Have you ever had the pleasure of watching a child learn to ride their bike? My little girl has become an expert – or so she thinks. She spent one afternoon this week zooming in front of the house. Like every other child, she did not start out as a bicycling master. There were scrapes and proper boo-boos. There were skinned knees and all sorts of crashes. But her persistence paid off. She’ll tell you she’s an expert.
Is that how churches work? Is a church merely a vessel of persistence amongst the people? Do they simply refuse to give up, enduring scrapes and boo-boos to succeed? Well, yes and no. There is a sense where the church is called to be a sturdy, and dare I say, rugged people. However, any church which succeeds in its mission to proclaim the good news of Christ, the forgiveness of sins in His Name, the call for a radical departure from sin – the whole lot of it does not ultimately depend on them.
Does that mean then that our participation in church is meaningless? No. We have a role to play in all of this. Pastors are called by God to shepherd. Christians are called by God to commit themselves to public worship, to “one-another” ministry, to partake of the sacraments and to pray. We are called to reflect the God whom we worship to the world around us. But the church’s success does not depend on you. People may be God’s means of building His church, but it ultimately (or finally) God’s hand which brings such things to pass.
This is very good news for us today (especially pastors). We are not able to build Christ’s church. We can’t. We can share the message of the Gospel with others. We can show the love of Christ to others by listening to them, and spending time with them. We can invite countless people to church. But the church of Christ does not grow from our efforts. Many Christians have labored tirelessly and seen very little fruit.
How does it grow then? Only by means of the Holy Spirit. One famous Bible text to show us this idea comes from the prophet Zechariah. God delivered this word to the Jews who were seeking to build the Temple again after it was demolished by the Babylonians. There was a lot of pressure on the people to rely on their work and abilities. But what does God say in Zechariah 4:6? “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the LORD of hosts.” (ESV) I would encourage you to reread that verse.
God does not sit idly by waiting for His people to adopt some programmatic formula. He isn’t sitting by hoping that we would just come up with a new program that we might be cool enough, or relevant enough to win people. God’s church is built by God. End of the story. It’s not by means of our statistical data, nor by our winsome personalities. It’s not about our building, or really anything to do with us. The second we think that the growth of Christ’s church is dependent upon us, we’ve mistaken Biblical Christianity for something entirely sinister.
What is it dependent on then? Simply this: the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit together is worshipped and glorified.
Christ so acts in the world today by His Spirit, that His church, grows solely at his behest. For example, we think of Luke 5 and the call of the first disciples. Jesus meets a fishing crew who has just worked all night in futility and tells them, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4 ESV) Luke records Peter’s response, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5 ESV)
What happens next is clearly the sole product of God. “And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.” (Luke 5:6-7 ESV) They went from nothing, to sinking in fish, all because of the Word of Christ Jesus.
It is a concerning time for many congregations. The whole world is a mixture of chaos and uncertainty. But the unshakeable foundation of the church and for every believer today is that our victory is rooted in Christ. The church shall not fail, for Christ shall not fail. As our Confession of Faith states, “this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of men – as though it were snuffed out.” (Belgic Confession, Article 27) Christ loves His bride, and is a faithful husband who will never abandon her. Rest in this good news my friends.
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