Thanks to the organizers for the privilege of speaking to you this evening. I appreciate the brethren who selected the theme from Romans because it has helped us to renew core ideas and attitudes concerning our faith. Something that is desperately needed if we are to reverse the downward trend of our growth in the last 30 years.
I use the word "trend" because this is exactly the term that describes the historical development of the church. For example, there was a sharp upward trend with the establishment of the first congregation in Jerusalem. This followed by a trend towards consolidation of members in that area.
With the killing of Stephen, the trend changed to an accelerated rate of evangelism as Christians, escaping persecution spread the Good News throughout the region. More consolidation followed this with churches outside of Jerusalem grew and took responsibility for evangelism to even further points away from the city where the Apostles were located. Antioch, Ephesus, Rome.
In all of this the trends of growth, decline and renewal continued until even this day as we contemplate ways and means to stop one trend (of decline) and stimulate another (one of renewal and growth) in the church established by Christ so long ago.
I believe that the Apostle, Paul, understood this idea as he wrote his letter to the Roman brethren. He had lived on both sides of the trends:
- As an agitator complicit in the death of Stephen sparking a growth trend leading to his own conversion.
- As a teacher and helper to Barnabas consolidating the gains that the church made in Antioch.
- As a missionary opening up new areas of growth for the gospel among the Gentiles.
Then as a leader bearing the brunt of persecution and division with the church as congregations were rocked with scandalous behavior and in-fighting. And once again, as he is here, writing to the Romans in 57-59 AD, poised to reach new horizons by going to Spain and beyond with the gospel of Christ.
Paul had seen and experienced the up and down "trends" in the church even at this very early stage in its development but could say with confidence that despite these cycles of growth and decline, peace and upheaval, glorious witness and shameful behavior – he was not ashamed of the gospel.
He was not ashamed because the glory of the good news was not based on the relative trend that the church might be experiencing. He was not ashamed because the power of the message was not dependent on strength of the messengers. He was not ashamed because the message of the gospel was not judged by human wisdom but rather by the spirit of man in response to the Spirit of God.
Paul knew that despite the trend, or relative strength or knowledge of the church – he could be sure that the gospel itself had the necessary power to fulfill God's will in every circumstance. Paul's declaration concerning the gospel is relevant to us today since we face similar issues.
We are in a period of decline following a long period of consolidation of our churches in Canada. The fact that we have to have a seminar about the need to evangelize rather than actually evangelizing is confirmation of this fact. We're talking about what we should be doing instead of Just doing it! We want to change the trend, but are not sure how. Paul's confession that he is not ashamed of the gospel may hold the key to understanding why we're on a downward trend, and how we can, once again, find our way back to renewal and growth.
Why Have Churches Stopped Growing?
So we begin with the question that many have asked, "Why have we stopped growing?" I believe the answer is that, unlike Paul, we are ashamed of the gospel and this shame is manifested in several ways:
1. We're ashamed of the message of the gospel.
Don't misunderstand me here, I'm not saying we've denied Christ and who He is - this is not the essential message of the gospel. We're afraid, ashamed, averse to proclaiming the true message of the gospel that Paul summarizes:
But the righteous man shall live by faith.
- Romans 17:1
We're ashamed of that message because it casts too wide a net for souls; it's too similar to the message that others are preaching who are not within the "Restorationist" heritage; it doesn't allow us to identify and quantify who is with us. We've changed this message to the following:
But the righteous man shall live by form.
In other words, righteousness comes not only by faith but the correct expression of that faith in a form that we will arbitrate. And so the nexus of salvation passed from faith in Christ to the correct form of baptism to express that faith. We no longer examined a person's faith to determine their salvation, we began to examine the form of their expression of that faith, in order to determine who was saved.
In time, faith as the key to salvation gave way to form as the principal condition for salvation. Once this transition was complete it was only a matter of time until new demands for "form" based distinctions would emerge. For example:
- If "form" decided your salvation then why shouldn't it decide your fellowship as well?
- So we divided over music in worship; cups used in communion; how money is used; how evangelism should be done, etc.
Once "form" (how we do things) became the basis for salvation and fellowship instead of "faith" (who we believe in) the downward trend of decline and division was inevitable.
2. We're ashamed of the power of the gospel.
Back then, twelve men, armed with the gospel, turned the world upside down in one generation. Today, however, we number in the thousands and have all manner of communication tools at our disposal, as well as money – that they didn't have… WHAT'S OUR PROBLEM!
Our problem is that we believe more in the power of the world and not enough in the power of the gospel! The world has molded our thinking more than we care to admit and our timid efforts at proclaiming Christ is proof.
Two centuries of researching everything from the genetic makeup of human beings to global mapping and predictions of weather changes in 100 years make us think that we can explain everything. We think we can break down every cause and effect; debunk every mystery; bring to a "natural" level everything that may be "supernatural" - including God Himself.
