What do growing churches do that stagnant or declining churches fail to do? Pastors’ bookshelves are lined with volumes giving the definitive approach to church growth. Pastors’ email in-boxes are overrun with advertisements promising to “grow your church.” Sometimes techniques in one program directly contradict the ideas put forth by another author. What leads to church growth? There’s no simple answer.
We don’t want growth for growth’s sake. We want our church to be a place where people are drawn closer to God through their relationship with Jesus. If we are that kind of church, we think growth will happen. Our elders and deacons have prayed that God will help us grow as we help people become disciples of Jesus.
The writers of the Growing Young study researched 100’s of churches that successfully help people aged 10-25 learn to follow Jesus. One of the top findings of their research is a set of six core commitments. Every growing young church exhibited at least four and in most cases all six.
This week we look at the third core commitment: “Take Jesus Seriously.” Don’t all churches do that? Maybe not. In the lingo of Growing Young “take Jesus seriously” means teens and young adults prefer to deal with what Jesus really said and did. He died a bloody, violent death on the cross. He told any who would follow him that they had to die to self, and take up their cross. Following Jesus means he is first in our lives. He comes before our ambitions, our most important relationships, everything.
Not all young people (and not all older Christians either) are ready to put Jesus first. We have academic goals. We have career ambitions. Some kids’ lives are all about their sports careers. Some young adults are wrapped up with dating. Maybe some hope for marriage. These and other good things can be all consuming. Jesus says, no, these things have to fall in line behind the commitment to and relationship with him. Young people don’t always make that radical commitment, but the research shows that churches that grow young present robust Gospel challenges rather than a non-descript, easy sounding Gospel.
Pop culture, unfortunately, too often promotes that easy, non-descript gospel, sometimes called as moralistic therapeutic deism. The National Study of Youth and Religion concluded that “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much.”[i] The sense is that faith leads to being a good, moral person. Moralistic. Religion helps you feel better. Therapeutic. And God exists, somewhere, up there, out there, but He’s not involved in life here. That’s Deism.
It’s fine to be moral, feel good, and say God exists. The Bible says much more. In 2 Corinthians 1:3, “The God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ … consoles us in all our affliction. … The sufferings of Christ are abundant for us.” Some God of some kind somewhere out there in some way helps us feel better? No. God is revealed in Jesus, a first century Jewish man. This Jesus died on a Roman cross around 33 AD. The God revealed in him consoles us through the love shown to us in the death of Jesus. He suffered this violence suffered because sin leads to death. We all sin. He took our place in death.
Moral Therapeutic Deism, feel-good religion, has as its partner, Golden-rule Christianity. Based on Luke 6:31, do to others as you would have them do to you, this approach to faith is effort-based. Advocates of Golden Rule Christianity skip over the instructions Jesus gives just a couple of verses previous to this one. Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. When struck, turn the other cheek. Feel-good religion (Moral Therapeutic Deism) and Do-good religion (Golden Rule Christianity) both live out very positive ideas. But they are individualistic and based on our behavior, not our confession of faith in Jesus and a growing relationship in which we follow Jesus’ lead in all the places of our lives.
I was in a bizarre conversation about politics with a friend in my neighborhood. She and I feel the same way about the issue we were discussing: health care. Yet she started going off on me, railing against Christians who disagree with her point of view. “How can someone be a Christian and not take my view on ‘Obama care’?” She was in a pretty worked up state of agitation, so I decided it wasn’t the right time to tell her someone’ Christianity is not tied to their opinion of ‘Obama care.’ Our Christianity is tied to our faith in Jesus. Who am I in Christ? That’s what defines my Christianity, not my politics or moral code. Feel-good religion and do-good religion, only vaguely interested in Jesus, think life is about an individual’s story. Life is all about me. Followers Jesus know life is about God and God’s kingdom. Our individual stories are part of God’s larger story.
I started this message asking “What makes the church grow?” It’s a question I hope you’ll consider, but even more, I hope you’ll deeply ponder a bigger question. What is the Gospel? Is it feel-good, do-good? Or is it God’s story, and how God’s story is central to your experience and your life?
