What’s The Secret?
When our congregation began to grow numerically in my first year as a young church planter, I was asked, “What’s your secret?” The question is seemingly harmless, but the question itself is a window into our cultural beliefs about church growth. The assumption is that there is some tactic or strategy outside of God’s revealed Word which holds the key component to success. The assumption is that one can successfully draw spiritual seekers by being uniquely attractive or novel.
In a society of instant gratification, churches devote themselves to developing newer, faster, and more effective strategies for church growth. If food can be fast, communication can be instant, and information always available, why can’t church growth and the Great Commission be similarly instantaneous with the right ingredients? Books are published, seminars are held, and conferences planned around the idea of growing churches to be bigger, better, and more efficient machines of multiplication. With time, the contemporary landscape of church planting and revitalization resemble the business models and marketing strategies of 21st-century consumerism more than it does the Biblical principles of 1st-century ecclesiology. With time, the guiding question becomes “What works?” rather than, “What’s in the Word?” The sufficiency of scripture is slowly traded for the sufficiency of the strategy.
Good Intentions in a Collapsing Kingdom
Pastors everywhere salivate over the next revealed secret that might bring their church to the next level. Much of this stems from genuine and well-intentioned desire of wanting as many people to come to faith as possible. They want to shed the burdensome and unnecessary traditions that may ward off potential converts and they want to remove as many obstacles as possible that might impede evangelistic fervor. Again, the intentions are good. Jesus has commanded us to go therefore and make disciples, thus we should seek to remove any unnecessary barriers in the way of fulfilling that mission. We must seek to be the most effective witnesses for the cause of Christ. In all of our efforts to remove extra-biblical barriers, however, we must be careful not to put all of our trust in extra-biblical or worse un-biblical strategies.
If we are not careful our churches will more accurately resemble modern American consumerism than first-century ecclesiology. Without even realizing it, a subconscious shift occurs that says if it works for a multi-million dollar corporation then it should work for the church. With this influence, the training of young pastors takes on a new form. Pastor qualifications include entrepreneurial skills more than characteristics outlined in the pastoral epistles. Pastors need to understand the dynamics of business practices. They must create a business plan for their churches including core values, mission statements, goals, and visions for their congregation and their communities. These must be memorable, communicable, and of course easily reproducible – slogans that carry the most bang for their buck. Cultural relevance becomes the foundational pillar of the church’s growth strategy and it demands particular worship environments, dress, music, technology, and appealing use of graphic design.
Strategy is not bad. Entrepreneurialship is not bad. Cultural relevance is not bad. It is not the use of chariots and horses that causes a man to fall. It is the trusting in those chariots and horses over the God who created them that is the difference between a kingdom that collapses and a kingdom that stands upright (Ps. 20:8). Embedded in the question, “What is the secret to church growth?” is the faulty belief system that places church growth in the hands of man’s ability to innovate over and against God’s design and desire to multiply his church through the simple means of grace he has already revealed in his Word. Pragmatism and numerical fruitfulness can so easily and slowly take priority over perseverance and faithfulness. This is not to say that pragmatism does not work. It is pragmatism because it works. You can, in fact, be successful at gathering a group of people according to certain strategies, but what will the end result be – a gathering of consumers attracted to a product or a self-denying body of Christ willing to forsake all else to follow Jesus? Man can easily build a gathering of consumers. Only God can build a community of Christ followers.
There is No Secret
What’s the secret to church growth? The correct answer is this, “There is no secret.” God has revealed the non-negotiable means of grace through which he grows his church. He has revealed those means through his written Word. Devote yourself to the teaching of God’s Word, the prayers of God’s people, and the fellowship of the saints. Make disciples. Evangelize the lost. Raise up elders to shepherd and deacons to serve. Bear one another’s burdens. Share one another’s joys. Hold each other accountable and do church discipline when necessary. Plant, water, and God gives the growth. (1 Cor. 3:7) The real question is whether we will trust God’s instruction, especially when it doesn’t seem to be working. Will we be satisfied with God’s definition of success for our lives and ministries? Will we forsake our search for the “secret”, and daily renew our commitment to the Scriptures?
By His Grace & For His Glory,