Summary of the sermon preached by Rev Dr K. Song on 10 September 2017 at St Columba’s Presbyterian Church, Peppermint Grove.
Bible Readings: (OT) Psalm 67 / (NT) Matthew 5:13-16
I. The problem in church growth
II. A quick and popular solution for church growth
III. The biblical principle of church growth
Thinking about the future of any church, how to build it up and grow in both areas of faith and number cannot be omitted. In fact, church growth is an important part of any church’s future planning. That’s because a church is a living body of Christ on earth and growth is the nature of all living being. So, a church on earth that is true to Jesus, her Head, cannot dismiss growth but continually seeks God’s grace for growth. But today, the term ‘growth’ I’m going to use means numerical growth through evangelism.
So, St Columba’s Ministry Vision for at least the coming decades presents the biblical principle of church growth based on Acts 2, especially from vs. 42-47, which is an overall picture of the first NT church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the apostles. As you remember from the Ministry Vision paper and the sermon preached some time ago, four pillars, if you like, for church growth are presented there, namely, two ‘L’s and two ‘W’s – Learning, Loving, Worshipping and Witnessing. The first NT church in Jerusalem committed themselves to learning God’s word, loving one another in the Lord Jesus, worshipping publicly and privately, and witnessing the resurrected Jesus through their life. And, as v. 47 of Acts 2 testifies, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Today, I’d like to explain what this foundational principle of church growth means. I mean, what it is to be committed to two ‘L’s and two ‘W’s. Following the analogy our Lord Jesus used, it is to be the salt and the light of the world and be a city set on a hill as we’ve just read from Mt. 5:13-16. I pray that, by the grace of God, we understand this principle our Lord Jesus explains and be blessed with the same growth the Jerusalem church in the 1st C experienced.
I. THE PROBLEM IN CHURCH GROWTH
Before we go on, let me remind you of a problem churches face in terms of growth. That is, the problem of ‘how to connect church to the world’ or how to build a bridge between Christian faith and the people in the secular world. Many churches and Christians struggle with not only finding a solution for this problem but also understanding the nature of this problem. Because of this problem, there are two extreme views on church growth. One is to simply adapt into the world’s standards and the other is to avoid establishing any connection between church and the world. Most churches take their positions somewhere between these extremes. So, in a word, church growth is the matter of how we understand the problem in church growth, that is, how to connect church to the world, and how we apply our understanding in our act of evangelism.
But I guess many churches haven’t found a good solution, thus, haven’t been able to see a success in evangelism. Its evidence is a steady decline in church attendance. It has been declining over the past two decades and this trend seems to be continuing in the next decade at least.
Why is there a problem with connecting church to the world? Because of the fundamental difference in the faith of the two. We of Christ’s church believe in the living God, but the people of the world believe in ‘self’ because the gods they claim they have faith in are their inventions. Moreover, we’re commanded to build a bridge between us and the people of the world by sharing and spreading the gospel of the Lord Jesus. That’s a dilemma, if you like, because we’re to connect two different faiths that are exclusive to each other. It’s like, in painting, to mix two opposite colours – blue and red or black and white – but keep your colour while inviting the other colour into you. That’s the problem in church growth or evangelism.
II. A QUICK AND POPULAR SOLUTION FOR CHURCH GROWTH
In understanding of this problem and applying solutions, many churches have adopted a quite popular view, that is, to assimilate church to the culture of the world. Bring what people in the world do into the life of church and modify it as close as possible to match with Christian faith and life. Or the other way around; I mean, modify what Christians used to do to suit the unbeliever’s eyes so that they would not feel estranged or rejected by the teachings of Christianity.
Because of its popularity among churches, there are many examples of this perspective applied to church life. Giving you a couple of such examples, one is changing words like ‘sermon’ to ‘Bible talk’ and ‘sin’ to ‘shame’ and another is changing the meaning and form of worship to mean a sort of ‘fellowship’ among people with singing choruses. Some churches bring pub culture into them while others move out to the streets and clubs. As I introduced this perspective as a quick and popular view of church growth, many churches have experienced a quick growth in number. Some churches that adopted this view have grown into so-called ‘mega-churches’ and many other churches have increased the number of seats in their church buildings, if not expanded their church buildings. The advocates of this movement have claimed that churches should replace their paradigm of growth with a new way, that is, assimilating Christianity with the culture of the world.
But, this quick and popular way is losing its effect quickly and widely because it has noticed that any growth achieved by this way of assimilation was a numeric increase only without turning people to be ‘disciples’ of Jesus.
III. THE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLE OF CHURCH GROWTH
But, the biblical principle of church growth is a slow and unpopular way. Following this way, churches will see the similar number of attendance and church membership for some time and this might seem to last forever to some people’s eyes. But its result is long-lasting and effective in making people disciples of Jesus, not only of one generation but of many generations. Church growth sought in this way might give to church members an impression of inefficacy, if not of failure. But, this growth principle is guaranteed by the initiator and builder of church, Jesus Christ, the Head of Church, as the most effective and eternal.
What is this growth principle? Simply put, individual Christians to be and live as the salt and the light of the world and a church as a corporate body of believers to exist in the world as a ‘city set on a hill.’ That’s the growth principle Jesus taught. And Acts 2:42-47 is an example of this principle applied in the history of church.
This principle explained with the metaphors of salt and light is not difficult but easy to understand. See v. 13 of Mt. 5, the text passage for today, and Jesus talks about the salt that has lost its taste. But His emphasis is on the opposite case – we must keep the ‘taste’ of Christians, meaning, our witness to God and Jesus, the only Saviour of the world. This ‘taste’ must also include our witness to God’s kingdom. The ‘light’ metaphor is to the same effect. Both salt and light must keep their fundamental nature; salt its taste and light its brightness. Their nature may mean Christian’s quality of preserving, purifying, seasoning and wisdom also.
