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John F MacArthurThe other Sunday, a group of parishioners who had attended an Anglican diocesan series on church growth spoke after the service.

Oh, dear, I thought. Church growth programmes are so wrong, so very, very wrong.

John MacArthur explains how to get people coming in the doors and get them out again, evangelising. It involves teaching doctrine and the Scripture at every church service.

This excerpt is from a 1973 sermon I cited in my post on Acts 11. MacArthur had been at Grace Church for a little over four years at the time. This is his gimmick-free formula (emphases mine):

For four years, plus, I have endeavored basically to do one thing and that is to teach doctrine. Now we teach through the Bible verse after verse after verse, but really what we’re doing is taking Scripture and framing a doctrine, framing a principle. Doctrine is just principles. And we’ve endeavored for four plus years to build a strong doctrinal base.

I believe in my heart for all the time I’ve been here this has been my goal, my one single desire. And I really think that God in His wonderful providence has blessed His Word here. It’s not me. I’m the first one to know that. It’s the Word of God. But as you teach the Word of God strength is built, doctrine becomes firm and strong. That’s the very basis. The Word is established and my commitment has been to do just that, to spend the time establishing with the Word.

During that same time I feel God has prepared instruments and I prayed this would happen. I prayed that we wouldn’t just have a good theology on paper, but that we’d have a lot of people who had grown up with that theology and who were a part of it, and who lived it, and who would mature, and I prayed that this would happen …

I think the last two months have been one of the most exciting times in my life. I couldn’t begin to remember the names or even count the people who come to me and say, “John, I’ve had enough. I’m full. I’ve learned. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to take it somewhere. What can I do?” You wouldn’t believe how many people have been coming and telling me this. Everyday I hear this.

Sat down last night playing basketball, a guy on the basketball team says to me, “God wants me to go on the mission field. I never dreamed this could even happen. I just feel in my heart I have to go on the mission field. I got to share. I got to get out.” That’s just one in a long chain. A lady came in my office the other day and she says, “Is there a place for me in this church? I just want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to evangelize women.” I can count on my hand five people I can think of who told me they’ve got to go to the mission field soon. God’s just leading them. God’s calling.

People come to me and say, “I got to start a work of evangelism. I want to do this. Can I work here?” We trust God by the time fall comes around we’re going to have a campus evangelist on almost every high school campus in the Valley, people establishing Bible studies and winning people to Christ and nurturing Christians. We’re going to do the same thing on every college campus and I haven’t generated any of it, haven’t invented a program, haven’t done one single thing, just teaching and praying that God will raise some people up. You know what they do, they knock my door down and finally I just tell them, “Go ahead and do it.” Shows you what kind of an administrator I am. But anyway, that’s the way everything works around here. Just wait till people get excited about it. They’ll do it. Get them praying about it. A guy prays long enough the Lord will shoot him out and that’s the supreme joy for me I’m telling you.

Somebody told me the other day that by next semester we have 24 young men at seminary, Calvin Seminary. You don’t know what a joy that is. That’s reproduction. See that’s reproduction. Those men are going to affect thousands of people in their lifetime. And that’s what I hoped would happen, and I praise God that we’re beginning to see the little murmurings of it beginning to happen. People are coming to me and say I feel God’s calling me to begin a work over here and over there. Will you help support us?

I think our church is going to have to catch a vision, people, because we’ve come to the place now where we’ve got prepared people and they’re going to demand, by the Spirit of God, that we turn them loose on this world, and we’re going to have to be ready to handle it and it’s going to mean sacrifice to do it financially. But oh the dividends are eternal, amen? We got to be ready. It’s coming. Believe you me if I come up here in the next month and tell you there’s ten new staff members. You’d better be ready to handle that. Don’t laugh, it might be. The way God’s working right now I’m just drowning in them. You don’t know what a joy this is.

I think it’s a similar thing right here in this situation in this text. The groundwork was laid and it took seven years. For us it’s been four years of teaching and teaching and teaching and teaching and we’ll keep doing that because there’s new people coming all the time and we’ll just keep flip flopping them over and someone says, “Do you want more people in your church?” I want more people in here for a little while so I can send more people out of here. That’s what I want. I don’t people want to just come here and stay. I want people to come here and leave. Now some of you can stay because we need some of you here to train the people to leave. Don’t everybody go so next Sunday I’m here alone, right? …

Some people have talked to me about beginning pastorates; about outreach on campuses, about adult evangelism mobilizing people for reaching out, all kinds of things. I’m just thrilled and I think we’re seeing a phase like we see here in the 11th Chapter of Acts. As a church, when the groundwork is laid, begins to move out. And you know it’s not something you have to generate. Amazingly the Spirit of God does it. He does it.

So, one of our local Anglican churches is opening a café as part of church growth. Big deal. Our area has half a dozen cafés.

