I probably sound a bit like a scratched record that skips and gets stuck in the middle of a song. But I keep running across passages in Scripture that challenge the way that I have experienced church in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
The woke church, socially acceptable church, seeker-sensitive church, and just about every other church growth model may have produced larger attendance figures, but I have not seen that they produced better disciples.
The most recent example of such a passage is in 2 Corinthians 2:15-17 where Paul writes:
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”2 Corinthians 2:15–17, ESV
Two things jump out at me from this passage.
The first is that if we are faithful to Jesus Christ and proclaim His gospel, not everyone will respond positively. Paul clearly says that the aroma of Christ will smell like death to some and life to others. Some will reject, and some will accept the message that we are called to proclaim.
From this, I infer that the drive to proclaim a message that all will accept is misguided and will do more harm than good. It is one thing to use care in presenting the Gospel in terms that newcomers can understand. It is another thing entirely to banish any speech that would cause people to be troubled.
Jesus didn’t have any issues with getting to the heart of the matter and forcing people to make a choice. Once when addressed as Good Teacher, Jesus asked the man, “why do you call me good?” When Nicodemus came to Jesus, Jesus was candid and basically told Nicodemus that he was missing the point entirely. Jesus showed little care about whether people were offended by the message.
But, Jesus did love with supernatural love, and that love was a draw even to those who struggled to believe what Jesus was saying. Perhaps we, as church leaders, should put more emphasis on loving those in our care and burn fewer calories over how well accepted we are. We should speak the truth in love, no matter what the outcome might be.
The second thing that jumps out at me from this passage is that some are in ministry for the wrong reasons. Paul clearly states that some are “peddlers of God’s word.” In other words, they are providing God’s word to the people, but doing so to make money; they have an impure motive for their ministry.
The word that Paul uses to speak of peddlers, is a curious one and it is found only here in the New Testament. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says this of this word:
“This word means “to engage in retail trade” and carries a nuance of trickery and avarice. In philosophy, it denotes the selling of teaching for money.”
My question to every pastor is, what is driving the desire to have a large church? Is it really because you are concerned about the spiritual well-being of the members?
My experience is that as churches see numerical growth in attendance and giving, the emphasis shifts from growing people deeper in their relationship with Jesus to growing the numbers and the budget. This shift occurs because the leadership gets distracted by the perceived need to overcome the increased costs associated with a bigger staff and a larger campus.
We are all in danger of believing better of ourselves than in warranted. A healthy amount of self distrust and having an elder board empowered to keep things in check are crucial to staying the course to hear “well done good and faithful servant.”
I don’t think that in the day of judgment the attendance figures, church budget or staff headcount will cause any impression on a judge who only cares about the quality of the disciples we produced. After all, that is the mission he gave us in what is commonly known as the Great Commission.
We should seek to be the aroma of Christ to a world that desperately needs Him but in many cases doesn’t yet know it.