The Forgotten Verse of the “Church Growth Movement”

DEFININING SUCCESS IN MINISTRY/CHURCH WORK

How do you define “success” when it comes to church and ministry work? How we currently define “success” in the American church looks a lot like the type of “success” we’d typically find in many corporate business settings today. There is nothing inherently wrong with business since it can be done (as can most things) for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).  However, a case can be made that the “bottom line” of business success is not to be the “bottom line” of “church success.” In fact, a case can be made that taking the business model into the church is actually counterproductive, and detrimental to, the church’s spiritual health.

This thinking about “success” has infiltrated the church in the form of the 3 B’s: Buildings, Bodies, & Budgets.  If buildings are being built or renovated, and if bodies are coming into the church, and if the budget is being met or exceeded, then we are “succeeding.” This mindset is due, of course, to the “Church Growth Movement” influence (In an article I posted earlier, I gave a very brief description as to what the Church Growth Movement [CGM] is and some of its effects on the modern church).  Where are these “3 B’s” mentioned in scripture as a measurement for ministry success? Without stretching certain scriptures too far, it’s difficult to clearly see that the “3 B’s” are the great indicators of ministry success. Instead, we find in Scripture that faithfulness to Christ and His gospel is a primary measurement of success in God’s Kingdom. 

FAITHFULNESS IN PLANTING AND WATERING AS THE TRUE MEASUREMENT OF MINISTRY SUCCESS

One such passage that indicates this idea of faithfulness as success is 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.  This is the passage that I would say is the “forgotten verse” of the CGM. It is “forgotten” because I do not see how it can clearly square with the “3 B’s” of success mentioned earlier, which are the benchmarks for the CGM.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

The church at Corinth was, apparently, putting too much of a focus on the servants of God. Paul, in writing the letter, was attempting to squash that notion by saying, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants…” Paul is taking the ultimate credit off of himself, and off of Apollos, and is putting it back on the Lord, which is where it should be. Paul goes on in verse 6 and 7 to show, even further, that they aren’t “anything” but that it’s “only God who gives the growth.” In other words, all Paul did was to plant the seed of the crop, and all Apollos did was to water the seed of the crop, but they were unable to make the crop grow. They ultimately couldn’t take the credit for the outward, visible growth that others saw. Only God Himself can make a crop grow. These agricultural terms are being used to show a picture as to how God works in our spiritual lives and in the church, overall. God may bring someone along to plant the seed of His Word in our lives, and then He may bring others along to water that seed and prepare it for growth. In the end, however, it is only God that can actually save someone.

How does this verse relate to the CGM and the “3 B’s” of success above? I would simply ask a question: What is the role of God’s servant, according to these verses? Their role is to plant seeds and to water those seeds. The ministers of any church cannot make people come to church, and they certainly cannot (and should not!) make people accept Christ either. All the minister can do (and any other faithful member) is plant seeds and water those seeds and then leave the results up to God.  This is said a lot in churches, but I’m afraid it is rarely practiced and is a notion to which we give lip service only. I don’t think we “really” believe that we can “leave the results up to God,” otherwise, why all this pressure to “grow the church” then?  A minister can no more “grow the church” as can a man without arms “swing a bat.” We have forgotten that only God can grow the church. We, fundamentally, disbelieve 1 Corinthians 3 and have allowed the “3 B’s” to run our church instead of God’s Word.  Certainly, we should have an urgency about sharing the gospel with the lost, and certainly, we should be, as Jesus told us, praying to the Lord of the harvest to send forth workers since the “harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (see Matthew 9:35-38 for context)but if we really believed 1 Corinthians 3, then maybe we would not be as discouraged at the status of our churches as much as we are. We are to “labor” (v.9) in planting and watering, but only God Himself can produce the fruit of our labor by giving growth to the seed.

A TRUE AND ENCOURAGING STORY THAT ILLUSTRATES 1 CORINTHIANS 3

Have you ever heard of the story of Luke Short? (this story is found in Mark Dever’s book “The Gospel and Personal Evangelism,” pg. 81-83 as well as at this site). Luke Short lived in Dartmouth (England) and heard a sermon when he was 15 years old by the preacher John Flavel. Short did not accept Christ that day but was apparently listening to Flavel, unbeknownst to Flavel or anyone else. Many years later (85 years later to be exact!), Short was in New England (in America) and was out in his field farming when God brought to his remembrance the sermon that Flavel preached when he was 15 years old, and Short accepted Christ 85 years later at the ripe young age of 100! This story counteracts anything that the CGM would say is “success” and fully supports 1 Corinthians 3 as a case study to evaluate. There’s no way that Flavel, or any other person that day at Dartmouth, would have known that God was doing anything in Luke Short’s life after the preaching was finished. For all Flavel knew, the sermon was a “dud” regarding Luke Short. There were no outward signs of repentance or weeping over sins, etc. There were no immediate, outward results to the preaching that day. Flavel was faithful in preaching the Word, and God’s seed was planted into Luke Short’s heart. God, I’m quite certain, used many other people over the next 85 years to water the seed that was planted in Short’s heart, but God did not harvest that seed until long after the preacher, Flavel, was dead.

How can the CGM reconcile this story (and 1 Cor. 3) with its principles of “quick results” and “instant produce”? It could have looked like Flavel was a failure that day since Short (and maybe others!) had not accepted Christ. I’m uncertain of Flavel’s ministry there, but he could have gone weeks and months (or years!) without anyone actually converting to Christ and looked like a complete ministry waste. But, what if God was simply using Flavel to plant and water seeds?  What if Flavel was “successful” in God’s sight by preaching the Word, week in and week out, month after month, and year after year, planting and watering innumerable seeds within the hearts of the congregation? There was no way to know that God would bring forth a seed 85 years later in Luke Short’s life. In the same way, there’s no way to know what seeds God will bring forth in a ministry today that could appear to be “failing” by the “3 B’s” measurement but will reap a harvest 85 years later.  Let us discard the “3 B’s” as a measurement of ministry and church success and, instead, put our confidence in the Word of God that is being faithfully preached at our churches, knowing that seeds are being planted and watered.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the “Comments” section below! 

QUESTION

1. How have you measured “ministry/church success” in the past and how does 1 Corinthians 3 or the story of Luke Short affect that?

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