I told a good friend of mine — Anglican, but no longer a churchgoer — about the café. He thought it was absurd to think that it would bring more people to church. I agree.

He said he no longer goes to church because the services have been watered down such that there’s no more mysterium tremendum that takes you out of the world and puts you in God’s presence.

He also complained about the poor preaching.

He said that if the Church of England wants people coming back in droves, they will have to go back to basics regarding the liturgy and the sermons. In short, have more 1662 Book of Common Prayer services and robust preaching that gets one thinking about the state of one’s soul.

In short — my friend’s advice is not far from what John MacArthur advocated in 1973 and continues to advocate today. His Grace Church in California is jam packed every Sunday. His Masters Seminary is also highly successful. His Grace To You Ministries is international. That is because MacArthur is doing what the Apostles did.

Church growth programmes do not work. Return to doctrine and Scripture instead for real, lasting growth in the Spirit.

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John F MacArthurMy examination of the readings for Christmas 2 two weeks ago cited a sermon from John MacArthur.

In ‘A Church for the New Millennium’ he spoke about the incomprehension church growth theorists express with regard to the success of his Grace Community Church.

In other words, how could they increase their numbers without using the seemingly all-essential — in reality, unholy — principles of church growth?

Church growth in that context requires incorporating worldly values into the Church. It is big at Fuller Theological Seminary. I’ve written about it before.

MacArthur has never resorted to such falsehood. Yet, his congregation started from a small, local one nearly 50 years ago and, today, has thousands of people attending on any given Sunday.

He began by explaining the seeming urgent conundrum of modernising the Church. Emphases mine below. There has been a:

Tremendous amount of discussion on what it’s going to take for the church to reach this generation. The generation itself is incessantly being defined and redefined. Familiar terms – yuppie generation, the generation X and all of those kinds of terms are used to describe something of the cultural attitudes and mor[e]s of our society which are moving so very rapidly and churches are scrambling to try to react and find a place of relevancy in the culture under the fear that if they don’t, they will not be able to reach that culture.

It was some months ago now, quite a few months ago, that I told you about a book which I read, which has become very popular among church leaders that essentially says the church is going to be out of existence in the next 50 years if it doesn’t re-invent itself. By the mid-21st century, the church could literally be out of existence unless it redefines itself in terms of cultural expectations.

He rightly said that this was the wrong approach:

The church continually trying to redefine itself under the terms that are defined by culture, puts itself in a very difficult position since culture is going in the wrong direction to start with and it’s going there very, very rapidly.

In his congregation:

We have always believed at Grace Community Church that the church is defined not by the culture but by the scripture. That it is God who defines the church not the society around us. And certainly not the prince of the power of the air, who is the source of the culture, morays attitudes and philosophies so even religious. So we are different than other churches.

In fact:

I received a great compliment recently from somebody who said[,] you know the thing that’s remarkable about Grace Community Church is that while everything in our society seems to be changing rapidly over the years, you haven’t changed at all. In fact, he said to me you are doing the same things you used to be doing in about the same way you used to be doing them. And I said this is true. And of course, the question comes up aren’t you concerned about being relevant? Well I’m only concerned really about being obedient to scripture and leaving the consequences to the Lord. So you know we’ve never been caught up in this scramble to try to adjust to the culture. And our church has grown and that’s kind of turned us into something of a curiosity.

This has flummoxed Fuller, which offers courses such as Theology and Hip Hop Culture:

We used to have the people from Fuller Seminary come here with the Church Growth classes and because our church was the fastest growing church and the largest church in Los Angeles, they of necessity would bring students here to show them a rapidly growing church and then they stopped doing that because they said we confused the students because we had no regard. We don’t have any information about how churches grow and we grew anyway. And that was confusing so they felt that selective research that reinforced their point was more useful for them and so they stopped coming here.

That is so sad, and I’m posting on it today because it reminds me of a reading from Matthew 13 coming up next (link goes live Saturday night UK time).

To draw a parallel, the Fuller faculty and students were exposed the truth of a good church then chose to ignore it in favour of their own flawed, worldly theory! It is appalling that their students are no longer taken as part of coursework to see Grace Community Church’s authenticity and faithfulness to Holy Scripture. That is a very serious and deliberate oversight on the part of Fuller faculty. It is a sin to twist a divine blessing into a manmade falsehood.

However, Grace Community Church’s natural growth thanks to the faithful preaching of Scripture has puzzled many other adherents of the church growth movement:

This church has been the subject of magazine articles and thes[e]s. Doctoral dissertations have been written on our church and on my preaching. There have been all kinds of reports about our church seminars, newspaper articles, journals, tapes, books, all undertaken to analyze our church. And our ministry ha[s] been examined and analyzed every way possible. Studied, labeled, categorized, copied. We have been blessed. We have been cursed. We have been defended. We have been ignored. We have been endowed. We have been publicized and we’ve even been sued. So just about a little of everything has come against us and the church itself can be rather simply defined in a lot of ways.