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1, “We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us” (v.9-10). He’s referring to an experience he had while sharing about Jesus in Greece. However, though his words mention a specific instance from his life, those words speak to our lives once we decide to be totally sold out in following Jesus. In Christ, God rescues us and we live as saved people here and now, today. We live dependent on God because he who raised Christ can be trusted.
This way of living is seen in three shifts described in the Growing Young approach. First, we talk less about abstract ideas and more about the specifics of Jesus’ life and teachings. We’ve already addressed this. We choose radical discipleship, following Jesus and receiving the blessings he gives, instead of anemic, vague feel-good, do-good religion.
The second shift is a move away from religious formulas and a move toward a redemptive narrative. Our faith is part of a real, messy story full of twists and turns but ending in resurrection, first Jesus’ and then ours. It can’t be reduced to a pithy statement on coffee mug. It is a lived relationship, a full-fledged, epic narrative.
Shift 1, from abstract ideas to specific teaching from and about Jesus. Shift 2, from formula to salvation story. The third shift is a move away from talk about heaven in the distant future and a move toward life lived following Jesus in our day-to-day, here and now.
Paul had a stormy relationship with the Corinthian church. He probably wrote four letters to that church. Second Corinthians is either one of those four, or it is a composite of parts of letters 2, 3, and 4. Paul wrote to them so much, with such force and emotion because he loved these people and wanted them to find redemption in Jesus and they were having trouble doing that. Even though he was an itinerant minister and away from them more than with them, he didn’t abandon them.
In the passage read earlier, he tries to explain why he hasn’t arrived when he said he would. If his “yes” I’ll come became a “no,” I can’t come it was because God led him to change plans. He appeals to his Corinthians friends to trust that he loves them even if they don’t see him. He’s trying to obey God. Obedience: that’s how we live our salvation here and now.
Imagine the teenager. She likes her boyfriend and she wants to follow Jesus. She wants both, badly. She wants to be in love with this boy. And she wants to grow in Christ. She and that boy are healthy, their bodies are mature, and the hormones are raging. He wants to have sex with her. She wants that too, but she believes Jesus wants her to wait. Save sex for marriage. She is sure Jesus is leading her that way, just as she is sure the boyfriend is ready at a moment’s notice. The decision to follow Jesus means she’s not going to have sex before marriage. Even if the boyfriend she thinks she loves gives the ultimatum – sex or break-up – she won’t budge. That’s one example of taking Jesus seriously. That’s one way she is living her salvation here and now.
In that example, sex is not an evil. It’s a beautiful aspect of God’s creation, but like all things, it is submitted to Jesus. A disciple submits fully when he or she takes Jesus seriously. Young people and everyone, when we do that, we live differently than the people around us. The way we make decisions will not always make sense to our friends who don’t follow Jesus, but our stories are entwined with God’s story.
We also discover that life in Christ is the most blessed of lives to be lived. In Jesus Christ, Paul writes, “every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’”. That teenager may not ever get married, may not ever have sexual union with a man. She has spiritual union with God in Christ, a union she grows into throughout her life. She’s part of the church family. She experiences joy that builds throughout life and continues building in eternity. And if she does get married, then her marriage is submitted to Christ as well.
I’ve talked about a teen’s decision to abstain from premarital sex as a discipleship decision. We could say the same about who we are in our work. Our work ethic and our personal morals come as a result of Jesus at work in us. In feel-good and do-good religion, people call themselves Christians because they think their morals are good. And the pay-off is religion makes them feel happy and fulfilled. When our lives are in Christ, any good we do is a result of the Holy Spirit expressing God’s will through us. We don’t settle for fleeting happiness. We are filled with divine joy that remains no matter how well life is or isn’t going at any particular moment. We sense God’s presence smiling with us in the highs and consoling us, to use Paul’s word, in the lows.
The final words from the passage are “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and [who] has anointed us, but putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor. 1:21-22). No program or book can guarantee our church will grow. The good news is, Jesus has died for us, is with us, and offers us forgiveness and new life as his disciples, sons and daughters of God.
Young people aged 10-25 can handle all that this Gospel entails. When they meet Jesus, they become on-fire disciples ready to follow Him to the ends of the earth. And by the way, that’s true for people of all ages and it is never too late to take that first step toward him in faith.