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Church Growth 101 (Psalm 127:1)
Though born John of Antioch, he has come to be known as Chrysostom (i.e., "golden mouth") because many church historians have dubbed him "the greatest preacher of the early church." Eventually, he was banished. Though popular with the faithful, the less-than-faithful "powers that be" succeeded in getting rid of him. He died in exile in A.D. 407 at the age of 60.
You know how that goes.
And yet God used him to heal lives, save souls, and expand the kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven." He brought energy and excitement to the pulpit. He was passionate about the possibilities for people who become personally related to God through faith in Jesus. And his passion for Jesus was contagious. He was so popular with the people at his first preaching station that he had to be kidnapped in order to move him to a new post. In spite of his protests, the people often burst into wild and spontaneous applause during his sermons.
How odd that must sound to too many of today's highly-starched, wing-tipped, wearing-neat-and- clean, decent-and-orderly pulpiteers and pew-sitters whose level of energy and excitement about Jesus bring to mind those commercialized characters so desperately in need of Duracell batteries.
Some church folks don't seem very charged up about Jesus. Some folks have forgotten to praise the Lord. Some folks have put away the trumpets, tambourines, dancing, loud cymbals, and clapping. Some folks have worked so hard to keep their emotions from showing.
What's the problem?
I've long believed that Donald Grey Barnhouse concisely captured the cause of dysfunction and decline in too many quarters of the contemporary church in this one sentence from The Love Life (1973): "Oh, if you aren't joyful, I mean radiantly, abundantly joyful, you do not understand what God has available for you."
That's the difference between a growing church and a dying church. Rather, He's the difference between a growing church and a dying church. Jesus!
Some church growth experts sound like real estate agents with their location-location-location litany. I've discovered church growth can be enhanced by a good location, but I've also discovered a good location doesn't insure church growth. I've discovered church growth is much simpler than feasibility studies, demographic reports, fund-raising consultants, church management seminars, and so on. It's very simple. Very basic. I think of it as Church Growth 101.
Lesson 1 -- Focus on Jesus!
I have a favorite story which illustrates the difference between a growing church and a dying church. It's about a children's sermon in which the pastor said: "When I say a word, I want you to say the first word that comes into your mind." So the pastor said "Frog." A little boy blurted out "Jesus!" That confused the pastor who asked "Why did you say Jesus when I said frog?" And the little boy answered, "Because I knew you didn't call us down here to talk about frogs."
But let me ask you this question: Do they talk more about frogs or Jesus at your church?
Growing churches talk more about Jesus.
Lesson 2 -- Focus on Jesus!
I recently led a growth workshop for a dying church. The interim pastor sat next to me during lunch and said, "You know, Bob, I really like just about everything you've said so far." It's always that "just about everything" talk that sets the alarm system off! He continued, "But I've got this problem with your seemingly exclusive Christology." I must have looked dumb or dumber when he said that, because he quickly added "What I mean is I have a problem with you saying Jesus is the only way to experience confident living and eternal life. I have a problem with you saying Jesus is the key to church growth. You seem somewhat obsessed with Him."
I remember Dick Lane saying "Bob, I don't understand that woman. She's always against everything we're trying to do. She has no vision for the church. She won't try anything new. She ruins every committee meeting. I really don't like being around her." "Dick," I asked, "have you ever heard her talk about Jesus?" "No," he replied. "Then," I emphasized in a rhetorical question, "what do you expect?"
When Jesus is at the center of a particular church's life and ministry, it grows. That's not a theory; that's a fact. If you don't believe me, check it out. Visit all of the growing and dying churches in your neck of the woods. The difference between the growing and dying ones won't be location or socioeconomics or even the pastors' pedigrees. The difference will be Jesus.
That's why I've always liked the story about Clarence Jordan's visit to an exciting and integrated church somewhere in the South. Jordan was surprised to find a large church so thoroughly integrated -- rich and poor, black and white, and all of the rest. Jordan asked the old hillbilly preacher, "How did you get the church this way?" "What way?" the preacher asked back.
After Jordan explained his surprise at such a large church being so thoroughly integrated -- a rare sight in any part of our country or even world -- the preacher said, "Well, when our preacher left our small church, I went to the deacons and said, 'I'll be the preacher.' The first Sunday as the preacher, I opened the book and read, 'As many of you as has been baptized into Jesus has put on Jesus and there's no longer any Jews or Greeks, slaves or frees, males or females, because you is all one in Jesus.' Then I closed the book and said, 'If you one with Jesus, you one with all kinds of folks. And if you ain't, you ain't'."
"What happened after that?" Jordan asked. "Well," the preacher said, "the deacons took me into the back room and told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preachin' no more." "So what did you do?" Jordan asked. "I fired them deacons!" the preacher roared. "Then what happened?" Jordan asked again. "Well," said the old hillbilly preacher, "I preached that church down to four. And not long after that, it grew and grew and grew. And I found out that revival sometimes don't mean bringin' people in but getting' the people out who don't love Jesus."
Lesson 3 -- Focus on Jesus!
Focus on Jesus! That's what the psalmist meant when he warned, "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Psalms 127:1).
Church growth? John Phillips wrote in Exploring the Psalms (1988): "It is not going to be built by super-programs, by slick advertising, by TV commercials; it is not going to be built by oratory in the pulpit or by excellence in the choir; it is not going to be built by high-pressure evangelism, by vast sums of money, by well-organized missions. It is going to be built by the Holy Spirit, by Christ living in and through believers."
Jesus, of course, said it best: "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock" (Matthew 7:24ff).
One more time. Lesson 1 -- Focus on Jesus'. Lesson 2 -- Focus on Jesus! Lesson 3 -- Focus on Jesus! That's how churches grow.
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