Leadership Lies: Just Preach The Gospel And The Church Will Grow

man planting plant

Photo by Binyamin Mellish on Pexels.com

 

This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.

It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?

The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.

I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.

Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.

The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.

You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.

What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.

I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond  – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.

I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.

So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.

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Losing Christian Privilege

I blame Jesus. If he hadn’t said that stuff about being blessed when you’re persecuted, then I don’t think we’d be where we are today. St Paul’s not much better, who made a great show of listing all the persecutions and opposition he faced as somehow ‘proving’ something about his ministry. Yep. It’s God’s fault.

When I was training to be a priest (20 years ago), it was often observed at the conservative college at which I trained that Christians in Britain were too lukewarm; they took their faith for granted, were wooly on some important doctrines, too much drawn to liberalism, weak on evangelism and generally a bit of a let down. What was needed, it was sometimes touted, was a good dose of persecution. Some people even prayed it would be so. People actually prayed that the country would change so much that Christianity would be illegal and that people would die for their faith. It seems an odd thing to pray, to say the least, when this is the daily reality of actual people in some parts of the world, but there you have it.

20 years later, it seems a given in some conservative quarters to state that these prayers have been answered. According to some, the recent court decision in London to put an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic to prevent prayer and protests outside is seen as a threat to religious freedom. The BBC, some insist, is blatantly anti-Christian and – worse, in the eyes of those who protest thus – promoting a gay agenda. Here in South Africa, some Christian groups are loudly defending their God-given ‘right’ to physically discipline children; to disallow that, is to threaten the freedom of the church, it is said. In America the religious right have hitched their wagon to the lucrative gun lobby, and assured anyone who’ll listen that the Constitution’s second amendment enshrines a ‘God-given’ right to own assault rifles.

Pointing out facts is, it seems, unpopular. No one’s threatened with serious trouble over graciously and peacefully (and there’s the key words) presenting a ‘pro-life’ perspective; you don’t have to search the BBC website for long to find stories and programmes which show the Christian faith in a positive and realistic light. I could go on, but the point is probably obvious by now – this isn’t an argument about facts. It’s about perception. Christians feel like they’re losing ground; the Bible shows us we’re blessed if we’re persecuted; look – we’re being persecuted!

The reality is that in all 3 of these countries – and many others – that we Christians are losing ground. And that’s OK. For many years, way before the current generation was born, we were living in a ‘Christendom’ reality. This is the idea that Christianity is assumed as deserving of a preferential hearing. Christianity was the privileged religion, and it was treated as such. These were Christian countries, it was assumed. As the world changes, society is globalised and the influences are more diverse. Suddenly, Christianity is no longer assumed to be primary; it is questioned, in many cases found wanting, and certainly no longer deserving of privilege.

Which is as it should be. Be it in post-apartheid South Africa, levelling the playing field between men and women, or giving other religions than Christianity a share of the platform, the loss of unearned privilege can feel like persecution. But it isn’t. It’s just the lop-sided playing field levelling itself. If the Gospel is as winsome and powerful as we think it is, then this should not worry us and we should not protest it. Jesus and the early Christians were not known for protesting their own rights or demanding a privileged hearing; they were rather more focussed on the rights of others – and in Jesus’ case, emptying himself of all he was really, truly entitled to.

In fact, there’s more to say still. The Gospel tells us that we have no rights of our own before God, but he graciously gives us all things in Jesus. He was all about laying down his rights. If the playing field really is levelling to all religions and world-views, then we should welcome it as a chance to be like Jesus and empty ourselves of all unearned and undeserved power and privilege and see a real demonstration of the power of the Gospel to which we claim to adhere. Further, if we really think we have a God-given right to protest outside abortion clinics or to own a gun or to hit our children (3 very different things, of course), then we need to be asking ourselves some serious questions as to how far we’ve drifted from the Bible we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Maybe, in some mysterious way, God has answered those prayers. He hasn’t given us persecution – though, of course, he remains perfectly entitled to do so. He has simply taken away a privilege that was never ours to begin with; it only ever belonged to him. Let’s let him worry about getting the hearing he deserves; our role is to, like Jesus, empty ourselves of power and simply serve him – where we find him. Which will so often be in the form of the people we were previously loudly protesting against.

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

When something new(ish) comes along, it’s easy to see that as a criticism of the old and the pre-existing. This is especially true in the realm of church life, where people get attached to what they know and feel threatened by change and shocked by the new. Mission-shaped church is especially vulnerable to this: in an enthusiasm to rethink church and discipleship in such a way as to ensure it is directed towards those who don’t know Jesus, it’s easy to criticise or be seen to criticise that which is already happening.

Sometimes that’s because the people bringing the change are bored or frustrated. That’s not the point, though. Mission-shaped church is not church for the bored or angry or frustrated. It’s church for people who won’t be part of church otherwise. It’s church for people who don’t do church. That doesn’t mean that the existing church is suddenly irrelevant. Church as it exists continues to work for many people and as such it has an important, life-giving role. The mission-shaped realisation is one that wants to add and multiply, not replace.

Isaiah prophesied about rebuilding on ancient foundations; to do so needs those foundations. Build without ancient foundations and you’ve got a problem.

Photo from bevmeldrum.com

Doing church in the pub was an addition to church as it was happening already, not a replacement of what the people already knew.

Jesus and the early church preached and healed in synagogues and on the streets; in the ancient places and the virgin territory.

It’s what a wise former Archbishop called mixed economy; not either/or but both/and.

Don’t dismiss what you have; it’s what you’ll build on. Don’t dismiss the ancient; it’s what gives meaning to the new. Don’t choose between old and new. Let each inform and refresh and incarnate the other.

