THIS BLOG POST IS PART 4 IN A FIVE-PART SERIES ON THE STAGES OF A REPLANT.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor. 3:5-7)
The Beautiful Tale of Two Churches
What makes a church grow? Is it our clever tactics and ideas? Is it our sheer willpower and dedication? How about that new Revitalization book you picked up? While all these components are helpful, none of these actually cause growth in a church.
It’s best if we give credit where it is due. We may never realize how God is working behind the scenes in people’s lives, and how he uses the church to accomplish his purposes on Earth. But one thing is for certain: God causes the growth.
Two churches in our association have seen unexpected, beautiful growth. When I started as an AMS about a year ago, one of our churches was very close to shutting down. They could only afford to pay their pastor a meager salary of less than $50 a week, their numbers had shrunk to less than 10, and they were in danger of closing. When I heard their pastor left, I knew this church had to have some attention and encouragement.
I got sucked into work very quickly and for my first month, I wasn’t able to go visit them or meet with their leadership. That is, until one day, one of their congregants came to see me. Here’s how the conversation went. (I’ll blank out the name of the person and church).
“Hi, Caleb. I’m ________ and I’m from __________ Baptist Church. I’m sure you’ve heard what’s been going on by now.”
“Yessir. I have heard. I have to apologize. I’m new here and I haven’t got around to visiting yet. I’m so saddened to hear about the church and I want to let you know that I’m going to do everything I can to help.”
“Help? I mean we would love for you to visit, but I don’t think we need help at this point. I just wanted to come by and meet you.”
I looked at him, confused. “Sir, I thought your church was in danger of closing.”
He continued: “We were nervous a few weeks ago, but I think we’re okay now. There’s a young man from a neighboring church who has felt a call to ministry. He came to fill in a few weeks ago for us, and we love him! Several of our members have come back, and he’s started a new kids and youth program. Last Wednesday, we had 15 kids! That’s more than we’ve had in a long time!”
I was stunned, relieved, excited, and hopeful for the future, all at the same time. And guess what? I didn’t lift a finger. There was nothing I could feel pride in with my own work, because I did nothing. But I boast in Christ. I know he cares about his church, and if He wants to cause its growth, He will.
Church number 2 is another beautiful story that’s still in the works. One day, I had a phone call and an email from someone sending in their ministry resume. It was a retired pastor who moved down to the beach, and wanted to do an interim ministry close by his beach home.
Shortly after I received his resume, another struggling church in our association lost a pastor. This is another church that has about 15 regular members. When the pastor left, I went to work and met with their chairman of deacons. I handed the resume for the retired pastor, and told him to give him a call.
Three weeks later, the church had 54 on a Sunday morning!! I’m blown away at the gracious hand of God. His power, and His kindness are evident in this church. Was it something I did? Was it my amazing pass-off of that resume that did the trick? Was it my driving skills in the parking lot of their church??
How can we explain this?
Unexpected Growth often means God is at Work
Isn’t it just like our God to do the unthinkable, the unexpected, and the extraordinary? When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 3, we must realize the type of prolific apostle that Paul was. The apostle Paul was an apostle, a missionary, a preacher, a church planter, and a passionate minister for Christ. He was one of the most important and influential figures in the New Testament. If there is anyone who could have written books on church growth and church health, it was Paul. Other of Paul’s writings describe the work of ministry he did. It included evangelism, preaching, teaching, caring, and so many other roles. But Paul never took credit for the work of God in growing a congregation.
Even Paul would only call himself a planter, who planted seeds for God’s glory. Apollos was just a waterer. But the growth did not come from Paul or Apollos, but God and God alone.
In Episode 166 of the podcast, Bob and Jimbo give us a good definition for the “growing stage.” Growing is when the fully developed seed of the gospel springs up and is evident in the life of those inside the church. It is marked by changed thinking and living, and is evidence of God’s work in the lives of the people – spiritual growth.
So, What Do We Do?
If God causes growth, and sometimes it is unexpected, why should we do anything? Why should we continue to labor and strive in a very difficult ministry? Because God uses his people to accomplish his purposes. He uses his gospel to motivate us to obedience. He uses his people, sharing His word and preaching His truth, and seeking his face in prayer, to bring new life to a dying congregation.
Our role is in the grueling work of planting, watering, planting, and watering. Sometimes, the seeds will sprout up, build strong roots, and grow. In Mark 4, Jesus gives a parable about a sower who goes out and scatters the seeds. Some of the seeds don’t take root, and they wither and die. Some of them grow up, but get choked out by the world. And others take root and grow into a strong plant. The sower must first cast the seed for anything to happen with the seed. If we sit back and do nothing, rest assured that no growth will happen.
Even if we use my example of Church 1, God was working in a young man’s heart, calling him to ministry while he was being mentored by his personal pastor, and he was sent out to get “pulpit experience,” in this neighboring church. If God wasn’t in that, who was? Growth happens in the church when God chooses to respond to two things: our cry for help and our faithfulness in sowing and watering the seeds.
Don’t Be Discouraged, Pastor
“Okay. What gives? You said that God causes growth. Well my church isn’t growing, and I’ve been at this work for a while now. What now? Is it me? Is there something spiritually wrong happening?”
I’m not sure any of us can answer those questions. We can’t be sure of reasons why you haven’t seen the growth you desire. But here are a few encouraging words to keep in mind as you keep working in this ministry:
- Be Patient. Remember the missionary Adoniram Judson. Judson was in Burma for 6 years before seeing a single convert. It took 12 years to see 18 converts. Judson served in Burma for 34 years. Afterwards, a survey in Burma reported over 200,000 Burmese were Christians. God may never show you the results of your labor in this lifetime. But if you get to see growth in your tenure, know that it is a blessing from God.
- Be Faithful. Be faithful to plant gospel seeds. Be faithful to water those seeds with discipleship. Love people, care for your congregation, preach the word in season and out of season, keep on running the engine, and take breaks when you can. God will honor your faithfulness to this work.
- Look to Christ daily. If you look to your own efforts, you will be prone to be discouraged or prideful. Discouragement comes when you don’t see growth. Pride emerges when you do see growth, but you are taking the credit for your work. Look to Christ, acknowledging that only he can keep you both encouraged and humble.
- Address spiritual concerns regularly. If growth is a work of God, it would make sense to make everything we do a matter of spiritual significance. Address conflict and sin in the church. Lead your church to pray. Teach on church health. Regularly talk about being a Kingdom-minded Christian. Teach how the gospel applies to life. Let your congregation see the God of the Bible. When you do this, even your congregation will see that this growth really does come from God alone.
A tremendous resource on these topics would be Johnathan Leeman’s A Word Centered Church. Also see Gary Macintosh in Biblical Church Growth. I’ve always been intrigued reading John Piper’s responses to questions on Desiring God, so here is a great article on this topic.
If you think your church is in danger of closing, take this church health assessment. This self-assessment is meant to help assist you in determining the current state of your local church. Another way to get started is by taking an introductory course that will help anyone understand what church replanting is and how it provides hope for dying churches.