The Cause of Christ and Church Growth
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1–5
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
I went to Alan, my immediate supervisor in charge of new church development in our area. “Alan, what do I do now?” He had a ready answer: “Start another building program.” I protested: “We don’t need another building program. We need to mature as a congregation. We have had this great beginning, but it is only a beginning. We are now in a position to fill out the many dimensions of being a church in this neighborhood.”
He insisted: “People need something tangible, something they can get their hands on, a challenge, a goal. Trust me. I’ve been through this before. It’s the American way.” In the weeks that followed I realized that he was probably right, at least about the “American” part of it. But something didn’t seem right about his diagnosis. I felt an inner reluctance to embrace his counsel. This didn’t sound like the voice of God to me.
The Pastor, A Memoir, Eugene Peterson
Americans like causes I guess. This is the testimony from Eugene Peterson in the quote above, which was from 1960’s. I don’t think too much has changed. We need something to rally around. We need something to get our hands on, a goal. And whether it is a building project, a witty catchphrase, or just something new, we are attracted to these things. I’m not sure it’s only an American thing, but it is at the very least a strong part of any group culture here. We want to be a part of something. We want to change the world. Oddly enough, the way that we change the world isn’t through the next movement. In fact, I’d suggest it’s by staying put. It’s by what Peterson says, ‘needing to mature as a congregation and fill out the many dimensions of being a church where we’re at.’
Peterson leaves to the imagination in his memoir what ought to be the reason for being for a church, but I think it is similar to what Paul says. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul reminds the Corinthians what his labor with them was all about. He didn’t gather them through clever means, a fun skit, or a children’s program. Instead, the cause the Corinthian church should have been gathering around is Christ and him crucified. So first, the church’s cause is the gospel of Christ. If a pastor is plowing straight, there should be no question that this is the heartbeat of the congregation (unlike the Corinthian church which found itself at the crossroads of keeping old friends while ignoring others, overlooking sin in the body, and fighting over who their favorite preacher was). Secondly, we hear from Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 that he made sure to teach the whole counsel of God. He didn’t avoid any hard topics but instead brought the whole of the Old Testament to it’s fullest understanding in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So the cause of Christ crucified ought to be the goal or challenge or heartbeat of any local church.
Now in our context, it’s quite easy to get distracted from our goal as a church. Another pastor could have been hired by All Nations 6 years ago, and could have done quite well. I imagine he might have heralded a new reason for being- maybe a children’s outreach or something else, and it would have rallied the troops, perhaps we’d have outgrown our building. But would the spiritual growth we’ve experienced been present? Or would we have become like the Corinthians church. I’m not sure. A famous church strategist says to get people to stay at your church, you’ve got to get them meaningfully involved in ministry. I’d almost say yes to this, but I think it misses the point. We must be equipped. We must sit at the feet of Christ and rejoice in Christ crucified. It must be our utmost joy to hear the whole counsel of God expounded. And I think from such a place, meaningful ministry happens first through God’s word in our individual lives, but then we pray that it would flow over into others lives as well. By God’s grace we’ve experienced this kind of growth and it’s glorious. It’s one of those glorious things that gets neglected. When I came, I imagined that we would need to grow numerically to be sustainable. Of course, this only happens through God’s work in each of us as we seek to make disciples. I prayed for growth, and of course, in God’s humor we shrunk. But it wasn’t at the expense of the congregation’s spiritual growth. We’ve even had the joy of baptizing new members and seeing them step up and grow up. We cannot know how the Lord will lead, but our aim is ever more the same: cut the furrow straight, Christ crucified is what I preach, the word of God is my light in this dark world. And wherever that takes us is in our Lord’s sovereign care.
It is really an interesting piece of Paul’s life to claim, of all people, to not really be skilled in debate or not carry much wisdom, but it should give us hope. If Paul was even a little afraid, his words were empowered by God’s Spirit to save lives. And so we too. Though we are weak, we shouldn’t worry that the message is in vain, God through his Spirit will be at work to accomplish his will.