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Swimming Upstream

 Swimming Upstream

By   R. C. Sproul

I have a friend who plays the stock market. Not having the courage to do so myself I like to play armchair investor and talk with her about it. The extent of my wisdom isn’t much because my counsel usually comes down to this simple maxim: “When everyone is selling, buy. When everyone is buying, sell.” Of course the problem is knowing when everyone is doing what. And if she had followed my advice a few years ago and sold when everyone started buying, she would have missed quite a ride. There is wisdom in bucking conventional wisdom. What follows is an attempt to highlight how going against the flow rather than with it just may be the practical way to plant a church. I offer the counsel cautiously because I am no arm chair church planter, but one who is just beginning.

The church growth movement has done an outstanding job in capturing the right words. Everybody opposed to churches growing raise your hands. Anybody out there not want to attract unbelievers to the church of Christ? Is anybody seeking ways to grow the church impractically? The way the theory is couched just about guarantees its being accepted. The problem is the theory doesn’t match the words.

Is the church growing because of the church growth movement? Yes and no. Individual churches are growing, but the church is standing still. Though church growth pundits desire to win the lost usually what happens is they lose the found. Church growth techniques create a giant game of evangelical musical chairs. It is like those rare days when the stock index remains level. Some stocks go up, others go down. It shows the economy isn’t growing.

The only seekers we tend to draw with seeker sensitive services are believers seeking a different church. By presenting a God who wants us to look at ourselves, who doesn’t judge and command, who has a wonderful set of insights on how to have a happy, healthy marriage we put God’s imprimatur on narcisism. There’s nothing evangelicals like more than to be told that God loves them just the way they are.

But why aren’t the seekers coming? They like pop music, so we give them pop music. They like stories so we give them dramas. They like anonymity, so we let them have it. They like convenience, so we’ll change their oil while they’re here (this by the way is being done). The problem is that we can do none of these things as well as the world can. Why get up on a Sunday morning and drive somewhere to listen to pop music, when its as close as my stereo? Why settle for cheesy scripts and sets when the television does it so much better? Why spend an hour getting an oil change when the pros can do it in ten minutes?

Imagine every company on the stock exchange looking to the one company whose stock rose the highest in a given year deciding to do what they did. “Gee”, thinks Ford, “Microsoft made a killing. Let’s get out of the car business and make software.” Or imagine PBS deciding to air nothing but sitcoms made up of sophisticated urban x-ers.

The problem with this practical approach, apart from being unbiblical, is that its just not practical. In fact these two problems, that it’s unbiblical and impractical are really one problem. The church growth pundits counsel us to look to the experts for wisdom. They then provide mountains of demographic, sociological, marketing factoids. The experts are Madison Avenue pagans who may know a great deal about how to sell toothpaste, but know nothing about proclaiming the Good News. Are we left then to grope in the dark? If you can’t trust sociologists and pollsters, who can you trust? God.

We have in the Bible an example of church growth which has never been paralleled. We have the first evangelistic sermon ever preached. And it is recorded for us by the Holy Spirit, without error. Consider how Peter practiced church growth. First the Spirit descended at Pentecost. Do you suppose the unbelievers there were comfortable, at ease, in this strange situation? Did Peter try to mold and control this work of the Spirit?

Peter instead pointed the crowd to the Old Testament, to the prophecy of Joel. He gave evidence that God was with them. And then he gave a sermon. Did he preach on how Jesus could help you with your finances? Did he announce a new series on how to raise you children’s self-esteem? Peter’s sermon went something like this: “You all remember Jesus, the one with the miracle that you saw, the one God had sent, the one you crucified.” Wow. That was not very sensitive to the seekers.

Peter went on with more Old Testament evidence for Jesus. And then, perhaps for the sake of those seeker who arrived late to this service he concluded with the bombshell, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has mad Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

Peter would have found himself in hot water with the “experts.” They would tell him that people come to church carrying guilt with them, adding to that guilt will only drive them away. But from a strictly practical point of view, if we want to be experimental about this we need to check the response. Luke tells us, “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 answered, “Repent”

That, of course is not the message of choice among the experts. Perhaps they should seek healing for their wounded psyches. They needed affirmation after all. Peter instead pours on the guilt by telling the crowd, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Judgment, judgment. Hasn’t Peter heard that Jesus told us not to judge? Doesn’t he know judgment drives them away?

Luke then tells us that 3000 were saved.

The foolishness of the gospel routes the wisdom of the wise. Practically speaking the experts are failures. What they consider failure, on the other hand succeeds.

So what does this tell us about how to grow the church? It demonstrates that we’re listening to the wrong experts. Even the pagans know it is wise to counter-program. When everyone is going one way, go the other way. You will stand out. You will be noticed. You will be effective. If there were such a thing as a “seeker”, someone who is looking for something, they would certainly not be looking for more of the same, or a bad imitation of what he is fleeing. When the world gives us mindless drivel, then is the time to say of the church, “Come in here. You’ll get none of the nonsense you’re so tired of.” When the world is happy and light, we need to be somber, serious. When the gods of this world are distant, spineless, voiceless, reflections of our baser selves, our duty is to present the on true God, transcendent and immanent, omnipotent and tender, the God who speaks with all authority and wisdom. And we need to reflect not the perverse generation form which we have been saved, but Him in whom we have been regenerated, Him whose image we are to be.

More importantly this reminds us whence comes true wisdom. Proverbs tells us “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12). Ours is a God which confounds the wise, on who tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Practically, if we want to grow churches, we too must begin with the fear of God. If we want wisdom we need to turn in His Word which tells us, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him ( James 1:50).

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