‘Thin Soup’ Church

Jesus said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”  But because we live in a global business age of organisation, efficiency and profit, there are thousands of books on growth.  If you are more organised, more efficient and more profitable, you will grow….if you stick to our new-fangled formula!

The Western church has been swallowing this bitter pill for decades.  We’ve put down our Bibles, and picked up secular ideas and initiatives – why?  church numbers are declining, people are leaving the church, pews and seats are becoming empty, coffers are down, bills are up, and then someone said, “Hang on a minute, if we just branded ourselves like Nike, or glamorised ourselves like L’Oreal, or popularised ourselves like celebrities, we too can achieve what they achieve!  And should the gates of hell get too close, we’ll just sloganeer them out of town with a TV ad campaign!

What does it mean to be a growing church in this context?  In fact, what does it mean to be a growing church and be faithful?  Can the Church ever be faithful and successful?  Can we do sexy marketing, or shall we just stick with cheesy slogans to do with baby’s and mangers, bunnies and daffodils?  How can we claim to proclaim something better, something the world needs, something unknown and un-buyable?  Can the church compete with a world that clamours for everything but Christ and him crucified?

Can we ever be faithful and successful?  What does it mean to be a Growing Church?

I’ve had experience in small and largish churches in my 23 years as a follower of Jesus.  At various times I’ve loved the many and at others I’ve loved the few.   I bet most of us have some particular and peculiar idea of what we expect when we think about a growing church.

And almost all of us have been shaped by growth as defined apart from the Gospel.

In the post-war decades, the church did not refuse the idolatrous impostor of superficial techniques  for church growth.  The Evangelical mission is not to make dreary clones but discipled converts.

It was especially the decades of the 60’s-90’s that witnessed the meteoric rise of growth techniques apart from covenantal faithfulness to Christ.  Even before the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land, God reminded them that any “success” they would have would be because of His grace and gift.  They had to remain utterly dependent upon God – not the result of their own efforts, expertise, skill or technique.  It was God.  That’s why Jesus would say “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

Jesus understands the depravity and severity of our sinful nature.  We distort everything through our distorted desires. Love for lust. Faith for safety. Marital sex for a free-for-all pornography culture.  A potty culture for a potty-mouthed people. That’s sin.

And even when the saving grace of God breaks in through the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, we still get pulled and pushed by our old desires, but now we apply that to the Gospel and to church.  Unaware of what we are really doing, we get tempted to preserve non-gospel goals using unbiblical motives.

We cry out “Where are you God?” when we suffer because we haven’t understood that Jesus is with us and in us and around us in our suffering.  And the One who is near is thought to be far.  The One who is present is thought to be absent.  So we conclude: God must be far, God must be absent.  This Christian thing doesn’t work too well, so now I too will take myself far from “the church”; I too will absent myself from Christ.

We become forgetful of such earth-shattering verses as, “My grace is sufficient for you, my grace is perfected in your weakness.”  There is only one god that failed here, and it is often the one we imagined, because our imaginations had not seen the glory of the Living God seen in Scripture and in Jesus Christ.

So how we view God is not based on our expectations, but on God’s revelation in the Scriptures.  In several surveys conducted before 1993 on preaching in contemporary evangelical churches, less that half were shown to be explicitly biblical and only 19% were grounded in or related in any way to the nature, character and purposes of God.

Less that half were biblically deficient!  Astonishing.

One of my favourite NT scholars is Anthony Thiselton, he comments on this in his brilliant study of the Apostle Paul, he says, “Much preaching today consists of anecdotes about human life, Paul’s preaching was mainly about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps this is why we miss some of the sheer excitement of the Gospel.”

And all these observations and trends influence how we got where we are and why we are here and in large measure, what to do about it.  Fellow Baptist minister Ian Stackhouse, says that much in church life, especially preaching, is based in ignorance of the Gospel and thus simply consists of communicating vision and motivation – both of which are driven  by a concern for success.”  Ian’s friend told him, “The church is there for Gospel proclamation.  Preaching my ideas and visions for the church is cheap leadership and is not preaching – it is thin soup!”  This is good medicine!

