In search of the church growth x-factor
Here’s a guest post from my very clever Vivian …. this is her blog submission to her recent MA subject on 1 Corinthians:
With the general consensus in our society that churches are lame and limp, sick and dying, we can’t stop but feel that we as Christians are not able to engage with the unchurched, let alone reach out to them. To save us from inevitable demise, many churches and their leaders are urgently pushing for church growth and desperately searching for that ‘x-factor’ that can ‘wow’ the unchurched into church. Scores of books are published and conferences are held by ‘successful’ church leaders to navigate us through this endeavour. They provide pragmatic methods, formulas for revival and insights from sociological studies to improve our churches and entice our consumerist culture into a Christianity that they simply can’t resist.
But much of these don’t sit right with conservative evangelicals, and yet often we can’t quite pinpoint the ‘problem’. We do want to see our churches grow, to make every effort, and to use our gifts and resources to the best of our abilities. But where do we draw the line? How professional is too professional? How much church marketing should we do? When does the church service become a performance for entertainment rather than worship?
1 Corinthians 1-2 contains some indispensable principles that help clarify our concerns and direct us with the way forward. Like our culture, the Corinthian society looked for the ‘x-factor’. The Christians, enamoured by the ‘bling’, the powerful and the wise, adopted the same value system of those around them.
But Paul reminds them that the message of the cross necessarily excludes human wisdom. He was most concerned ‘to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power’ (1:17). Words of human wisdom (that which come out of our own clever minds) and the message of Paul’s preaching (that which is God given) are mutually exclusive. As the saying goes, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too!’ If we rely on human wisdom, then we’re not trusting in God’s power to save. If we want the full power of the cross, then we can’t follow our own bright ideas.
So where do we draw the line? Paul seems to be suggesting that there is no line at all. It’s all or nothing. It’s only God’s way, his power and his wisdom.
In fact, it’s the message of the cross that draws the line. Paul follows on in 1:18, ‘[f]or the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ This message divides.
In our context where the cross has become a mere adorning symbol, it’s easy to miss its significance. In Paul’s day, however, crucifixion was reserved for the odious, the lowest of low; the cross was understood by all to represent utter shame and alienation. So when Paul preached ‘Christ crucified’ (1:23), it must logically be rejected as ridiculous nonsense! An executed deliverer is as oxymoronic as a bankrupt billionaire! Expectedly, it’s ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (v23).
Remarkably, however, not everyone rejects this message. In verse 24, Paul continues ‘but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ To embrace ‘Christ crucified’ can only be a miraculous act of God (1:30)! By our own wisdom, we would never devise such a way of salvation nor would we believe in such a message. But it is through this message that God has chosen to save those who respond in trust; and judge those who reject its wisdom and power (1:18-20; 1:27-28).
Where do we draw the line? Often the answer revolves around whether something ‘worked’ or not. We evaluate by people’s response, their attendance and subjective feelings. But what we learn here is that we’re not the ones to draw the line or make judgment calls, particularly according to human standards. Our role, instead, is to faithfully communicate the message and let it divide. Just as Christ was rejected and crucified, this message will bring rejection, not ‘success’ and ‘acceptance’ by human value systems. If we smooth it out to avoid offense, if we adjust it to please, if we detract it from centre stage, then we’re dangerously close to crossing over the other side of the line.
For Paul, the message of the cross doesn’t only affect the words we speak. It necessarily pervades all aspects of Christian life and ministry. Paul’s manner, mode and method of delivery all match its content – he did ‘not come with eloquence or superior wisdom’ as he proclaimed ‘the testimony about God’ (2:1), he came ‘in weakness and fear, and with much trembling’ (2:3), ‘not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power’ (2:4). So the cross totally pervades Paul’s ministry; and in the later chapters we see that it also permeates his whole way of life (e.g. 4:8-21; cf. Mark 8:34).
What about us? Would we be resolved as Paul was – ‘to know nothing […] except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (2:2)? To have our vision so fixed on him as to view everything through the lens of the cross? If we are, our starting place must surely be on our knees before our God: to rely on the one who saves and transforms to work all things in all people (12:6) and to trust the one who knows our heart to remove all trust in ourselves, our human wisdom and power.
To know only Christ and him crucified doesn’t mean that we become anti-intellectual, anti-megachurch, or anti-contextualisation; nor does it excuse laziness in using our gifts and doing our best. It doesn’t mean ‘let’s do it ugly and that’s godly…’; but it does mean that we ditch the search for the ‘x-factor’ and let the Christ-factor be the determinant of all that we do and say.