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Getting in the way of the Gospel

July 15, 2009

Most of the time and effort in every Research Methods class I have taken is spent learning how to “produce” honest numbers or learning how to “read” them. Watch a baseball game on tv, track an election, or pick up the latest “church-growth” book and it is easy to see why. Statistics are slippery things. It takes careful commitment and special skill to ask the questions in a way and interpret the results in a way that makes your research truly valuable. Start off with questions that bias the answers or twist the results to fit a prefabricated conclusion and any benefit that would have come from your study evaporates.

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck argue that this is exactly what has happened in the “fix-the-church” books that have flooded the market in the last two decades. Researchers (Barna is an example most of us know) have churned out impressive, scary looking numbers that seem to foretell the imminent demise of the church in American.  Whole approaches and methods have been created in response to their data. But DeYoung and Kluck argue convincingly that this whole enterprise is built on the shaky foundation of wrong (in the sense of unbiblical) questions. Here is their sketch:

For the sake of argument, let’s look at the glass as half empty. Most of our churches are not growing. So how should we respond? How should you respond? Questions like these ought to prompt more questions. And the question the “disgruntled with the church as we know it” books always seem to ask is the same: ‘What are we doing wrong?’ In other words, the fix-the-church books almost always assume that declining church attendance means the church has messed something up. Even though the new crop of church books decry the old church growth models, they still operate with this same basic assumption, namely, that churches should be growing and something is wrong with the church that isn’t (Why We Love the Church p. 33).

This is the assumption that DeYoung and Kluck argue has skewed the results and recommendations of these studies. They critique it like this:

This assumption, however, is alien to the New Testament. Didn’t Jesus tell us that the “gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:14)? Wasn’t the early church of Philadelphia commended by the Lord Jesus even though they were facing opposition and had “little power” (Rev. 3:7-13)? There is simply no biblical teaching to indicate that church size is a measure of success (p. 33)

This way of thinking about church is a corporate version of the way of thinking about personal evangelism (friendship evangelism) that I looked at in the “He Feared Not the Faces of Men” post below. It assumes people are neutral toward Christ, toward His Gospel and toward His Church and they will naturally come to Him and embrace His message and His people if we don’t get in the way. The Bible seems both to teach and model a different set of starting assumptions.

But the idea of “getting in the way” is worth thinking about – if not so much about getting in the way of the people coming in, then certainly about getting in the way of the gospel going out. So leaving aside the question of numbers – since we will give an account to our Master and Judge not for our numbers but for our faithfulness to His word – it is right and good for churches big and small to honestly assess if and how they are getting in the way of Gospel going out through their church.

Here is the list of questions DeYoung and Kluck provide to help us in this effort:

  • Are we believing the gospel – or are we “talking of an unknown and unfelt Christ?”
  • Are we relying on the power of the gospel – or are we trying to compensate for a perceived lack in the power of God’s Word?
  • Are we getting the gospel out – or do we assume the “going” of our Lord’s commission doesn’t apply to us in our situation?
  • Are we getting the gospel right – or are we “modernizing” our doctrine to the point where it is palatable but no longer true?
  • Are we adorning the gospel with good works – or do we need to hear James’ unwavering reminder that faith unadorned by works is dead?
  • Are we praying for the work of the gospel – or has our view of the sovereignty of God in salvation made us passive in the place of prayer?
  • Are we training up our children in the gospel – or have we forgotten that church growth is covenantal as well as evangelistic?

These questions are worthy of some sustained reflection, both personally and as a people. If church stagnation or decline causes us to ask questions (and it should), then let it be these questions! Wherever we are found to be in the way of the gospel, may we go to war with that obstruction so that He is free to work through us and we receive the joyful reward promised to His good and faithful servants.

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One Comment
  1. Mark permalink

    This idea is absolutely stunning! The most frequent question I get after talking to people about how much I enjoy my church is, “then why is it so small?” While I had worked through the propositions you have laid out in this post in some of my answers to that question, it has never been so clear now that you have said it the way you have. We have been so trained that numbers = success in our society that we no longer have a grid for how to apply Jesus’ teaching of the narrow way to the kingdom of heaven to our own situation.

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