The Gospel is the vision and the idea is the Gospel.  When the post-war church in large chunks, not everywhere of course, but when the church bought into the values of secular gimmickry and the thin soup of its mission and purpose, the damage is done.

A growing church, or a fruitful church (both are biblical), is an organic community, like a farmer, not a business man; like a shepherd, not a politician.  It is organic not mechanical (think industrial revolution); it is Spirit-led not organisational (think big-business).

Holding on to the Gospel, in gift and grace, is very, very hard.  It requires self-awareness of the Old Adam; it requires faith and trust in the New Adam Jesus Christ;

It requires the eyes of faith to see what God is doing; and it requires the boldest of people to join in with Him.

When we secularise the sacred, forsake faithfulness; when we grab but don’t give; when we preach ourselves not Christ, then we have abandoned being the church.  This is what Eugene Peterson calls ‘whoring after other gods’ and I’m sure he got that from the many passages on idolatry in the Bible!

In fact, he goes even further, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches.  There are instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God, week after week, in towns and villages around the world.  The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them.  In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called the paster (ahem!), & given a designated responsibility in the community.  The pastors responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.  It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”

Apart from Me you can do nothing.  One plants, another waters, God gives growth!

The church that looks for quick results in the seed-planting of well-doing will be disappointed.  If we want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, we don’t plant the seeds today!  There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and harvest.  During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and the planting of still more seeds.

My ways are not your ways declares the Lord.  The Western Church doesn’t need new ways it needs the Old Ways.  The Ways of the Lord.  The Way of Jesus.  “I am the Way” Jesus said, it is narrow I know, but it is my Way.  It is marked with suffering and persecution, I know, but it is my Way.  It will lead to the Cross.  Your Old Adam must die, but the New Adam will rise in You.  Adam will die.  Christ will rise.  You will live.  Knowing this Way, the ways of the Lord in life, death and resurrection, is the business of the Church.

I am much less interested in church growth as numbers, but in depth.  Growth of a person in Christ.  That’s success.  That’s fruit.  That’s Gospel grace and gift.

My experience of mission work in several African countries confirmed what many have said about the African Church that it is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Although that’s true, I think it very unfair to limit this observation to Africa.

Consider the impact of a church that is an inch wide and a mile deep!

Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, Principal of Regent’s Park College in Oxford University reminds us that the Christian community is not the wish fulfillment dream of any individual who envisions a community according to his own ideals.  The sooner we are disillusioned by the unhappy and ugly aspects of any community the better.  Why?  because by sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.

Why?  because living in illusions (a product of our distorted desire), makes us into accusers of others when they seem to fall short of our own imagined aims.  The church is not a human ideal that we must realise, but is a gift of God.

A bunch of sinners, gathered in gift and grace under the proclamation of the Gospel, learning together what it means to be “on the Way of Jesus”.  Stumbling, but being helped back up.  Turning round only to discover Jesus really is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  You may want to leave too!  But where shall you go?  Only Jesus has the words of eternal life!

Being fed up with people, only to realise that these people are saved, sanctified and deeply loved by a God of miracles – big enough miracles to even save sinners like you and me.  Now that’s Gospel power!

A growing church exists in grace and gift, is shaped by the Gospel to grow everyone in Christ-likeness, as we gather week by week.

In season and out of season.  In sickness and in health, ’til death us do eternally join!

Church is the enactment of our marriage vows to God.  We are His bride.

No gimmicks.  No secularism.  No formula.  No techniques.  No cheap Gospel.

Just sinners, planted in good soil by God’s Word, watered by the preaching of the Gospel,  and grown slowly and securely by God Himself.

Faithfulness in the soil where darkness turns to light.

Faithfulness in the water, where the flood becomes the baptism of our salvation.

Faithfulness in growth by the Word, whereby we live in joy with the great mystery: Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Amen.

 

Postscript:

I preached this sermon a couple of years ago.  Last week I bought the book ‘Deep Church Rising – Discovering the Roots of Christian Orthodoxy’ by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry.

The argument is the same: the Church needs to ground itself in the Christian tradition.  In this sense, the only vision is found in the past, not a secular-imagined future.  To look forward the Church must look back.  And I shall look forward to reading it.

DEEP

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