There are a lot of ways to grow a church. A quick perusal through your local Christian book store will prove that. For several decades churches have imbibed the American dream mentality thinking that bigger is inherently better, and whatever it takes to achieve growth must be good because, well, it works. Some churches navigate according to the changing winds of cultural trend; others keep their finger on the pulse of society and adjust continually to remain “relevant”. Others focus on diagnosing the felt needs of the church and aim to drive up attendance by going from hot-topic to hot-topic. Read ten church growth books and you’ll get different new suggestions, tips, and tricks to fill the sanctuary. One suggests small groups; another Sunday school. Others suggest popular, celebratory music. One book I read suggested an intense focus on evangelism and a purposeful neglect of discipleship, saying that if the church gets big enough discipleship will kinda take care of itself. I found that odd considering the first objective Jesus mentioned in the Great Commission was to make disciples.
The problem with these methods is that God never promised to build his church by means of trendy rock bands and innovative assimilation programs. I think Scripture is pretty clear that God has ordained not only the goal of the church (make disciples) but the means for achieving that goal (the prayerful ministry of the Word). It takes simple faith to believe that preaching and teaching Scripture can start it a movement. But it does, and it has, and it will. If the question is how do we build our church? the answer must always be the same: prayerful Word-based discipleship.
God’s Word saves, sanctifies, comforts, convicts, and, ultimately, forms the believer into the mold of Christ. People are sanctified in the truth. This is the means that God uses to build his church. When the church properly and prayerfully ministers the Word of God, the Holy Spirit supernaturally grows the church. The church is God-made. It is his new creation. A man-made church is no church at all.
So if a church is built on something other than the God-ordained means of prayerful Word ministry, it runs the risk of being a merely human enterprise. It looks active, maybe even vibrant, but it stands on precarious foundations. It may not be doing anything of eternal value. Jesus said “Apart from me you can do nothing” and it’s a shame that in a lot of churches there’s a whole lot of activity and a whole lot of nothing going on.
Whereas the church of God is intended to be transcendent and supernatural, oftentimes it’s faddy and man-made. Imagine standing back at the end of your lifetime of ministry and realizing that all the labor of your hands was not supernatural, God-wrought growth, but instead the hard work of a very good entrepreneur. I’d be devastated. Why? Because God-wrought growth will come with me to heaven; my church-y entrepreneurial enterprises won’t.
Ministry should be conducted in such a way that the only explanation for its success is God’s intervention. Churches ought to attempt things that are impossible and trust God to come through, even if it means we stand in front of the Red Sea with staffs in the air like fools, telling people that God will work a miracle. It may seem like idiocy to rub spitty mud in my eyes, but if Jesus tells me to, I will. And then I’ll trust that it will make blind eyes see.
Every ministry is dependent on Jesus Christ for fruit. It is a matter of Scriptural fact that eternal change does not happen apart from Divine intervention. And it is also a principle of Scripture that God works most powerfully in those who are most dependent upon him. The weaker you are the stronger God is in you. The more dependent you are the more power you’re given. It is always the case that God works most powerfully when all other supports are gone. When we stop hobbling along on our crutches and lay ourselves down on God’s gurney, then things get moving.
Ministry, then, should be aggressively dependent on God. That is, actively looking for ways to cut away the man-made innovations that we are tempted to depend on. The more dependent we are on Jesus, the more powerful we are. You could put it this way: the less we depend on human innovation the greater room we give for Christ to move.
Dependence means we are relying on God for supernatural, Spirit-caused growth. Hopefully, that’s a given. Aggressive dependence means we’re actively looking to eliminate the crutches we may be leaning on, even if from a pragmatic standpoint they “work.” And we do this to make it patently obvious that Jesus is the one building the ministry, and not our innovation.
Imagine an It’s a Wonderful Life type scenario where an angel takes you on an otherworldly journey to show you what’s really happening in your ministry, and for the first time you get a glimpse into what’s causing it to thrive and grow. How sad it would be if the cause was the amazing worship band, the humor in the sermons, the entertaining film clips, or the titillating topics the preacher addresses– things that stimulate the unregenerate– and not the Holy Spirit’s movement through the prayerful ministry of the Word.
Here’s the point: if we want to be fruitful, we must maximize our dependence on Christ. If we would be utterly dependent on him, we must devote ourselves to prayerful Word-based discipleship, which are his means for building his church. And if we would be totally dependent on prayerful Word-based discipleship, we must be aware that there are things we can do that undermine–explicitly or implicitly–our trust in the God ordained means of growing a church.
Let’s be aggressively dependent and cut them out.