Friday, December 21, 2012

It's a Small Word, After All . . . by George Gagliardi

A baby was born, long ago on a Christmas morn in a manger, etc. And the aching soul, having borne one too many burdens, may well be tempted to say, “That’s nice” or perhaps even more harshly, “So what?” 

What indeed? What does a birth of a Jewish kid some 2000 or more years ago have to say to me now?

It’s a good question and it deserves a good answer. However, I don’t have one – at least not exactly. I don’t have one custom made for you as you try and make sense of that which makes no sense. I don’t have one that makes the pain go away or fills the empty heart. But what I do have is this … hope.

It’s a small word, easily lost among the clichés of the world and not hard to submerge beneath a sea of cynicism and anger. But let’s think about this word for a moment.

What if hope were not just a word but a person? A person who knew firsthand about  heartache and loneliness and  being abandoned. A person whose birth was cause for violence and greed and hatred for some and, at the same time, an occasion to bring out the whole angelic choir  trumpets included, I’ll betcha – for others.

It was the kind of birth that was so remarkably unremarkable in its locale as to be ludicrous. If this is God’s idea of how to introduce eternal hope to the world, well… man, what could you have been thinking! This baby boy is it? This is the hope we’ve been waiting for? And I suspect He was smiling as He was saying, “Yes, just wait and see.”

I guess that’s the hardest part of hope sometime, the waiting. But turns out God was right. Jesus did more than “make good”; he “made good” by making miracles and making the lives of  people better, people who most folk had given up on. Well, I’d say when hope looks like that, then it’s worth putting your faith in or at least investigating.

Well, that’s what people of faith, me included, believe about Jesus. He was/is the embodiment of hope, that God is not “asleep at the switch,” even when it seems He is.

I wish, for all of you who find sadness an unwelcome companion this Christmas, the hope that He brings, that He ushered into this crazy, mixed-up, unfair, unjust world that first Christmas years ago when he was born. It’s a hope as vital and alive as the heart that receives the gift of love and gives the gift of love. And with all my heart, I wish that kind of hope for you this Christmas and the whole year through.

Merry Christmas (Anyway),
George Gagliardi, December, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Seeing People in a New Light: The Ethics of Being All About the Numbers

I seem never to get enough of reading up on church growth strategies. Such is probably due to the fact that many of the churches I know are growing older or declining. We need people to fill some big shoes! Perhaps growing a church can serve as a great ego boost to a pastor, as well. So, my interest was sparked the other day when I came across an entry on the “Vision Room” website called “We’re All About the Numbers” by Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When it comes to numerical church growth, Furtick asks, “What else matters? What else should we be about?” To add biblical and theological credence to his thesis, Furtick adds that Luke, in writing the book of Acts, showed an intense interest in emphasizing and quantifying church growth. Indeed, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Furtick also points out that John’s vision in Revelation included “a great multitude that no one could count (Revelation 7:9).” Furtick consequently writes, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait until I die to see this.”

Furtick’s points interest me from a pastoral standpoint, as I am impressed with his presentation of the gospel and his expectation that “thousands of people” would make a profession of faith in Christ during each week’s worship service. Considering that such astounding numerical growth may not be literally possible in some rural church across my state, perhaps Furtick’s analysis and vision is shared by many pastors and lay leaders today no matter the location. I do admire evangelicals who fervently respond to the Great Commission and note that, as Jesus offered, the fields are white unto harvest. May I, however, add a few words of caution concerning the uptick in numbers-driven evangelism in our day and time?

First, churches are in danger when they measure success in what Dr. T.B. Maston called “worldly terms.”[1] In fact, Furtick’s article may be indicative of something that can easily lead a church and her leaders down a broad path rather than a narrow way: the tendency to quantify ministry by the numbers. For instance, I would like to ask Furtick if he and his ministry staff feel like failures when a certain amount of people do not make professions of faith in a week. Should not our greatness in God’s kingdom be measured not by numbers of followers or church members but by walking as Jesus walked?

Second, we ought to consider some other biblical examples of so-called “church growth” in the Bible. Saul slew his thousands, and David slew his ten-thousands, but David’s kingdom collapsed. Daniel remained faithful but was thrown to lions and into a fire pit. Jeremiah never had a positive response to his sermons. In fact, he was derided by his hearers, who nicknamed him “Old Death and Destruction.” Jonah helped an entire city to repent of sin but he then sat dejected and depressed, angry at a merciful God.

Jesus, through whom we interpret the whole of the Bible, began his ministry with great crowds. Yet, only a handful remained when he hung on a cross, notably two of the most unlikely candidates for church growth: a Roman soldier and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. In fact, the crowds seemed genuinely unimpressed and even a bit nauseated with his talk of death. His message of repentance and justice almost got him killed during his first sermon! Consider, too, that Jesus ministered to crowds but invested more time in a small group of disciples. Also, it is important to note that even some of Jesus’ closest friends needed some intensive one-on-one help by the risen Lord himself in order to believe and to be put in right relationship.

The astounding growth in the early church was not due to either Peter’s mystifying preaching or the entertaining ministry of the Apostles. The Apostles clearly did not press for numerical growth. They pressed for the gospel, and with that they endured prison time, martyrdom, racism, and a host of other problems that most of our churches do not want to deal with these days in order to be truly successful in the ways of the Kingdom.

Paul’s list of challenges remains astounding (2 Corinthians 11). It seems to me that God did not necessarily call Paul to “grow churches.” In fact, in one of Paul’s most intense visions, the Spirit motivated the great missionary and his team to go to Macedonia and “help” people. Note that Paul usually began a church with meager success in worldly or business terms. Oftentimes, Paul’s church starts involved painful trials and rioting.

Isn’t it interesting that John’s revelatory vision came when he and his fellow church members felt most alone and in decline?

For the record, then, let’s answer Furtick’s question regarding numbers of church members: “What else should we be about?” Maston would likely say, “Jesus’ disciples, and we claim to be in that company, were and are to make other disciples of Him and then teach them what it means to be a real disciple of Him. Here is evangelism and ethics tied together in one bundle.”[2] It seems, therefore, that church growth ought to be less about the numbers of church members and more about us walking as Jesus walked and teaching others to do the same.

[1] T. B. Maston, “Trends to Watch—Success Orientation,” Baptist Standard, April 23, 1975, 13.
[2] T.B. Maston, “Both/And”—Evangelism and Ethics,” Baptist Standard, February 18, 1981, 11.