Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

The Growing Church: Part 3

Part 3 of series: The Growing Church: A Bible Study in Ephesians 4
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Note: Of course I’m aware of the recent actions of the General Assembly, and am deeply concerned about them. I’ll have things to say about them in a few days. But I want to continue this series on The Growing Church. Even though the PCUSA is now in an unprecedented time of crisis, the mission of the church of Jesus Christ has not changed. In fact, the mission of individual PCUSA churches has not changed in light of what the General Assembly has done, though their actions have made it more difficult for churches to faithfully execute their mission. If you are looking for a wise response to the PCUSA crisis, I’d refer you to a statement by Presbyterians for Renewal: “Reshaping the PC(USA): PFR Looks Beyond the 218th General Assembly.” More later . . . .

This is the third part of my address to the Presbyterians for Renewal breakfast at the General Assembly of the PCUSA. The first part included a preface and an overview of Ephesians 1-3, which revealed God’s plan for the cosmos and the role of the church in this plan. The second part examined the call to seek unity, the role of pastors as teachers, and the calling of all Christians to be ministers of Christ. Now, on to Part 3 . . . .
Building Up the Body of Christ
According to Ephesians 4, pastors and other church leaders equip God’s people “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:12). In fact, we’re to grow up both in maturity and in size. When the church is functioning in a healthy way, it will become more and more like Christ, and it will become bigger and bigger.
While there’s little debate these days about the church needing to mature, I realize that such a blunt statement of numerical church growth is bound to raise a few hackles. This is especially true in a denomination that saw a 2.6% decline in membership last year alone, and in which most of our churches are losing members. For years I’ve heard all the rhetoric about quality over quantity, and the criticisms of church growth strategies. But one cannot read Ephesians with an open mind and not conclude that the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be growing in size as well as strength. Yes, yes, there are sometimes good reasons why churches don’t grow for a season. Pruning, after all, is a necessary part of healthy growth. But if our denomination and our churches don’t grow year after year after year, and if, in fact, they continue to shrink year after year after year, when are we going to be honest enough with ourselves and with our Lord to admit that something must be terribly wrong?
Minimally, we must not be doing a very good job as a church when it comes to equipping people to do the ministry of Christ. Church growth, from the perspective of Ephesians 4, isn’t a matter of clever programming or technological innovation. It doesn’t require an ad budget or a snappy new image. Rather, it’s the result of God’s people being trained for and doing their ministry, which involves building up the body of Christ.
Evidence of Maturity
“But,” we might respond when confronted by the reality of our numerical decline, “at least we’re growing in maturity.” I expect this is true in the case of many churches. But how can we know if this is more than just wishful thinking? Ephesians 4 gives us some guidance here. Though our English translations usually put a period at the end of verse 13, in fact the Greek original continues the thought into verse 14. A more accurate translation would say that the church is to grow up in size and maturity, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4:14; italics my translation of hina meketi omen). You can measure the maturity of the church, according to Ephesians 4, by the church’s response to the spirit of the age as it blows through the halls of academia, and stirs up the waves of the media, and inflates the sails of pop culture.
A grown up church interacts responsibly with the world in which it lives, yet without buying into that world’s latest fads and fancies. It responds to the community in which it has been sent by God, but without merely echoing that community’s values. A mature church takes seriously the cultural trends of its milieu, but always weighs these trends in the scales of God’s truth. Such a church is relevant, but not pandering as it responds to its neighbors.
lumahai-wavesOn the contrary, a church of spiritual infants rides the wave of the moment, celebrating its apparent relevance while rushing toward the rocks of its destruction. It abandons God’s timeless truth in favor of timeliness. It chases after whatever is hot, whatever is fashionable, whatever promises not to offend. It models itself after social institutions, arguing that the church should imitate the ways of business, or government, or the media. The immature church is rudderless, moving all over the place, yet never getting anywhere. (Photo: the treacherous and sometimes deadly waves of Lumahai Beach on the island of Kauai.)
My friends, the winds of doctrine are blowing at gale force these days, and we can easily be blown far off course as a church. Did you see the San Jose Mercury News on Monday morning? There, on the front page, was an article entitled “Survey: Americans see salvation in many religions.” This story reported on the results of a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. One of survey’s findings was that 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” This is no surprise, really, in a cultural in which relativism rules the day. So how did members of the PCUSA answer this question, given our longstanding conviction as a denomination that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, who is “the only Savior and Lord” (G-3.0300)? Did 70% of our members abandon the biblical doctrine of salvation through Christ alone in favor of the culturally-acceptable “many religions can lead to eternal life” view? No, not 70%, but 80% (Pew Report, p. 134). Talk about being blown about by winds of doctrine! We Presbyterians are windsurfing these days, I think. Maybe our denomination isn’t growing because the vast majority of our members believe that their non-Christian friends and neighbors are in fine shape without Jesus Christ. I’m afraid that when it comes to biblical standards for maturity, we Presbyterians have a long way to grow.
To be continued . . . .

  • Thomas Buck

    Dear Rev. Roberts:
    Woo-hoo! Go Rev.!
    The term “rudderless” is especially appropriate to many in the church.
    I’m wondering about the term “many religions” as used in the Pew report. Did a substantial portion of people answering this question in the survey understand “many religions” to include the various denominations inside the Christian church as separate “religions.”
    Thanks for the series!

  • Mark Roberts

    Tom: If you read the Pew Report, you’ll find some ambiguity. It’s hard to tell what people thought in detail.

  • Thomas Buck

    Thank you.
    I’ve started looking at it, and yes, there are some ambiguities.
    Just the same, there’s a lot of useful information there. I was surprised to learn the tiny percentage of the population that believes in Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

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