by Earle D. Treptow
Found over on WELS.net:
Did it work? Did the title grab your attention and compel you to read?
If you’re feeling like you’ve been hooked by a title, allow this confession. I got hooked by that title once myself. It was the subject line in an e-mail. With a double click, the e-mail came up advertising a workshop that would “forever change the way you think about church.” In “just three hours,” it promised, “your ministry will be more effective than ever at reaching people with God’s love.”
This is the way advertisers operate. They wave something so useful and desirable before our eyes that we can’t help but reach out and grab hold. Who wouldn’t want an irresistible church? What Christian doesn’t want to have more people come through the doors of the church who actually want to come back the next week?
The devil is always eager to “help” us. The Liar points out what we need to do to make the church more attractive. He directs our attention to the latest, greatest program that almost guarantees growth. “If you practice these four principles,” he promises, “you will change the culture of your congregation, and you will have a steady stream of new people coming through your doors.” He highlights ways to soften some of the teachings that offend people, suggesting that the growth of the church rests at least in part on our ability to craft a message that appeals to the masses. Soon he has us thinking that the noble goal of reaching people validates almost any approach.
You can see through the lies, can’t you? First, the church’s future does not depend on us and what we do to engage the people around us. The One who never lies says that “the gates of Hades will not overcome” the church (Matthew 16:18). Though the devil may win some skirmishes along the way, the battle belongs to the Lord. The Lord will preserve his little flock even when it appears to us that the church has gone the way of the dinosaur.
A second lie is that the primary goal of the gathered people of God is the numerical growth of the visible church. The ascended Lord commissioned us, not as his salespeople charged with “getting people to say yes,” but as his witnesses. We simply speak the good news Jesus has given us to proclaim. The results of that preaching belong to the Lord. The Spirit creates faith when and where it pleases him. He may bring thousands to faith, as he did on Pentecost; he may also use the Word we proclaim to harden the hearts of those who reject it.
The apostle Paul teaches us, “Faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). He doesn’t say, “Faith comes from innovative programs,” or “Faith comes from outside-of-the-box thinking,” or “Faith comes from an upbeat worship style.” When we focus more on methodology than the message, a lie has begun to take root in our hearts. The Spirit is in the Word, not the methodology.
At the same time, while it is true that the Lord will gather his people only through his gospel in Word and sacrament, we need to bear in mind that the devil often twists that truth too. He argues that if we look for better ways to reach people, we are responsible for their conversion. The truth is that our ascended Lord has chosen to work through us to gather his people. He does the work of converting sinners; we simply carry out our task as his witnesses. We do it with joy and gratitude for the privilege.
Contributing editor Earle Treptow, president of the Nebraska District, is pastor at Zion, Denver, Colorado.