The definition includes:

the word church. That’s what we are. We aren’t anything else but a church. That is what we are. By definition we are a church. And if you understand that word means then you understand what this church is. That is the key to understanding Grace Community Church. It is the key to our identity. We are not like any other institution in the world. We are absolutely and utterly unique. And when you understand church, then you have a definition of what we are and what are to be in the world.

And it is really an unchanging definition. It is no different for us in the 20th century than it was in the 2nd century AD. It is not different for us than it was in the 10th century. It is no different for us than it was in the 15th century or any other century. We are defined by a divine designation church, not by anything cultural, not by anything contemporary, not by anything that society developed but rather by the word church, which is biblical.

MacArthur gave this sermon in 2000. It is sad to think that the church growth movement has been around for decades and shows no signs of abating. Fuller isn’t the only institution promoting it. Rick Warren — possibly their most famous alumnus alive today — does, too.

Fuller’s reach is a long one. Many Lutheran churches in America believe there is a winning formula in church growth.

So do Anglican churches here in England, although it is not referred to as such, however, we are seeing an ever-increasing number of ‘programmes’ and the deadly ‘small groups’. ‘Do, please join,’ our clergy and churchwardens exhort. Everyone needs to be ‘involved’!

It doesn’t work. I went to my Anglican church’s midnight service at Christmas last month. It was only a third full. Twenty years ago to the day — 1995 — it was standing room only. Making the C of E ‘relevant’ has brought down numbers dramatically.

Back to the biblical meaning of ‘church’:

The word church in the New Testament is from a Greek word ekklesia that is a noun that comes out of a group verb kaleo, which means to call. So ekklesia is simply the called, the called ones, those called together, those according to Romans 8:28 called according to God’s purpose. We are called together. In Ephesians 4:1, Paul says I therefore the prison of the lord and treat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called. You are the called because you’ve had a calling. And the church is simply the called ones. We are the assembly of the called. This was a very ordinary Greek word by the way. Very ordinary Greek word so it can be any assembly of any people called together for anything …

We are not a human organization built by good people. We are not a human organization designed by well-intentioned people. We are not a human organization basically constructed around some tradition. We are a group of people summoned together by God himself for his purposes. So we can say this the church is an assembly of people called by God. We are an assembly of people called by God …

We have been called by God together. Romans 1:6 you also are the called of Jesus Christ to all who are beloved of God in Rome called together as saints. And you find this in 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John and other places. Even Hebrews 3:1 talks about our heavenly calling and heaven is really a synonym for God.

Therefore:

It is not our church. It is not my church. It is not the pastor’s church. It is not the elder’s church. I have to tell you, it’s not even your church. It’s Christ’s church. He ordained it. He builds it. He leads it. We are simply called into it and he is the caller.

And this explains really all the goodness, all the blessing, all the success, all the power, all the things that we have seen by way of spiritual richness. It has all come from God. The weaknesses of our fellowship, the failures of our church on the other hand are the marks of humanness. Where you see us weak and failing is where you see the hand of men and women. The weak human vessels God has chosen do show up in the weak elements of life in the church. We fail because of us, not him. We succeed because of him, not us. So when you come to Grace Church and you want to analyze why it is what it is and when you want to find some pathway to success that might be repeatable somewhere else, you are going to find it very difficult. Because wherever we have succeeded it is because God has done a mighty work and wherever we have failed it is because the imprint of human hands is on this place.

Ultimately:

The successes then cannot be easily defined. They cannot be easily analyzed. They cannot be easily canned and they cannot be easily reproduced and repeated because they are the work of God who is the caller of the called. The failures, yes, you can find those and you can certainly can repeat those. People can come to Grace Church and analyze our failures and go back and repeat them. But when they come and try to analyze our success and go back and repeat that, it’s really impossible because the Lord is the one who has caused the blessing and the success. The Lord is behind the power and the impact of the church. And he is not easily defined, analyzed, canned and repeated.

So what I’m saying is that Grace Community Church has been blessed only as we have functioned as God’s called people, not some human organization, not with some unusual level of human leadership or some unusual level of the power of persuasive speech. That is not what has caused this church to become what it is. That is not how we define ourselves and that is no reasonable explanation of the blessing of God. Wherever God moves, the flowers have always bloomed. Wherever we walk, they always die.

In closing:

what I’m concerned about today is so many people in the ministry who under this pressure to somehow let the culture define them are ceasing to be the church. You can look at some of those places and they may call themselves the church and there is a church in there somewhere. There’s a community of the called in there somewhere not to be confused with what is visible. We never wanted to have somewhere hidden the midst of a visible human organization a real church. We wanted the real church to be visible. The single great goal then for the church through all its life has been to let God be at work and to allow the church to be the church. We don’t want the culture to define what we are. We don’t want the society around us to define what we are. We want to be whatever it is that God wants us to be. That’s what we want to be. Nothing less and nothing more.

