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What Makes the Church Go?

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.

Walk in a Manner Worthy of the Lord

When you come to the end of your life, how will you know if you have been “successful”? How would you describe a life well lived? In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is commissioned to find Private James Ryan behind enemy lines and bring him back to safety. Throughout the movie the main characters assigned to support Captain Miller’s quest grumble and complain about being sent on a mission to save one young soldier when they could be doing so much more to help the overall cause of the war.

Near the end of the film, Captain Miller lays wounded on a bridge, and as he nears death, he says to Private Ryan, “Earn this.” The last scene of the film shows a much-older Private Ryan standing beside the grave of Captain Miller, and Ryan, through tears in his eyes, says to his wife, “Tell me I have lived a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”

From a biblical perspective, we would not talk about “earning a good life,” but we would talk about “living a life worth living.” We would talk about how we should aspire to live our lives in a way that brings glory and honor to Jesus Christ. Hopefully we all desire to come to the end of our lives and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Isn’t that true “success”? We live a good life “in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). “Walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).

The problem is that our culture heavily influences us even in ways we don’t always recognize. We make it our priority to live a happy life more than a good life. We set our goals for financial peace more than spiritual peace. We want to be a part of a church that caters to our wants and wishes more than a church that challenges us to live a sacrificial life. I’m in no way suggesting that living a happy life or finding financial peace is wrong. But according to Jesus a fulfilled life comes when we put others before ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34).

As a church, then, how do we know if we are being “successful”? Is it when we have more happy people than the church down the road? Is it when we have more happy people with happy marriages giving happily to keep the machinery of ministry running smoothly? Not to sound too sarcastic, but is this really why Jesus gave His life—just to make happy Christians and happy churches?

I’m not advocating that living the Christian life means we’re grumpy. We have enough grumpy Christians in the world already. What I am advocating is that living the Christian life means we are moving beyond ourselves. We are recapturing the virtue of sacrifice, honor, commitment, Christ-centeredness, and gratitude.

In the church we tend to overemphasize the wrong things and underemphasize the right things. As one author put it, “Somewhere along the way, our focus on programs and techniques, ministry size, and perhaps even powerful worship distracted us from the basics.” When we “win” people to programs, preferences and styles in order to make them happy, we sell out the greater good of helping them become holy.

In 2011, Christianity Today asked Billy Graham, “What are the most important issues facing evangelicals today?” Graham responded:

The most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? . . . . The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ’s forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.

I invite you to join me in pouring out our hearts before God on behalf of Christ’s church. We acknowledge our weaknesses and shortcomings and our complete dependency upon Him. We confess our sins and failings as we have made our own success supersede our quest for the success of God’s kingdom. We kneel on un-calloused knees as we pray for the God of the nations to have mercy on us and the church universal. In the words of J. Hudson Taylor, “We have given too much attention to methods and to machinery and to resources, and too little to the Source of power, the filling with the Holy Ghost.” And out of these prayers from humble hearts, may we look forward, with great anticipation, for the Lord God Almighty to raise up His Church once again, for He is the God who knows “the way out of the grave” (G. K. Chesterton).

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