For this reason, we have depended less on the "power" of the gospel because we can't quite explain it, or reduce it to some formula or definition. But Solomon, in his wisdom reminds us about our finite abilities to understand when he says,
When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, 'I know', he cannot discover.
- Eccesiasies 8:16-17
If the wisest of men cannot know all the works of God "under the sun" meaning, here on earth; what makes us think we can fully understand the mysteries of heaven of which the gospel and its power come from? Ephesians 6:19 The Apostles succeeded because they obeyed the command to "proclaim" the gospel, not "explain" the gospel.
We'll never turn things around until we begin to actually use the tools and resources we have to proclaim the message (Jesus, Son of God, died for sins of all, and offers all forgiveness by faith in Him). The Bible says that there is power in that message! We don't have to analyze or explain how the power works - it's enough to simply proclaim the message! Now we believe that the Bible also teaches that:
- Baptism is the believer's response and witness of faith.
- Repentance is necessary.
- The church is Christ's body.
- Public worship has guidelines.
- The church is organized in a certain way. etc.
But you see, these things and these teachings are not the message of the gospel and consequently have no power on the unregenerated spirit. We cannot help but decline and have little impact when what people know of us is that:
- We don't use instruments
- We condemn others because they use the wrong "forms"
- We used to be a growing church 50 years ago
This is the result of our tendency to rely and teach things we can "explain" rather than simply proclaim the gospel itself. Other groups are growing by leaps and bounds (even though the way they are organized and the forms they use may be, in our estimate, incorrect) but they've tapped into the "power" of the gospel and are not ashamed to use it.
In the meantime, we sulk in the corner like the prodigal son's "older brother" and think we can increase our lot by judging the biblical accuracy of other believers and preaching a gospel of formalistic legalism that appeals to us but not to those who are seeking the power of God in this world. We need to refocus our energies on Communicating the message of the gospel to the lost and humbly accept the fact that people are converted by its innate power and not our power to reason or win theological debates with other believers.
3. We're ashamed to suffer for the gospel.
Now the first thought that comes to mind when the word "suffering" is mentioned is persecution. I suppose that some might be afraid or ashamed to suffer for the gospel or for the Lord, but history shows that most people rise to the occasion when persecuted for the faith. This is not the type of suffering I'm talking about here.
One of the reasons for our decline, especially in North America is that we are reluctant to suffer the loss of status, the loss of comfort or security for the sake of winning souls.
- That's why we have few churches in slum areas or places where the rejects of society dwell. We want to build our building in nice, safe, clean areas of town and populate our churches with healthy functional families.
- That's why the majority of our budgets are invested in a place where we worship once or twice per week and a ministry staff to more or less manage those 2 weekly meetings.
- That's why we spend less time and money on food banks, shelters for the poor and homeless, resources for AIDS victims, battered women, runaway teens, drunks and dopers.
We don't do it because we're ashamed, afraid, reviled at the possibility that these people will sit next to us in our buildings and we would have to step down from our current status to get our hands dirty with people of such a low degree.
We would never consider mortgaging our church building to finance an evangelism project but will gladly relegate missions and evangelism to an afterthought in our budget in order to repair our parking lot or add a kitchen to our church buildings. And we wonder why we don't grow! And we are puzzled because our churches are experiencing a downward trend! Without death - there is no gospel.
- The death of John the Baptist
- The death of Jesus
- The death of most of the Apostles
- The death of countless martyrs
What makes us think that we can have the privilege of both hearing and proclaiming the gospel without it costing us the death of something in our own lives? At the very least the demise of our comfort and some of our cash.
Well, pointing out faults and weaknesses is easy and only part of the story. We have to also find a way to restore the growth trend that characterized much of the early history of our movement as restorationist churches. Let us, therefore, go back to Paul's statement in Romans 1 to find not only the key for why we are not growing, but discover again the essentials for a healthy, growing church.
1. Let's be eager to preach the gospel - vs.15
So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
- Romans 1:15
I've done seminars on church organization and growth for various congregations in Canada and the U.S. When I analyze a congregation's various ministries I invariably find that little or no money, time, or effort is actually invested in proclaiming the good news to the community. There are programs, seminars, good works, potlucks being organized but very little communication of the gospel itself.
Most churches use most of their resources in funding a meeting place where they can take communion and listen to a sermon once or twice a week. Evangelism is usually seen as getting someone to attend one of these services. But true evangelism is communicating the good news to the community, not the congregation!
The goal is that every person in your neighborhood hears or reads or sees the essential message over and over again. We've got to preach like Tim Horton's They're not ashamed to say, "Tim Horton's - Always Fresh."
In TV ads; radio; billboards; newspaper; promotions. Until we know the message and we believe the message, and respond to the message. A double double and two chocolate glazed doughnuts please! Why? They're Always Fresh!
We have to be as eager to proclaim Christ as they are to proclaim fresh coffee and doughnuts if we want the church to grow. If we're proclaiming the gospel repeatedly to the community around us using every communication tool available - then we are evangelizing and then the church will grow.
