Saturday, July 7, 2012

Church by the Numbers

Acts 2:43-47, 4:1-4, 6:7, 12:24, 13:48-49
Matthew 28:16-20
July 8, 2012

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. 

 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.

A young minister took part in our pastoral mentoring group. Tim was tall, good looking, square shoulders. In college, he played football for Ole Miss. In seminary, he won the senior preaching prize.

So they were delighted at First Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC, when he joined the staff. Tim was the associate pastor for membership and evangelism. He was responsible for growing the membership list. 

At that time, First Presbyterian Church had 4500 members. The senior pastor was a man named Kuchinski. He pointed out to Tim that the congregation lost about 450 members a year to attrition and death. His goal for Tim was to bring in 40 new members a month, to stay ahead of the losses. Kuchinski said, "While I am the pastor here, the church will not shrink on my watch." 

So that's why Tim was there - to keep both the membership rolls and Kuchinski's ego fully inflated.

It proved to be a difficult job. Can you imagine how many people in Greenville, South Carolina do not already belong to a church? But Tim dug in. He gave brochures to the Welcome Wagon. He read the property transaction section of the local paper to see who bought a new house. He befriended the secretaries at the elementary schools so they could feed him the names of new families. And he led the new member classes that seemed to run continuously at First Presbyterian Church.

The boss had given him a goal: 40 new members a month. Can't let the numbers drop, because that would reflect poorly on the boss and his church.

One Friday afternoon, Tim was heading out to the parking lot from his office. As he made his way, he noticed a disturbance by the church's day care center. A deranged woman was shouting by the playground. She was waving a loaded pistol and making threats. 

Tim dropped to the ground immediately. He crawled between the cars in the parking lot. As he moved closer, he sensed that the woman was about to go over the edge. He spoke a quick prayer and then lunged at her. Tim wrestled away the gun, pinned her to the ground, and then yelled, "Call 911." The police arrived quickly. The woman was taken away. Tim sat for a good while with the children and their teachers, and led them in a prayer. That night on the new, the TV people called him a hero. 

A day and a half later, on Sunday morning, he got to the church at 8:00. Kuchinski came toward him as he unlocked his office. Kuchinski said, "I've been looking at the numbers, and you have been falling behind on your quota of 40 new members a month. You have a month to bring in more people or your days are numbered." With that, he spun around and stomped away. Not a word about the Friday incident. Not a word of thanks for saving lives. Not a word of affirmation or concern about how he was doing.

I suppose there are pinheads in every occupation. The ministry has had a few. And the story reflects one of the ways that the American church has changed over the past hundred years.  

One hundred years ago, the praying ladies who started this congregation were not thinking about how many people could be jammed into a Presbyterian church. They simply believed the Gospel of God. They trusted the news of Jesus Christ is true, that it has life-giving power, that the way of Christ can transform every human society. That was – and still is – the magnet at the center of Christian faith.

As we heard, the book of Acts offers ongoing summaries as the Gospel began to spread. Let me recall a few:

  • Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
  • The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly…
  • The word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.
And my favorite:

  • Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers. 
What is clear in each of these and other statements is that God was at the center of the growth. It is the word of God that spreads. It is God who advances the church. Want your church to grow? Get serious about God. That is the clear inference from the book of Acts.

But it’s hard for American people to keep that straight. For the past thirty years, we have heard accounts of really big churches, “mega churches” as they often called. They began to emerge about the same time that the Big Box stores replaced the corner hardware store. Same kind of philosophy, too: bigger is better. Higher volume is the game, and if there’s higher volume, you can lower the cost. With a bigger outfit, you can offer more services, employ more specialists, hire a marketing team, dress up the joint.

One of the flagship enterprises is the Willow Creek Community church, out in the suburbs of Chicago. They boast 24,000 attendees a week, in a $73 million sanctuary that seats 7100 people. It’s hard to imagine the scope of that.

By contrast, my jazz band played last Saturday at the opening worship service of the Presbyterian General Assembly. There were 4000 people there for a worship service that took six month to plan. I just deleted 173 e-mails about the planning of that one service. Every week, Willow Creek Church gets six times that many people. They installed hundreds of 62-inch TV screens around the auditorium so people can watch what’s going on. The inference is that bigger is automatically better. That’s the American way. We get that thinking from Texas.

But there are a lot of flaws in that thinking. The first flaw is that you can get to know Jesus better in a big crowd. It’s simply not true.

