GROW! - Acts 2:42-47
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)
I know what I’m about to say is going to sound like heresy. I know it is countercultural. I know it is going to unsettle some of you. It may even stifle some energy. I know that it, sadly, will make me sound radical. And yet, it’s freeing. It’s grounded in the witness of scripture. It’s true . . . if you’re asking me. So are you ready?
It is not my responsibility to grow our church.
“. . . the Lord added to their number . . .”
It is not any pastor’s responsibility to grow any church. The idea that a pastor enlarges a congregation is one of the greatest lies of our age. And yet, it’s apparently what sells Christian magazines and books. I cannot seem to get away from some cover story that promises to grow my ministry if I’ll just learn from So-and-so’s how-to handbook.
|What makes it grow? Give it water, sunlight, great soil, and you|
still can't guarantee it'll grow. Be a faithful gardener, but
recognize growth is out of your control.
Oh, and it isn’t your responsibility either.
What is yours and my responsibility? Faithfulness. Take Acts 2:42-47 for an example. The followers of Jesus are doing things that they’re called to do: learning, teaching, sharing, praising, praying, fellowshipping, serving, sacrificing, proclaiming, and earning goodwill. These are all things Jesus had called them to do. These are all things Jesus wove into his own life. They were just being faithful followers of Jesus. And God did his thing.
My biggest caution is, however, that faithfulness does not necessarily lead to numerical growth. Think of the Garden of Gethsemane, the great trial and test of Christ’s faithfulness. He overcame with a faithfulness unmatched and his followers deserted him. Jesus’s faithfulness, for a time, grew his church to a membership of one!
I’ve been reading Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity. I’m just finishing up the chapters on the Middle Ages and one of the storylines that strikes me is that of the popes. The church was just plain and simple messed up during these centuries. A lot of folks knew that it was messed up. That’s why every couple of generations fervor would develop amongst the Cardinals and they would elect a pope from humble and sincere origins. These popes were remarkably committed to following Jesus as they understood him. They would set out to reform the church and without exception would fail miserably. Most of the time they were imprisoned or died under dubious circumstances. On the other hand, the megalomaniac popes thrived behind the force of their own ego and their ability to impress, woo, and manipulate kings.
The popes of the Middle Ages are just one example of a bazillion. Many of the shepherds of Jesus’s flock who served most faithfully were rejected by their age; rejected by the Church of their age. On the other hand, many faithful leaders have led movements for whom exponential growth was the norm. Faithfulness, therefore, does not guarantee growth or preclude it.
Growth of all kinds, is God’s gig. When someone falls on his sweet grace the miracle is not to our credit, no matter what kind of role we played. That kind of moment is the work of a savior, not the Savior’s servant. It’s an encounter between the Lord and a penitent. Our job is to love people before, through, and after these moments; to be faithful to Jesus’s desire for us to be an agape community.
When a visitor comes to church there may be an inclination to think, “Okay, I've got to be nice to this person so that they’ll come back.” That’s a heavy load to bear for anyone . . . to pin someone else’s decisions on your actions. Allow me to suggest that we toss that inclination. Let’s strive to find a replacement. Perhaps, “How can we hear this person? See them? Know them? Serve them?” Such faithfulness might get us killed, labeled heretics, or pave the way for growth. Anyway, let’s do what we've been called to do and leave growth up to God.
 Consider another passage with a very similar sentiment: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:5-7, NRSV).
 There’s no doubt that “as they understood him” is a key phrase here. Even the most sincere of popes still held some doctrines we would find troubling today. However, those doctrines were almost unquestioned during the time period. It’s pretty unfair if we judge the Christians of the past based upon modern understandings of God that didn’t exist during their time. That’d be like blaming Abraham Lincoln for prolonging the Civil War because he didn’t use tanks.