SCRIPTURE: Isa 43:18-21
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: March 11th, 2016
18“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. 19See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. 20The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, 21the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise." (Isa 43:18-21)
I have brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances in many different churches. Some of them are normal Sunday parishioners while others are actively serving in the leadership. Others are fellow ministry workers plugging along through the ups and downs of Church life. Indeed, one of the most difficult places to work in are non-profits such as Christian organizations. One is expected to do good, to be good, and to appear good even when the going gets tough and the emotions get rough. Without a proper way to vent frustrations, one can easily get burnout. An effective way to share the burdens is to find encouragement among people who understand the unique situations when serving in Church. One feels free to talk about the flock, about the leadership board, or even about fellow workers in the same Church. Usually, no names are mentioned. It is more about finding ways to support one another in prayer rather than to turn the meeting into some forum for complaining. From time to time, whether over coffee or casual meetings, we would talk about some serious going ons. One such question is this: "Why is the Church not growing?"
It is a common question. It is also a very common scenario. Whether it is numerical growth or spiritual growth, the same question applies. For churches that have been stagnant for many years, there is no numerical growth, only gradual decline. Even for churches that are growing in numbers, there is no assurance that members are also growing spiritually as well.
In Vancouver, declining churches are the norm rather than the exception. Churches that grow in numbers are few and far between. Some would protest by saying that that is not true. One example was a mainline Church on a recent Sunday where there was almost a 40% growth in attendance. What was not explicitly mentioned was the presence of 8 additional members that Sunday on top of the regular attendance of 20! Numbers can deceive, depending on what context you are looking at. Yet, another Church I learned had to sell their Church building because of an aging congregation of 15 people. While numbers are not necessarily the key measurement of church health, it is definitely a symptom of something gone or going wrong.
If a Church is not growing, it is declining. There is no such thing as a status quo. For life is about growth, not sustenance. A car that is idling with its engine running generates lots of combustion and engine activity but the car does not go anywhere. Likewise, a Church that is busy running its own activities without moving toward a particular target is not going anywhere anytime soon. Eventually, the gas runs out.
This week, I want to combine the question of Church growth with the topic of evangelism. My main point is this: Churches do not exist for themselves. They must declare the praises where they are both inside and outside.
A) The Idling Church
|Is your Church like an Idling Car?|
A Church idles simply because she does not know where to go. The numbers may continue to come, but if they catch the vision of another Church or another place, they might jump ship.Rick Warren, popular author and pastor of Saddleback Church in California writes:
"It's far easier to set the right foundation at the start of a new church than it is to reset it after a church has existed for years. However, if you serve in an existing church that has plateaued, is declining, or is simply discouraged, your most important task is to redefine your purpose. Forget everything else until you have established it in the minds of your members. Recapture a clear vision of what God wants to do in and through your church family. Absolutely nothing will revitalize a discouraged church faster than rediscovering its purpose." (Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church, Zondervan, 1995, p81)I do not believe that people are content to just idle around and sustain themselves. In all fairness, I believe people want to grow. They want to welcome new members. They need to catch a fresh vision. The major problem is leadership. Proverbs 29:18 has been well quoted: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The ESV renders it better as: "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law." At the root of the verse is the need for vision, for a Word of God to show us the way. The trouble with idling churches is that they have lost the vision of God. They may study a lot of Bible but that does not mean that they are listening well to the voice of God. It comes back to the meaning and existence of Church. In Mere Christianity, The popular philosopher and writer, C.S. Lewis writes:
"There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects—education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden— that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperCollins, 1972, p199)B) The Evangelizing Church
I believe that the Church is a place of equipping people to share the good news. If the Church is not doing that, no wonder the Church is not growing. Looking at Isa 43, there are three things I want to say about a Church that is God-aware.
First, such a Church will not dwell on the past because God forgives. When Israel was asked to "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past," they were reminded of the ways their forefathers had given their allegiances to idols. If Israel were to continue in the old ways of their ancestors, they would be doomed. They would fall into the same traps. They would die. The calling of Israel is not to pursue idols and to build kingdoms for the benefit of self. The calling of Israel is to declare the praises of God by being the people of God that they have been called to be. The name of Abraham means: "Father of all nations" (Gen 17:5). Israel exists to glorify God and to be a blessing for all nations. Through Israel, God will save the world. Unfortunately, Israel failed miserably. Despite the opportunities given them, they did not do what they were supposed to do. Instead, they dwelt on the past mistakes, repeating them so frequently that it brought lots of pain and heartache to God. The calling of Isaiah gives Israel another chance. God forgives and continues to forgive us.
Second, they are attentive to new things of God because God gives. Isa 43 is full of new imagery that refreshes, recharges, and renews our hopes. God is doing a new thing; making a new way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. God will provide water and feed His people. Why? It is because we are God's children. God will take care of us. God will shelter us. God will comfort us. Even John the Baptist can only "prepare the way" (Luke 3:4). It is God who makes the way (Isa 43:19). What "new things" are God talking about? It is the remaking of a brand new spiritual infrastructure. It is the dawn of a new era. It is the restoration of Israel. Only God can give such a great promise. Will it not grip our souls to proclaim such wonderful news? Think about a new development that will transform our neighbourhood? Think about how an old debilitating neighbourhood can be changed when a new developer starts refreshing the whole place with a brand new vision. Think about what happens when a developer of great compassion and integrity starts to invest positively to a town, that it benefits citizens and residents in multiple ways like giving jobs; laying new pipes to replace broken ones; improving public transportation; building beautiful landscapes and parks; and so many other benefits. God promises more. God promises a new Jerusalem. Will that not excite us to want to be a part of such a movement?
Third, they are constantly on a lookout be that gift to declare the praises of God. Once a Church catches a fresh vision of God, they will be on their way to becoming the praises of God. You don't have to tell them. They will tell you. The purpose of Israel's existence is to be the people of God that they have been called to be. The same applies to the Church. We are called to be the people to declare the praises of God. Isaiah 43:20-1 read as:
"The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise."
Israel could proclaim what God had done for them. Likewise, we proclaim out of what God had done in our lives. The simplest way to put it is our own personal testimony.
A growing Church is a Church that evangelizes. If a Church is not growing in numbers, there is often a serious lack of evangelistic activities. After all, it is the Great Commission, not a Great Suggestion. Soup kitchen and feeding the poor can only do so much. Many government and non-government organizations are already doing that. Many churches are also doing that. The problem is not the charitable acts of mercy but the FAILURE to share the good news alongside with it. What is the point of giving a person a fish but not teaching the person how to fish?
THOUGHT: "So if the lesson from science is that people matter to God, then the lesson from business is they'd better matter to us, too. Only as we begin to value those outside our Christian circles will we be truly fulfilled and functioning according to God's purpose for us. But let's be honest. It's hard to keep our focus. Our tendency is to drift away from genuinely valuing the spiritually confused. We're quick to forget how much they matter to God." (Mark Mittelberg, The Contagious Christian, Zondervan, 1994, p15)
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