Jesus means that by keeping these quality, Christians can build a connection to others in the world. As the salt of the world, we can show people around us Christ’s purifying work done in our life, thus, show them they also have a chance to be purified by the same grace of the Lord. As the light of the world, we can show the unbelievers a life that reflects Jesus’ saving power. No matter how weak it might be, the light of Jesus we reflect in our life would surely present others the way to the only saving Light of the world, like the way we could walk at night even with the light from the crescent moon.
What about a ‘city set on a hill’? The immediate picture of this illustration is Jerusalem, the city of God where the temple used to stand as the symbol of God’s presence with His people Israel. Based on this picture, we can see that the Lord Jesus means with it His church on earth which is the evidence of His presence in their midst. As He said in Mt. 18:20, where two or three are gathered in His name, there is He among us. So, this city set on a hill cannot be hidden from the eyes of the people around. This is not because of its geological height only, but because of its role as a model for other cities or a directional marker. When people build a town, they look up to that city on a hill; when others travel, they look up to that city on a hill and correct their path. That’s the importance of that city set on a hill. Christ’s church must keep that role in the world while individual Christians keep their ‘taste’ in the world and reflect the Lord’s saving power to their eyes and hearts. This is the principle for church growth our Lord Jesus teaches; this is, in fact, the church in Jerusalem applied in the 1st century.
The result of this principle? Hear what v. 16 of Mt. 5 tells us as the very voice of our Lord in these words: “so that [meaning, if we remain as the salt and the light of the world and as a city set on a hill, then, ‘the people, the unbelievers of the world’] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”! Do you hear the Lord’s voice? Keeping our taste and reflecting Christ’s saving light will lead people to give glory to God. This means that they will, first, admit the presence of God, second, His power to save and change people, then, last, recognise their need for coming to Him! This was affirmed in the case of the Jerusalem church of Acts 2 – the Lord added more saved people to His church day by day!
So, what might be the practical applications we could think of? First of all, we as Christians cannot compromise what God has spoken to us through His word but remain faithful to His teaching. That’s how we seek God’s kingdom first. There’s no space for us to bring in and accommodate any worldly idea or practice in our faith. No matter how fast the world changes or how attractive it might seem, we must remain in the truth of the Lord.
Second, we must have an eye through which we could check the world and evaluate it. Such an eyesight can only be built through knowing the word of God. You read and interpret the Bible with the Bible, then, advance to read and interpret the world with the Bible alone. Someone might say, ‘That might only be possible with a doctorate degree in theology,’ but that’s not correct because you’ve been doing it since you began your walk with the Lord in faith. Only thing you require is to read the world more often through God’s word and evaluate it with the word alone. For example, you read the current issues of our society, such as same-sex marriage push, and evaluate it as evil because that’s the Bible’s evaluation of it. Some people call it as Christian worldview.
The third one is a result that automatically takes place once you remain in God’s truth and have the Christian worldview. That is, you become like magnet to people around you. I mean, you attract others’ attention; you become an issue to minds of your acquaintances; your presence changes the atmosphere of a meeting, just to mention a few examples. Speaking in terms of spiritual dimension, you create a kind of vacuum so that people around you sense something extraordinary although they’re not sure exactly what it is.
This is an implication of Jesus’ metaphor of salt and light. Light attracts people’s eyes and salt their body. People cannot continue their life without these. Likewise, Christian’s presence attracts the unbelievers, making a kind of vacuum, pulling them spiritually. I once invited a friend of mine who was an unbeliever to church. Later, he was baptised at that church. His testimony surprised me. He said that the moment he walked into that church building, he felt something was different to all that he had known before, then, as the worship service began, his mind was blown away by those people worshipping their God. In another occasion, I invited another friend of mine to church on a Sunday. I hadn’t told him, but he knew where we were going. He later on was baptised there and continued his life in the Lord. I believe you know by your experience what I mean by spiritual vacuum you as Christians create. Once an unbeliever tastes that purifying taste you share, he/she will leap for joy of finding the source of that forgiving power, Jesus; once another one is exposed to the light you reflect in your life, his/her heart will be caught up with the beauty of that saving power of Christ. That is how Christ’s church grows.
In short, the church growth principle our Lord teaches us is to keep the taste as Christians and continually reflect Jesus’ saving light to the world. As a church, we should stand firm in faith at where the Lord appointed us. So, our soundless message to the world is this: ‘Taste and see the living Lord who lives in me and us! Then, come and worship the Lord together with us!’
As the conclusion, I’d like to remind you of another important truth we must remember, that is, the warning of the Lord Jesus against churches and Christians that lose the ‘taste.’ What’s the warning? The once lost ‘taste’ would not be restored and we’ll be thrown out because of uselessness, then, trampled under people’s feet. Isn’t this a striking message to the churches of our time? This is exactly what is happening in this generation. Christians are no longer welcome by the world as someone wrote a book with the title, ‘It’s dangerous to believe.’ Watering our faith down and compromising with the worldly culture seem to be effective for church growth, but the truth is that that is the quickest way to be thrown out and be trampled.
So, are you ready to take this growth principle as yours and are you willing to live as the salt and the light of the world, live as the salt and the light of your family members and neighbours? Are we of St Columba’s willing to realise our task at this place in Peppy Grove and show an example life and love of God’s family and give directional guidance to our neighbours?
May the Lord of wisdom and power bless His congregation here at St Columba’s in order that we may be our Lord’s city set on this hill for His glory! Amen. ***