I love that scene in the Monty Python movie, “The Life of Brian.” It’s a satirical look at a man named Brian who was born at the same time as Jesus, in the very next cattle stall. One day he and some others go to hear the Sermon on the Mount to hear Jesus. But the crowd is large, and they can’t hear him. Jesus is up front preaching, and the dialog at the back of the crowd goes like this:

“What did he say?”
    “I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
“What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
    “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”[1]

And on it goes. The people in the back of the crowd can’t hear Jesus. And they are so bound by their worldly preconceptions that they cannot understand him, much less follow him.

The second flaw is that an obsession with big numbers misses the individual touch of true Christian ministry. Jesus may have preached to a few crowds, but when he healed people, it was one person at a time. If we scratch beneath the surface of those successful summaries in the book of Acts, we discover the church advances one soul at a time, one household at a time, slowly and deliberately. That’s what my young friend Tim discovered at the  Greenville church, and what prompted him to quit after 18 months: people are more important than mere numbers. No life is merely a statistic. Jesus loves us one by one.

Christian faith is rooted in relationships with real people. When the Sheetz station came to town, with its in-your-face bright colors and cheap gas, instantly they had a lot of business. People said, “Look at the prices!” I went there a few times, but I still go to Butler’s Sunoco. It’s the difference between personal relationship and high volume bargains. The kid at Sheetz can sell you a candy bar but he doesn’t know anything about the rattle in your car. That’s why you need to know Bill Butler.

When it comes to our ministry for Christ, it’s that personal connection that matters. The Big Box Churches struggle with this. It is easy to get lost in one of those glitzy places. It’s difficult to meet people, impossible to connect with everybody, and something important can be lost.

A few of us were chatting with Eugene Peterson. He’s a Christian writer, a deeply spiritual man. He’s a Presbyterian pastor, too, who started a congregation from scratch in suburban Baltimore. He served there for 29 years, and then one day he up and quit. We found the courage to ask him, “Why did you leave the church that you started?”

He said, “It grew so big that I couldn’t know everybody. You can’t do pastoral ministry under those conditions. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to be a Christian under those conditions. Faith is lived out with these people, right here, right now. You can’t do that from a distance.”

A third flaw with the bigger-is-better approach comes from the Willow Creek people themselves. In 2005, they did a major study of their own congregation. And to their shock, they learned they had been creating consumers of religious services, rather than people who actually live out the Gospel.[2] “We have failed as a church,” said lead pastor Bill Hybels. “We have sunk millions of dollars into programs to keep people busy, rather than teaching them to read the Bible, pray, and develop supportive relationships with one another.”

It was a daring confession, and seven years later, that church is still trying to figure it out. They can’t make a really big shift, after all, because they might lose some of those 24,000 people who are coming to consume their stuff every week.

Let’s right to the heart of the matter: why are we here? Why do we exist as a church? I think we are here to point to Jesus Christ, to call people to follow him and to love him. That is our purpose. Everything else we do is rooted in that, and that alone. It is the work of making disciples, our first and final commission.

Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of every nation. Baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Teach them what I teach. Instruct them in welcoming my presence in all of life.” This is why we are here. It happens as we encounter the actual words that Christ spoke – the very words that he still speaks: Love your enemies, forgive those who have wronged you, refuse to retaliate. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Be generous to those in need. Be strong for those who are weak. Stay humble. Pursue peace. Speak the power of love to those obsessed with the love of power. Trust God with all things.”

The great commission comes from Matthew 28. The Gospel of Matthew is a good place to start. Find yourself a Bible where the teachings of Jesus are printed in red letters, and start there. Matthew tells us about a teaching Jesus. And if we dwell in his teachings long enough, Jesus himself will start dwelling in us. A heart full of scripture is a very good heart.

What we have to resist is the alien notion that bigger is better, that more is more fulfilling. Oh no! Discipleship is about going deeper, not wider. It’s about sinking into the grace of God, about welcoming his grace into our lives until it becomes our governing principle.

Sometimes we learn this grace from others who have been learning it, too. The three children who will be baptized today, for instance, selected a woman to be their sponsor because they know that she loves them. Through her love, they experience the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s how disciples are made.

We learn that love - we practice that love - we live that love - one person at a time. And it makes all the difference. All the difference in the world.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved, including the rights of original copyright holders.

[1] From “The Life of Brian.” Quoting the film does not imply an endorsement of it. J

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