One of the problems of owning a car is that it requires attention—money, effort and time. As I drive down the road, I notice various approaches to this problem. Some take an older car and try to “spruce it up” to look new—maybe new wheels or a spoiler or a stripe down the side or tinted windows. Younger folks often do this. In fact, my wife and I attempted this approach when our oldest first began to drive. We quickly learned that inside, the car was still an old car. It looked great but ran terribly. It really hadn’t been taken nearly as good care of as it appeared externally. Others prefer to keep a car running by merely changing the oil. My own father told me again and again, “Whatever you do, change the oil every 3000 miles—this one thing will keep a car running a long, long time.” (Imagine the shock when the local dealership told me they recommended an oil change every 10,000 miles…but I digress.) The problem with this approach, however, is that it seems to ignore other maintenance issues. Changing the oil doesn’t fix the brakes or a leak or a water pump. Not only that, but as we learned from the car for our first child, changing the oil does little for a car that has sat up for a while not being driven. Both of these approaches to car maintenance miss the main point. Both address symptoms, but not real problems.
Churches are much like cars, in this sense. Your local Christian bookstore probably has a section on church growth. It’s undoubtedly filled with books on supposed “proven church growth techniques”. And without question, many of these books will look at churches that were once dying and were revitalized by whatever method the author endorses. The number of people in a church on any given Sunday is given as proof that the method works. It’s like that 1988 Chevy Cavalier that my 16 year old had in 2009. It looked as good as any car we owned. However, inside it was still just an old car that hadn’t really been driven at all. And, sitting up had actually done more harm than good. Thousands of dollars later, we realized we could have bought a relatively new car and been a lot better off (which we later had to do). The point is, you cannot just look at the outside of a car and judge what is inside. And, you cannot just look at church growth numbers and judge a church. Many (if not most) mega-churches know little of the Gospel and methodical Bible teaching. Such growth isn’t built on actual conversion to Christ, but on some gimmick that deceives the “convert” into believing their club membership will graduate into Heaven one day.
But, in our illustration, there is an opposite concern. This problem isn’t viewed as liberalism. To those inside, it would be viewed as conservatism (to those outside, it might be viewed as legalism—wrongly or rightly). This approach is the maintenance approach. It’s the “I’m gonna drive it until the wheels fall off” approach that many take. The fix—change the oil every 3000 miles. This view abhors those that would take an old car and tint the windows and put spinners on the wheels. Rightly, they’d say, “that’s not a real fix for that car.” Yet, they miss the fact that while their wheels are falling off or the head gasket is broken, changing the oil isn’t fixing their problem either. It’s amazing how often churches seem to think you have one of two options—liberalism or conservatism. Yet, there’s another view out there that we all need to consider—Biblical missions.
You cannot take a broken down church that hasn’t been faithful for years and fix it by gimmicks. Sure, you may grow the church with scores of people. And, you may make converts to your “church”. Your membership may triple in a year and you may have people excited. But excitement doesn’t equal conversion. On the flip side, you also cannot take the same unfaithful church and demand that you aren’t changing anything. “We’ve always done it this way” isn’t an excuse. In such a church, the “old paths” equates to 1974 and defending such traditions normally looks back to momma and daddy or grandma and grandaddy. These are both extreme approaches to a real problem and yet neither really addresses the actual issue squarely, despite that both may have genuine goals.
Churches must be grown through the Gospel at the foundational level. In explaining Christian growth, Paul wrote to the church at Corinth saying, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). In writing to the church (or, perhaps churches) in Rome, Paul explained the that the only possible fix for a society under God’s judgment is the Gospel—“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). Gimmicks may build numbers, but they do not make true converts. The Gospel must be preached plainly (Colossians 4:4). Any attempt to grow a church apart from the plain preaching of the Gospel is like the attempt to restore a car from the outside in. Things may look good, but the car is still old at the core. It may look like a new car. However, at some point it will stop running as it is supposed to despite the looks. This is where our illustration loses is symbolism, perhaps. For, a church built on gimmicks and growth techniques may grow and abound for years to come. The problem is, it will move further and further away from New Testament Christianity and the Biblical Christian Gospel.
While the Gospel must be at the floor of the pews and the pulpit, it cannot remain there. A church that is intently inwardly focused is stuck in maintenance mode. Worse perhaps, is that while the wheels are falling off and the church is dying, the idea remains that maintenance will keep it running. This is simply not the case. Our faith—Biblical Gospel faith—must be shared with the world or we are sure to die. The idea that a dying church is the mark of faithfulness is as much a foreign concept in the New Testament as a church growing through gimmicks. The entire Great Commission is meant to fuel churches to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Those that are converted to Jesus are to be baptized publicly as a commitment to serve Him as both Lord and Savior for life. As the new member has committed to Jesus in baptism, so the church authorizing the baptism is committing to disciple the new member—that is, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). This involves a whole lot more than maintenance. This is actively keeping every part functioning as it has been made to work (1 Corinthians 12). As the church becomes a disciple-making church that makes disciple-making disciples, God’s work is being done. This will, no doubt, result in churches being planted locally and beyond. This is the heart of the Great Commission. We needn’t think some legal affirmation of this truth is the equivalent of doing what the Lord has called us to do. Such an idea is merely maintenance on a car that is falling apart—and again, is a foreign thought to the New Testament teaching on the church.
So, what are we, as churches to do? Firstly, we cannot be seeker sensitive. You cannot bring a dead man to life no matter how much equipment you hook up to him (Ephesians 2:1). God has not chosen to work through gimmicks but through the “word of Christ”—the Gospel (Romans 10:17, James 1:18). We must be foundationally Gospel centered in our evangelism. Secondly, those that are converted by the Lord through the Gospel must be instructed to be disciple-making disciples. This is the natural outflow of true conversion. However, this must be taught as we all still battle with the flesh (Romans 7). We cannot give our members the idea that attending a church 3 times a week equals faithfulness. Such an idea would have warranted a New Testament epistle if we were still in the apostolic age. Churches founded upon the Gospel must develop members that regularly share the Gospel. Anything less is just changing the oil in a car while the transmission is slipping. A warm body in the pulpit is not enough—our standard must be higher. The Bible must be preached methodically, as God had it penned, and with crystal clear clarity.
The Biblical standard for faithfulness is higher than both extremes often think. If we are to have faithful, healthy churches, we must be rooted and grounded in Gospel truth inside the four walls of our churches and without. This involves everything from sequential expository preaching to clear Biblical instruction on how a church community is to function in planting other such communities. This is God’s clear plan—in the Commission and throughout the Book of Acts. If we are to be faithful to God and His Word, we must set aside any preconceived ideas we may have and get back into the Book. The Word of God is the equivalent of our car’s owner’s manual. It alone tells us how to do regular maintenance as well as necessary repairs. And whether we’d like to admit it or not, there’s not a church in the world that is as faithful as it needs to be.
Todd Bryant is the Lead Pastor at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Northport, AL. He has pastored there since 1998. For more more information on the church and links to audio sermons and apps for electronic devices, visit www.sovereigngrace.net