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen

Goal

Plan

 

Scars and Hopes 4: Goal

I am not moved by small ideas, targets and visions. Ever since I can remember I’ve been far more intrigued and caught-up by the absurdly big as opposed to the comfortably attainable. Why have a game of table-football when you can have your own World Cup? Why lead a church when you can change the continent?

That can lead to a dangerous type of hubris, of course. We all know people who are always talking about changing the world and what ‘this generation’ (usually people 20 years younger than the one talking) can do. So the key is in being content to not meet the goal.

Huh?

bevmeldrumphotography.com

As the turn of the millennium approached, my wife and I and some others felt that it needed celebrating in a more subversive way than that of which we’d yet heard tell. So we (who were all engaged in some full-time, part-time or voluntary capacity with the London homeless scene) read the Gospels (always a dangerous to thing to do) and decided to hire a big, well-known venue in London as close to Millenium Eve as we could and throw a huge party for as many different homeless people as we could. We set ourselves the goal of 1,000 (it may have been 2,000 … I can’t remember now). We worked a lot with a lot of different people and agencies arranged transport for people from projects all over London; we made sure there was good food and good music; we got a lot of free stuff; we dreamed and hoped and talked and prayed.

By the goal we set ourselves, it was a failure. We didn’t get 1,000 people; we got several hundred (I can’t remember how many).

So what?

Celebrations were had; we danced with people who didn’t look or feel homeless for one evening; there was a lot of laughter and fun; industrial quantities of quite-good-actually food were consumed.

The goal didn’t matter. The kingdom of God was expressed and anticipated, a prophetic challenge was issued to the church and the city, and though it wasn’t a perfect event it was pretty good, all told. I have no idea what other events and ministries it has since inspired, but I’m sure it did provoke more strange ideas.

Mission-shaped living needs big goals, big enough to get you out of bed on cold, grey, relentlessly wet London morning to see if you can get the price of the food reduced by another few £s; but you need also enough grace to remember the goal itself doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the right journey. It’s a goal expansive enough to permit failure and redefine success. Which needs courage, faith and a healthy dollop of prayer.

Hear that?

It’s the applause of heaven as, on your terms, you fail to reach yet another unobtainable goal.

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen

Scars and hopes 3: Listen

I’m not the sort of person who ‘just asks God’ and readily downloads the answer. That being said, God is a missionary and if we’re doing missionary type of things then we should expect God to have something to say to us about it. Not that life will be an unbroken journey of “God said this” devoid of doubt and colour; but He wouldn’t be much of a leader if He invited us to a journey and only gave us a two-thousand year old map.

I’d had an idea in the back of my mind for a while, which I hadn’t mentioned to others but others were starting to coincidentally mention to me. It was the idea to take church to the pub, which I’ve mentioned before. Aware of the work, stress and money this would involve as well as the fact that to some this would sound at best barmy or at worst offensive, I prayed. I prayed a simple prayer that went along the lines of “God, if there’s something in this, please make it clear. Amen”.  I knew the church needed to be more open and available to the average person, but I wasn’t sure this was the way. I kept the prayer simple … and went to the pub.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

My friend and I were meeting there to discuss an unrelated church issue; pints in hand, we took our seats at a table for two. As we did so I noticed two women at the table next to us. I didn’t know them, but they were engaged in animated conversation. As I made contact with the seat I heard one say to the other “The problem with that church is that it just needs to be more available”. 

That’s me told, then. God’s a missionary. He says we’re missionaries too. If we’re to make church a missionary endeavour, it only makes sense to ask Him what He’s got to say about it and if there’s any guidance He wants to give. My experience suggests that you get more opportunity to use ‘the gifts of the Spirit’ when we’re doing missionary type of things, because that’s exactly where God is and wants us to be. And just because missionaries have to go somewhere, that doesn’t always mean you’ve had to move.

Ears open?

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Scars and hopes 2: Time

photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

 

It takes time. Lots of it.

The problem with leading a church is that you feel a nagging drip of pressure to get results as soon as possible. We ran church in the pub once a month for two to three years, plus a weekly visit to the pub quiz. Church in the pub was expensive – we were laying on free breakfast; it was also a hassle. Taking a church service that wasn’t a church service off site once a month was, even for a small church like ours, a bit of a production. Sound gear, instruments, children’s activities, Sunday newspapers, jelly, Jenga sets, model pigs and an inflatable Dalek. It was a bit of an effort.

Going to pub quiz once a week was less work – apart from those Tube station questions – but required a willingness to be mocked over the microphone for being ‘the church team’.

So all told it would have been great to be able to point to real progress after 3 months. Or 6. Or a year at a push.

We didn’t. Over 2-3 years we’d made meaningful connections with a roomful of non-Christians, two of whom became regular or semi-regular church goers; it opened opportunities with many others we’d never have seen.

Not exactly explosive church growth, is it?

Problem is, that’s appears to be the default mode of the Spirit when you’re out there in the world, mission-shaped and ready to roll. The slow, gentle, deep work of the Spirit, working to His own timetable and seemingly unconcerned with the pressures on me to show that it was all Worth It.

Which needs patience, courage, and a willingness to look stupid and aimless for a long time in the eyes of the people who pay the bills (that would be those who actually give money to the church). Which leads to many scars and an awful lot of desperate hoping.

Pioneering mission-shaped ministry may be the talk of the era; but it’s not glamorous. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s about co-operating with God’s good work in people which is usually slow and gentle and deep. Which points away from me as the leader and towards the individual, away from results and towards formation, away from transferable quick-fix models towards patient-in-it-for-the-long-haul living.

Also In This Series:

An Introduction

1: Soup

Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com