Not long ago, a group of us met to plan this year’s Ohio Mission Region Convocation. The theme will be Baptized AND Living It! and I hope that a good crowd from Living Water will be able to attend. In the course of our planning, we looked at Acts 2:40-41, where we’re told that, on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' disciples, the apostle Peter, “...pleaded with [his fellow Jews], ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
I was struck again by that last verse. I couldn’t help asking a question: Don’t you ever wonder why we’re not taking in 3000 new believers as members of Christ’s Church every Sunday today? At least on Pentecost Sunday?
What exactly is wrong with the Church today, at least in the Western world, that we’re not seeing those kinds of conversions to Christ as a result of the Church’s proclamation of Christ?
Some Christians will say, “All of my friends are Christians. I don’t have anyone I can reach.” But all this explanation tells us is that we aren’t very good about reaching out to people who are different from us. While we cocoon ourselves from non-Christian people, the numbers of our neighbors, classmates, and co-workers who have no religion increases.
Other Christians will say that ever since the courts took prayer out of school, it’s harder to share our faith; we live in a hostile environment. Listen: You couldn’t have found a more hostile environment for the Church than what existed in the first-century Roman Empire in which Jesus died, rose, and established His Church. When was the last time an American Christian was thrown into a den of hungry lions?
When Jesus gave the Great Commission, he didn’t give it to the public schools, the United States government, the entertainment industry, or the people who make cups for Starbucks, all of whom are among the people and institutions about which American Christians like to bellyache. Jesus gave the Great Commission to us, His Church, to every baptized Christian, to you and me.
Our explanations for the lack of growth and vitality in our Western churches sound like excuses or rationalizations rather than explanations. So, why don’t our churches grow the way the first-century Church grew early on?
The question isn’t a new one. Even the second-generation early Church faced it. In Hebrews 5, the preacher tells a congregation of Jewish Christians, “...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14) Evil happens in the world, in the Church, and in individual Christians' lives when we aren’t growing as Christian disciples.
We can’t be the instruments of God’s love and grace that Christ wants us to be (and which, I’m convinced that, deep in the heart of every Christian, we want to be) if we insist on remaining babies in our faith. Babies are only cute when they’re babies; not when they hit ages 20, 30, 40, 50, 80, 90.
It’s Jesus’ expectation that the baptized children of God will grow up in their faith. In Matthew 17, Jesus upbraids His disciples for not bringing healing to a boy whose life was being decimated by demons from hell: “You unbelieving and perverse generation...how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.’ Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’ He replied, 'Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matthew 17:17-20)
Why then is the Church of our day not growing like it did in the first-century? Even allowing for the fact that there are eras in history and in different places when people are more open to the good news of new life through faith in Jesus Christ, part of the answer may be is our lack of faith!
In places like China, Ethiopia, in Germany where Lutherans independent of the state church are seeing hundreds of refugees from Iran come to faith in Christ, and in other places, the Church is growing. Today, in fact, in terms of conversions, Christianity remains the fastest-growing religion in the world. But here, where we’re distracted and comfortable, not so much. We’ve allowed the relative ease of our lives to rob us of our faith in Jesus.
Folks: We cannot and will not bear as much fruit for God’s kingdom--we won’t see people come to faith in Christ through our churches or through us as disciples of Jesus Christ--if we’re not growing.
And growing isn’t something we can manufacture. If you leave here today and resolve, “I’m going to grow as a disciple,” you will not grow as a disciple. You can't resolve to be a growing disciple.
It’s God’s Holy Spirit, employing the Word of God, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and the fellowship of the Church built around the good news--the gospel--of Jesus Christ that will bring us personal growth and bring spiritual and numerical growth to this wonderful congregation.
Here’s how disciples and congregations grow: by getting close to Jesus every day.
Growth in our discipleship is a byproduct of spending time with Christ and with His people, the Church.
That growth allows us to bear fruit for God’s kingdom:
- to persevere in praying for others in Jesus’ name when all seems lost;
- to seek from God and receive opportunities from Him to share the good news with others;
- to live in God’s peace even in the most challenging of circumstances;
- to emit the magnetic joy of Christ from every pore of our bodies!
This isn’t magical. It’s as simple as this: When we take root in Christ, He fills us with Himself and we bear the good fruit that only comes from Him.
Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
The pathway of discipleship--knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and showing Christ--isn’t an end in itself.
Knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and showing Christ: These are gifts that come to God’s people as we dare to come close to Jesus. They're what God uses not only to increase our joy in being eternally saved by grace through faith in Jesus, but also to produce the fruits of Christ living in us: “...love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Through people rooted in Christ, God the Holy Spirit grows His Church. But more than that, these gifts evidence that God is at work making us into the people He always intended His children to be: Human beings who reflect the image of God in which they were first made, transformed into the image of Jesus Christ Himself. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]