Does Church Have A Future? (6)
Not once did they mention numerical growth there, and I believe that there is a very good reason for that: Numerical growth is not an indicator of a healthy church; rather it is one result of a healthy church. All the factors listed above speak about growth in terms of maturity, and it is that continual growth in maturity that is surely the clearest sign of a healthy church, although healthy churches will certainly grow numerically, too. If growth in maturity is what we want to see in our churches, then we need to have a clear vision focused into a specific purpose and expressed in function. The responsibility for that lies with the leaders.
Rick Warren is at the forefront of the ‘Purpose Driven’ ministry, and we can learn some helpful things from Saddleback Community Church, for Wright says that ‘true openness, combined with an eagerness to honour the Holy Spirit as Lord and God with the Father and the Son, is a prelude to the coming of the Spirit in fresh grace and power.’ Let us not criticise people like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, they are part of the church and they can and do make a good contribution to the life of the church. I have, unfortunately, heard it said by some ministers that they do not need ‘these Americans’ telling them what to do and how to run churches, but are wise leaders not open to learning from anyone who has something to teach us?
Power struggles, politics, personality clashes, issues of control; all these and the like need to be thoroughly repented of and cast behind us, and such repentance must begin with the leaders. It is sheer hypocrisy for leaders who will not repent to call church members to do so. I also dare to suggest that we need to repent of denominationalism, though I am not suggesting that we attempt to abandon denominations, rather that we simply carefully examine all of our prejudices.
Like Wright, I believe that, ‘in essence, the breaking down of denominational barriers must surely be welcomed as a good and enriching thing.’ He wrote Challenge to Change ‘out of the conviction that Baptist churches as they presently exist need to be transformed.’ I am certain that he is correct in this, but there is a price to be paid for transformation, and it is a difficult road that is fraught with many dangers. Surely it must be worth the journey if the alternative is for churches (and denominations) to slowly die.
In speaking of church growth, we need to acknowledge that, while a healthy church is the natural result of being properly purpose-driven, it is God who gives the growth in the power of the Holy Spirit. We have turned a blind eye to this fact for a long time, and justified our position because of the excesses of the charismatic movement; but I state plainly that no-one except God is able to change the heart of a person, and no-one except God is able to change the heart of a nation. If the Holy Spirit is not working in power in our midst, then we are beating the air, chasing shadows and wasting our time.
Moltmann said ‘Because of its foundation in Christ and its existence for the future of the kingdom of God, the church is what it truly is and what it can do, in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.’ Surely he is right in this, and this has been said again and again down through the centuries. We evangelise, hold campaigns, preach and pray in an attempt to get God to work in our midst, and it is all futile if the Holy Spirit is not at work.
If we look around the church and our land and conclude that God is not really at work in our midst it is because of the leaders and the people that they are. It is the church that is the problem, not the world. We need to depend upon God wholly, and be led by people who are seeking to know him with their whole lives. It is we who are entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit, not the Holy Spirit who is dependent on us.
Until we learn that lesson in reality in our daily lives both individually and together, we are quite literally hopeless and helpless. As Cymbala said, ‘The answer is not in any human methodology. The answer is in the power of the Holy Spirit.’ We must acknowledge this honestly, and seek God for himself. Leaders shoulder a big responsibility in this, for it is they who are charged with caring for the sheep.
I can understand why J. B. Phillips said that ‘the chief cause of the degeneration of Christianity into churchiness is the worship of an inadequate god.’ I not only understand it, but I also believe it to be true. God will not change in order to be conformed to what we think he should be like. God is God, and we are not; the sooner that we learn this in the depths of our being, the better it will be for church.
As Tozer put it, ‘When the Holy Spirit ceases to be incidental and again becomes fundamental the power of the Spirit will be asserted once more among the people called Christians.’ The church is centred around Christ, who is the head of the church, and the church is God’s creation, not man’s invention.
If the church has a mission in the world in which we live, then the church needs to realise that mission (and that word means so many things to so many people) begins and ends with God himself. Newbigin speaks of mission as God’s mission not ours; as the work of God where the church is, not the work of the church where God is. He says, ‘It is God who acts in the power of his Spirit, doing mighty works, creating signs of a new age, working secretly in the hearts of men and women to draw them to Christ.’ A simple analysis of our present powerlessness and bankruptcy of the presence of God should have us on our knees in repentance, and have us seek God afresh that we might rightly care for and feed his sheep.
Murray declares that, ‘Mission is not the invention, responsibility or programme of human beings, but flows from the character and purposes of God.’ It truly is the Missio Dei, and not the Missio Ecclesia. Therefore, we need to very carefully re-evaluate what evangelism is, and consider the ways in which we have tried to do evangelism. Does God pour his Spirit out on people because of evangelism, or is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the opportunity for evangelism? Is the church the means of salvation at work among human beings, or is the church the result of salvation at work among human beings? Or is it both?
I believe that it is God’s Missio Dei alone to make converts, and that it is our comission to make disciples; but we have turned this completely around and tried to do God’s work for him. Our evangelism ought to be the response to the work of the Holy Spirit, not an attempt to get the Holy Spirit to work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince, convict and convert, and we need to let him do his work. Where we see the Spirit working in someone’s life, evangelism may well be the appropriate response. God and his people working side by side, each doing what complements the other.
He who began a good work in you and me will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ. That is God’s Missio Dei, too, not mine, not yours. God’s anointed leaders need to grasp this with their whole being so that they may work hand in hand with God, and not try to work for God. Our church leaders have the authority from God to do this, and they will need our authority to do it, too; not to mention the courage and boldness to achieve it.
Therefore, I believe that it is critical that leadership is given the authority to lead alongside a willingness to follow that leadership – even if it is going a direction that we may not like or agree with. This is an issue that needs to be resolved and urgently, or many of our churches will simply cease to exist in the years that lie ahead.