2. Let's reach out to everyone - vs.16
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
- Romans 1:16
Paul's greatest obstacle in reaching the lost was his own countrymen. The Jews wanted only the Jews to hear the gospel. Christian Jews believed that Christ was only for them.
Paul's mission to the Gentiles broke down this barrier but not without much effort, teaching, and personal suffering. We easily condemn that kind of thinking but are too often guilty of it ourselves. In Canada we pride ourselves on being open to different cultures and many of our congregations boast of numerous language groups. But our prejudice is not based on color or language since most of us come from somewhere else anyways.
No, our prejudice is based on class.
We want people who share our educational, moral, and economic background regardless of color. We have trouble getting the gospel and our ministries past this barrier and have a hard time integrating people into our churches who don't fit the "middle class" profile.
That's why we can count on one hand the number of ministry outreaches that seek those that are not only lost spiritually but are also the "lost souls" of our society as well.
- The very poor
- The new immigrants
- Those troubled by addictions
- Victims of abuse and abandonment
Where are our shelters for battered women and children; soup kitchens; legal aid; free clinics; counseling centers?
The gospel is for everyone but we've tried to focus on saving those people who need the least amount of our help so we don't need to get our hands dirty! In the meantime, we smugly condemn the people who are rich in their kinds of good works because their "doctrine" doesn't measure up.
Brothers and sisters, we need to get past the barriers of our own fear and prejudice so we can truly see that the fields are white unto harvest. They may not be the fields we want to work in but they're ready to harvest and if we don't go, God will send someone else.
3. Let's preach the gospel of faith, not the gospel of form.
For too long we've arbitrarily changed the boundary lines of the gospel. We've made the "way" a person is supposed to express his faith in Christ the deciding factor in the issue of salvation. In other words, we've preached saved by form rather than saved by faith. For example, we've emphasized that to be saved, the formula, the "form" has 5 steps:
- Hear the gospel
- Believe the gospel
- Confess Christ
- Repent of sins
- Immersed in water
We've repeated this formula so often that it has, for all intent and purpose, replaced the gospel message in our minds and in our teaching. And because it is a "form" there's debate over its exact make-up.
- Some want to add a sixth step - Remaining faithful unto death.
- Some want to determine the degree of repentance (when have you really repented enough?)
- Some argue over the words at baptism (In the name of Jesus only; In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
- Some exclude from salvation those whose hand was sticking out by accident when they were immersed.
- Some want to immerse three times instead of once.
This is the result of a gospel that preaches that the "way" you respond is the critical issue or "NECESSARY THRESHOLD" for salvation.
Now the advantage of the saved by form approach is that it is easier to explain and present in a power point presentation but its main drawback is that it has no power to save and regenerate, and it provides endless opportunity for debate and division.
Paul, on the other hand, was not ashamed to preach to everyone a gospel of salvation by faith. The good news is that we are saved from a sure condemnation for sin and an everlasting death by a system of faith as opposed to a system of LAW (which includes this form based salvation). That's the message!
The righteous man shall live by faith.
- Romans 1:17
The necessary threshold of our salvation is faith, not perfect law keeping, and in the same way not the perfect carrying out of the forms that express that faith. Some are surely thinking, "Does he mean that there's no confessing, no repenting, no baptism?" Of course, these things remain because they are of God, they are taught by Christ, they are the way we express our faith in Christ. For example:
- Confessing saves us because it is our faith in Christ that we confess - not the order of the words.
- Repentance saves us not because we've acknowledged and abandoned one or more of our many sins - it saves us because it is motivated by our faith in Christ.
- Baptism now saves us (as Peter says in I Peter 3:21) not because of the water but because this act is done as an expression of faith in the risen Christ and as a result we receive a clear conscience.
Let's put the "forms" associated with salvation in their biblical place. They are expressions of faith, they demonstrate our faith, they are offerings of faith. But the power to save resides in faith not forms.
The forms serve our faith in our spiritual relationship with God. Confessing piety doesn't save us. Repenting by itself doesn't save us. Immersion baptism without faith doesn't save us as Paul demonstrates in Acts 19. The 12 were rebaptized not because they had the "form" wrong, they were rebaptized because they had the faith part wrong. Proclaiming that if you get the 5 steps right is not the good news and our decline while preaching this type of message is evidence that there is little power in our preaching.
If we want to grow, if we want to bring joy to the lost, we need to preach the complete gospel in its proper order. God offers eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God who died for sin and rose from the dead - period! This is what Peter preached on Pentecost. When the crowd responded he told them how they could express their faith that very day. Repent of their disbelief. Express their faith in baptism.
That message was good enough and powerful enough to bury 3000 souls into the church on that glorious day - it should be good enough and powerful enough for us today.
In closing let me say that if we do these things we should be ready for the consequences - not just the results. You see, successful gospel preaching may bring persecution, opposition, and even suffering - as well as increased numbers. But we who are OBLIGATED AND EAGER... must not be ashamed... even of these things.
God bless you all.