Outreach Magazine is out with its list of the 100 Largest U.S. Churches for 2007. Of course, no such list appears anywhere in scripture. While it certainly could be argued that numbers mattered to the New Testament church (indicated by their citation in the book of Acts), churches in the New Testament are nowhere ranked in terms of their numbers.
Can you imagine any of the inspired writers of the New Testament ranking the church at Ephesus above the church at Philippi, and Philippi above the church at Thessalonica based solely on how many people were showing up each week? It is clear what the Apostles found most noteworthy in the New Testament churches: the level of faith, hope and love at work in each of these assemblies (see, for example, Col. 1: 3-6).
Accompanying this year’s list of America’s largest churches was a piece by Kem Meyer, the communications director at Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana. Titled Top Ten Things You Should Know About Unchurched People If You Want Them to Hear What You are Saying, it included the following insights: “Talk about what makes life better for the guest”; “People aren’t motivated by your [the church’s] need. They are motivated by theirs”; “People relate when you talk about them or people like them.” In other words, the success of the church depends upon motivating unregenerate people to join your cause by enticing them with how satisfying and fulfilling it can be, in the same way marketers try and sell us cars and computers and televisions and vacations.
Could anything be further from a true presentation of the gospel?
Jesus said, “If any one would be my disciple he must first deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Motivating people by appealing to their felt needs is like forcing a square peg into the round hole of Jesus’ call to abandon ourselves for His sake and the sake of the gospel.
Ms. Meyer also suggests we have to be careful in our communication with the unchurched—careful not to give the impression that “they aren’t OK where they’re at and they’re not as good as they should be.” Really? I thought the whole premise of the gospel was that I’m not OK and you’re not OK and that’s why we needed the gospel in the first place.
So to reach the unchurched the best thing to do is to not tell them what God’s word says about their sinful condition, the plight they are in and the wrath they are under—as Paul did in the first three chapters of Romans?
The gospel saves from a far greater calamity than a dull, unfulfilled life.
But Ms. Meyer was not done assaulting my Christian sensibilities. She suggested: “People feel left out and frustrated when you use insider’s language,” and remarked that, “People aren’t impressed with your theological vocabulary and holy dialect.” In other words, a sure-fire way to guarantee no unchurched person will ever become churched is to quote scripture to them. (After all, if scripture isn’t “theological vocabulary” and “holy dialect,” what is?)
And yet, it is the word of God that convicts us of our sin and brings us to saving faith. Consider these few key passages: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17); “It pleased God by the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21); “My speech and my preaching were not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
There is a reason the unchurched are not impressed by our theological vocabulary and our holy dialect. It’s not because they don’t understand it. It’s because they can’t.
Scripture is clear that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). For the sake of the unchurched and the glory of God, we have to reckon with the biblical testimony that apart from Christ human beings are “dead in trespasses and sins” with minds blinded by the god of this world so that we cannot see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (Eph. 2:1; 2 Cor. 4:4). And this spiritual blindness will remain until the God of sovereign grace, who in the beginning said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” makes His light shine in our hearts to give us the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The church has been called to communicate a message that, short of a miracle of the Spirit of God, is a “stumbling block” to unbelievers. However, rather than shrink back from proclaiming this message based on perceived “success,” we must be bold to declare the wonders of the Cross and leave the opening of hearts to the Author of the word.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
It’s not our creative packaging of the message that causes an unchurched person to truly hear. It’s not our words, our Power Point presentation, the lighting in the room, or the professional signage throughout the building. It is the Spirit of God working through the word of God that produces a response from those who otherwise couldn’t care less about what we are saying. Ms. Meyer’s list betrays a total dependence on human ingenuity to accomplish what only God can accomplish.