I pulled a book off my bookshelf the other day titled, Fifty-two Ways to Make the Church Go, published by F. M. Barton (Cleveland, OH) in 1917. I thought, why not? Surely one of those 52 ways would help in my ministry. So which one would it be? Here is just a sampling of the prodigious ways to make the church go: Home-coming rally, How to use motion pictures, Making the Sunday evening service go, How to use the “stereopticon” (which I discovered is an old-time slide projector), How to make Christmas last a year, How to answer arguments of liquor men (as opposed to liquor women?), How to use automobiles, How to use a Win-One-Week, How to raise $28,000 on a budget.
If the book were written today, I wonder if some of the chapter titles would look like this: How to use social media, How to make Sunday mornings awesome, How to raise $1 million in a day, Student ministries that rock the world, Finding a cool name for your church, Finding the right location for your church (in a growing, suburban neighborhood with a median income level of $100,000 per year per household), How to answer arguments of liquor men AND women. (See, we are making progress.)
Do I want to find better ways to make the church go? Absolutely. But what this little historical exercise in church methodology has done for me is help me see that there is nothing new under the sun. Sure, methods change, as they should. We’re not using stereopticons anymore, and hopefully we have the automobile-thing figured out by now. I was interested in discovering, however, that the approach to making a church go hasn’t changed all that much in almost 100 years—at least not from this book.
As far as I know, the 1917 edition of this book is the only edition, and for good reason. Churches can only ride on the fuel of methods and programs for so long before they find their tanks empty. We need something else. Something deeper. Something that endures the test of time. And in case you think I’m becoming an old fogey, let me assure you that we do need methods, strategies and programs. They are the scaffolding that supports the message, and that scaffolding will look differently throughout time and culture. The scaffolding has a purpose, which is to point to the deeper purpose of abiding in Jesus Christ and sharing Him with others.
In my twenty-eight years of church work, I’ve been guilty of replacing the purpose of the church with the purpose of the scaffolding. When I prioritize programs over people or methods over ministry, my soul begins to dry up. Yes, those programs and methods might even make the church go…at least for a while. A few years? A generation? But if the church isn’t going and growing on the deeper power of the Holy Spirit indwelling God’s people as they live out the Kingdom of Heaven, then the going and growing is a house of cards. Organizationally we can look complex, sophisticated, relevant, and powerful. Large crowds can gather and people will cheer. But the winds of heaven can blow the house down.
So how do we make the church go? I don’t think it takes fifty-two ways. I think it takes three. First, it takes hearts and lives completely humbled and surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Second, it takes a community of those surrendered lives committed to love one another through thick and thin. And, third, it takes that community of surrendered lives to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. We’ll need some methods along the way. But more than that we need to encounter Jesus and live authentic lives for Him.