and expected. If we did not want to see large numbers saved it would be a problem. Yet with this desire comes temptation to compromise our message. Lower the standards and more people will respond.

The most extreme examples of this compromise within today's Christendom are the cheap grace merchants with their do-next-to-nothing invitations to salvation. If people want to believe they can live like the devil now without having to live with him in eternity that is fine with them. The important thing is that people "believe in Jesus" to "get saved", right? There are actually "preachers" teaching this nonsense who are convinced they are doing "a mighty work for the Lord". They see the numbers - and income - their work has produced as evidence of God's blessing. Yet you and I both know that "they already have their reward in full".

HISTORIC CHURCH GROWTH - A HISTORY OF COMPROMISE

Christianity within human culture is a paradigm of passive aggression. Nothing is more passive than true Christianity - if a man strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also. But at the same time it is extremely aggressive - the word of God is like a two-edged sword. A sword cuts and cutting opens things up. Once a thing is opened you find out what is inside.

Throughout church history Christianity has cut into the heart of this world, nation by nation. The gospel is powerful, opening peoples' hearts. The gospel thrusts forward into new lands and people are won to the Lord. But the gospel strikes at evil hearts as well as good ones and the evil that is in those hearts is then revealed in the form of persecution. As it has always been, the faithful church is driven into wilderness hiding as the great dragon pursues.

Yet over time - sometimes several generations of time - the church chaffs under this persecution. As a result, it compromises with the persecuting culture and an uneasy peace results. Eventually an atmosphere arises in which "the church" can continue to exist and perhaps even grow, so long as it behaves itself. It dare not shed too much light into the culture, though, for when darkness is revealed for what it is, persecution begins anew.

I read an extremely sobering article several years back written by a man most definitely opposed to Christianity. He was addressing the question of what should be done about those extreme right wing "Christian fundamentalists" that were so annoying. His conclusion was this: Don't worry too much about them, they want to win us to their religion and will do whatever is needed to make themselves appealing to us. Just be patient, he said. Most of the Christian community had already become so much like the rest of America that no one could tell the difference and eventually the extreme fundamentalists would too. America is, after all, a melting pot.

A PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF SUCCESS - AND FAILURE.

Success in preaching, or in any other aspect of Christian life, should not be defined by any worldly standard. Jesus Himself was an offense to the world's standards and the world killed Him because of it. Success in the Christian Life, and this includes preaching, means doing things in a way that pleases God.

Scriptural preaching is defined for us in the scriptures themselves. The men of God that stand in our pulpits are to preach the word in season and out. They are to reprove, rebuke and exhort with great patience and careful instruction. - 2Tim 4:2. If the people of our world do not care much for reproof - or for being rebuked or exhorted - this simply shows that the gospel message is "out of season" and that men are "not tolerating sound doctrine" - 2Tim 4:3. This is to be expected and it does not give us license to compromise the message or the manner in which scripture says it is to be given.

Our understanding of terms or ideas is sometimes enhanced through considering opposing terms or ideas. In this case, the opposite of success is failure. Ultimate failure in our culture is probably summed up best in the idea of dismissal from our jobs - getting fired. Some preachers have gotten fired for failure to produce the desired numbers. But I will never forget something Don DeWelt, whom some of you may have known, once said. Reminding young preachers in training that their highest employer was God, he showed those "pearly whites" - as only he could - and stated that, "If God fires you, you are on fire!"

SHOULD WE EXPECT THE NEW TESTAMENT GOSPEL TO PRODUCE BIG NUMBERS?

In a word, "no"! That may be disappointing but scripture shows us what we should expect and it is not a big following. If we are truly striving to serve the Lord we should expect to be hated, persecuted and rejected - Mt 5:10-12; 2Ti 3:12. Most of the people in this world want to travel the broad and easy way (and we've got our blinders on if we think that the easy ways do not tempt us, as well). Not many are willing to enter by the narrow way that leads to salvation - Mt 7:13-14. And not many "preachers" interested in success will preach that narrow way, either.

Our culture embraces tolerance, even toward Christianity (though this has been changing). And freedom of religion in the United States remains a constitutional right. For these reasons Christians in America see less persecution and milder forms of persecution than those in many parts of the world. But even so, we should be concerned (at the very least) if we are "preaching Christ" in such a way as to bring the approval of huge numbers - Luke 6:26.

How wise is it to adopt methods and messages designed for a broad-spectrum appeal to the masses? The entire foundation of the "church growth" movement is flawed. Let's build instead on the solid rock, doing things God's way, whether it seems to "be working" or not.

1 comment:

John and Ellen said...

This was another excellent article Rich, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insight!