Lately, the Christian blogosphere has been filled with posts about the "declining" church and, along with them, posts about what the church ought to do to reach people. Modern churches have come up with countless ways to reach their communities. They've changed their music. They've redecorated their buildings. They've tried skinny jeans and soul patches. They've held community events and given away door prizes. The church has done studies on what millennials want, and they've added programs to suit the needs of the community. They've updated their websites. They've modernized their signs. They've tried fancy. They've tried stripped down. They've tried high church. They've tried experiential worship. They've tried to be professional. They've tried to just be real.
The reality is that there are a lot of churches doing all of those things or none of those things, and some of them are growing, while some of them are declining.
Today I want to present to you the greatest church growth and membership retention strategy in the entire universe. It is timeless. It is foolproof. And, apart from it, every other strategy is completely worthless.
So here it is:
For the low, low cost of a Bible, you can find the most effective church growth strategy in human history.
"'Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ -- this Jesus whom you crucified.' Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.' And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation!' So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." (Acts 2:37-41)
In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded the apostles to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey His commands. And here, in the book of Acts, we see the inauguration of the apostles' obedience to Jesus' command in the Great Commission. In this passage, what does Peter want the house of Israel to know for certain? Is it the kind of music the church will have? Is it the humanitarian causes in which the church will be involved? No. What Peter wants everyone present to know is that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. And what happened when Peter preached this message? "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart."
The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message that has the power of salvation. Scripture teaches us that the Spirit of God works through the preaching of the Word to change people's hearts unto salvation. Paul affirms this in Romans 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." Over and over in the New Testament, we see the Spirit of God rending and mending the hearts of men as they are drawn to Christ by the Word.
The primary issue in declining churches today is not that they aren't attractive enough to their communities; it is that the people in those churches are largely, if not entirely, ashamed of the gospel. They don't love Christ enough to proclaim what He has done, and they don't love people enough to share with them the one thing that could save their soul. We'll do as many humanitarian projects as we can find if we don't have to call someone to repent of their sins and trust in Christ. We'll sing in the choir if we don't have to talk to our coworker about Jesus. We'll go to Bible studies multiple times a week as long as we don't have to share what we learned with unbelievers.
It will face you with more rejection than giving away TVs. It will lead to more awkward conversations than community outreach events. It will make you seem less relevant than having a polished praise band. It will cause you to feel more incompetent than updating programs and technology. It will make you seem less loving than working in a soup kitchen. But talking to people about the gospel of Jesus Christ is the church growth strategy that the Bible prescribes, and, apart from it, we will not see genuine conversions or any growth that is actually commendable.
What do we tell people about Jesus? God has made Him both Lord and Christ! Jesus is Lord; we are called to repent from our sins and follow His ways. And Jesus is Christ; we are called to believe in him for the forgiveness of sins because he died on the cross in order to take the wrath of God for our sins. The greatest need in your community is the need for salvation. So if you love your community and want to reach your community for Christ, preach this gospel, and trust the Spirit of God to work through your preaching to pierce people's hearts.
The fact that the Spirit moves through the Word frees you from any responsibility to convince people through eloquent speech or clever rhetoric. We have come up with a thousand excuses for why we aren't sharing the gospel, but the reality is that tens of thousands of people are dying every single day on a path that will leave them separated from God for eternity in hell. In light of that reality, any excuse we can come up with for why we aren't sharing the gospel is, at best, ignorant foolishness or, at worst, heinous evil.
Stop wasting time by making the starting point of your church growth strategy figuring out how you can be more attractive to a particular demographic or how you can get crowds through the front door. The starting point
of your church growth strategy should be to train your current disciples to be
faithful to Christ and to share the saving message of Jesus Christ with
others. When that's your starting point, the other responsibilities and pursuits of your church will become evident by where the gospel takes you.
The responsibility of the church is not to be appealing to the world, but rather to be the faithful bride of Christ. We cannot conform our message to tickle the ears of our world, but we must be faithful to proclaim with Peter, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" All four
Gospels record Jesus as having told his disciples that they would be
hated by the world. John 15:18-20 says, "If the world hates you, you
know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world,
the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but
I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also." There will be some that do not receive the gospel, but be encouraged: there will also be some that do!
There are a lot of churches that are growing, and some of them are completely abandoning the Bible and the gospel to do so. Because of that, numeric growth isn't a very good measure of success. If our strategy is simply to bring people in and make them feel welcome enough to stay, then we're not a church -- we're a club. There are a number of effective and natural ways to grow a church, but if we want to grow a church biblically, it will always involve supernatural means. This makes us completely dependent upon the help of the Spirit, but our dependence upon the Spirit is really our greatest strength. So while numeric growth isn't a sure measure of success, faithfulness to the command to make disciples and grow disciples will almost inevitably lead to numeric growth. We would be naive to think we'll get three thousand converts every time we preach, like we saw from Peter's preaching in Acts 2. But we should pray and expect that God will indeed save people through our faithfulness to proclaim the message of salvation in Christ.
There are a lot of practices and teachings that the church has neglected, but none is more damning than its negligence of evangelism. One of my greatest fears is one day learning how many people will be in hell that I could have shared the gospel with, but didn't. Christians have been given the greatest gift in the universe, a gift that only increases as we share it with others, yet we have largely succumbed to the temptations of Satan to conform to the world and be silent about our faith. There is no other way to salvation but through Jesus Christ. This
exclusivity of the gospel is something that many people find offensive,
but it is something that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed boldly, not because they wanted to offend people, but because it is the truth. And if telling someone that they are a sinner who needs Christ is judgmental or condescending, then I'm incredibly thankful that there were people who were willing to be judgmental and condescending to me.
"'Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!' However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah said, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." (Romans 10:13-17)
So look for opportunities to guide your conversations toward Jesus Christ. Be bold enough to ask people what they believe about Christ and, if they're not Christians, ask them what it would take for them to become Christians. Ask people if they would be willing to submit their life to Christ and trust him to forgive their sins. Ask people if they go to church. Ask people what they believe happens after we die. If you don't feel comfortable asking people questions like these, that's fine, but don't use that as an excuse to not talk to people about Christ. If we truly care for the people in our lives, then we need to strategically seek out opportunities to talk to them about salvation.
Then, as people come to know Jesus Christ, we cannot just leave them there. We must train them in the ways of God. We must teach them what being under the lordship of Jesus is all about. We must come alongside them and help them fight temptation and sin. We must teach them to share Christ with others. And we must do this by exemplifying all of these things with our own lives! We need to be the kind of disciples who make disciples, and we need to make disciples who end up making more disciples.
Making disciples who make disciples is the greatest church growth strategy ever, so let us aim all of our church growth efforts toward equipping our congregations to live out this strategy.