Fuller, Warren, their followers and the rest of the church growth movement will never understand that simple, biblical principle.

May we choose our congregations wisely.

This just in: the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales tells the faithful to have ‘purpose’.

Regular readers, particularly from the United States, will recognise that word from Rick Warren’s Church Growth Movement (CGM), which requires non-confessional Baptist ‘deeds over creeds’.  Apparently, that’s the way to build an increased congregation.  People love it when they have ‘purpose’.  My posts on the subject give clear evidence that this is an error.  Warren devised his methods from business management techniques, particularly those of Peter Drucker, who predicted and proposed that the Church could work with the State to bring about socially-engineered change.

That’s not dominionism, although it could be used as such.  Instead, Drucker saw the Church as becoming involved as a change agent in a secular world.  This is not unlike David Cameron’s Big Society, which was rolled out in certain Anglican dioceses last autumn.  Some parish churches had half-day workshops to recruit volunteers from their congregations to play their part and work for a better society.  It is a form of communitarianism.

The following message from the Home Mission Desk of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.  As it was with the Anglicans, the message is the same.  This is also true of many ecumenical Churches Together affiliations up and down the country.  If you have found a big push to ‘get involved’, this is why.

Here is an excerpt from the Home Mission Desk’s message, which I could not find online, so this mention in a Catholic church’s announcements will suffice (emphases mine throughout):

Scripture teaches us that without service and love of the poor, Christians are but clashing symbols [sic], their words are empty … Pope Benedict repeatedly emphasised solidarity with and service of the poor, that the Church exists to serve.

Life is busy and if you’ve a family, a mortgage and a job, it can be very hard to find time for anything or anyone else.  The Gospel invites and the Holy Spirit motivates us to be attentive to those in most need.  The Holy Father spoke about this clearly and similar sentiments were shared by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the departure airport: The Pope’s message ‘… is a challenge to us all … For many, faith is a spur to action.  It shapes their beliefs and behaviour and it gives them a sense of purpose …’ So it must be in our lives

Meanwhile, many younger Catholics are leaving the Church because they do not understand what the Church teaches or they take the Catholic social gospel to heart and disregard the holiness required of the faithful as put forward in the Bible, including the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament.  I covered this subject in Sunday’s ‘Forbidden Bible Verses: 1 Peter 1:10-16’, ironically not part of the standard  Sunday Mass (or mainstream Protestant service) readings.

When you have a demanding job — let’s face it, few office workers have done a straight 9-to-5 day for the past 20 years — you need to spend time with your spouse and your family during the precious time you have on the weekends or in the evenings.  Therefore, after God, your first obligation is to them — not to church activities.  Make sure your marriage is built on the New Testament love and respect as Jesus commands.  Train your children in love and awe of the Lord as well as in Church doctrine.

One of my Lutheran readers who is acquainted with the pitfalls of the CGM wrote in last autumn on the subject of volunteerism in the Church, which I highlighted in ‘Church Growth and our true “purpose”‘. Randall Schultz had this to say:

My own experiences and observations are that it is very easy to burn out lay members with leadership, done in the name of getting members involved. I have seen how the lay leaders are constantly being told about the joys of doing “the Lord’s Work”. Meanwhile, they are neglecting their families and down time by constantly attending board and committee meetings. Remember, that many of these men work full time in the secular world.

Also, there is what is known as opportunity cost. What could they be doing with their time if they were not so occupied with hand-wringing while looking at statistical giving data at Stewardship Committee meetings, for example? Family time was already mentioned. How about serious doctrinal study? There is much available, even in the English language. Yes, the “business of the church” is important. There are books to be balanced, property to be maintained, and the many serious membership problems which often arise at Elders’ meetings.

Pardon my rambling, but it is easy to see why so many frivolous activities occur in congregations when pastors are trained in methods and motivation at the seminary. What ever happened to changed hearts as the Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace?

Service to Christ is evangelising and showing mercy to other church members.  Evangelising is making sure that you and yours keep a Christian home, which includes personal behaviour.  It also includes being a responsible employee and a peaceful citizen.  It’s about showing a good example to others.

Showing mercy and providing charity may be contributing to a Church fund to help other members in need.  It might be a private act in which you run an errand or pop round with a meal for someone who is ill or infirm.  It does not mean doing the State’s work ‘voluntarily’ or getting involved in parish, ecumenical or interfaith activities to that end! If you wish to do that, fine, but it is not a mandate of the New Testament.

Tomorrow: When the social Gospel overshadows Church teachings

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