The Secret to Church Growth

tj-bible-2On one occasion after Jesus finished teaching in the synagogue, a number of his disciples were offended at His teaching and said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” and many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him (John 6:59–66).

After her encounter with our Lord, you would have expected the same thing from the Canaanite woman. She came to Jesus so that He might heal her daughter. After ignoring her and initially denying her request, Jesus tells her she doesn’t deserve what she’s asking for. She’s a dog, He says, and it’s not right to take what belongs to the children and throw it to the dogs.

If anyone ever had a right to be offended and leave church, it was her. Who does Jesus think He is, talking to someone like that? It’s almost like He thought He was God or something. And that’s the problem: we don’t like it when Jesus reminds us that He’s God and we’re not. We don’t want a God who wrestles with us or calls us to repentance. We want a god who never challenges us, a god who approves of everything we think, say, and do.

What we’d really like, C.S. Lewis once said, would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are happy?’ We’re not really interested in a heavenly Father, but a heavenly grandfather—a senile benefactor who wants nothing more than to see young people enjoying themselves, whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”[i]

But that’s not how God is. Sometimes He tells you things you don’t want to hear. And the fact that His judgment differs from ours shouldn’t really surprise us, especially since the collective wisdom of humanity pales by comparison to the wisdom God has in His little finger. Now God could let you be and leave you to wallow in your sorry state, but He loves you far too much to do that. And He demonstrates this love for you by saying what needs to be said—painful though it may be—calling you to repentance and refining you like precious gold.

C.S. Lewis said the reason train we dogs is because they’re worth the effort. He said they’re so nearly lovable that it’s worth the effort to make them fully lovable. But not everything is. Nobody would ever house-train an earwig or give a bath to a centipede. You put effort into that which is valuable, which is precisely why God won’t leave you alone.[ii]

This is what Lewis called ‘the intolerable compliment.’ You are a Divine work of art, and God will continue to pore over you until His masterpiece has been perfected. There may be times when you wish God would relent, that He’d let you follow your natural impulses and not try and make you into something so unlike your natural self. But that would be for you to ask God to love you less.[iii] He says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent,” (Rev. 3:19).

Sometimes people have accused God of being a selfish, egomaniacal dictator who insists on having everything His way. But you can only think this if you’re an egomaniac yourself. If you think God needs you, think again. God needs nothing. And even though He needed nothing, Christ made Himself nothing and sacrificed His own welfare for yours. Far from being a narcissistic tyrant, the Incarnation, suffering, and death of our Lord reveal Him as a humble servant.

And He will always tell you what you need to hear, even when it’s unpleasant. And this will cause some to turn back from following Him, just like they always have. When we do this we aren’t hurting God any, we’re only hurting ourselves. We’re no more able to diminish God’s glory than a lunatic’s able to put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ all over his cell walls.[iv]

Light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness instead. Adam and Eve chose Satan’s word over God’s, and it’s been that way ever since. This is why so many people turn back from following Christ. Now you’d think those who reject Christ would leave the Church—and sometimes they do—but that isn’t always the case. The weeds grow together with the wheat. Instead of leaving, sometimes people throw Jesus out and re-make the church in their own image.

The way to do this is to be like Thomas Jefferson. He had no use for many of Scripture’s teachings, so he got out the scissors and created his own, miracle-free edition of the Bible. Now not many of us are arrogant enough to turn the words of the prophets into papier-mâché, but you can ignore what Scripture teaches easily enough, even if you never tear a single page out of the Bible.

There are times when Scripture says things we don’t like to hear. And when this happens, more often than not, people ignore God’s Word and keep on following their heart, doing whatever feels right to them.

Do not be deceived: any Church that throws Scripture out the window and starts deciding for itself what’s right and wrong is no longer a church, but a synagogue of Satan—even if it says LCMS on the sign outside. Christians more devout than us have fallen prey to this error and liberated themselves from the “tyranny” of the Bible. Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. The only way to abide in Christ is to be unrelenting when it comes to God’s Word, to repent when you fail, and to come back again and again for preaching and the Sacrament, week in and week out.

Granted, this isn’t pleasant or easy. Who wants to put up with a God who compares the most devout of His followers to unworthy dogs? The secret to church growth is simple: ditch the Bible. Talk about Jesus and make it sound nice and religious, but whatever you do, when Scripture says something you don’t like, ignore it.

But to do that is to embrace that which is harmful and to reject the One to Whom you’re accountable. Jesus says,

“The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the Last Day,” (John 12:48).

The Canaanite woman shows us how Christians respond when God’s Word says things we don’t like. Our Lord told her it wasn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to a dog like her. But she neither takes offense nor leaves. She embraces these harsh words because they’re the words of her Lord. And then she ends up making one of the most profound confessions of faith ever uttered by human lips.

She said, “That’s right, Lord. So don’t give me the bread. Just let me take my place under the table with the rest of the dogs so I can catch whatever crumbs fall on the floor.”

At this confession, the angels in heaven rejoiced. Christ praised the Canaanite women for her great faith. She heard the Word of the Lord, painful though it was, and spoke a resounding AMEN. She continued to trust in God’s goodness even when He looked like her enemy. All she needed were a few of the Lord’s crumbs, because she knew the Lord’s crumbs are better than the best the world has to offer.

To agree with God’s Word is the fruit of faith. To have faith is to agree with Scripture even when it says things you don’t want to hear. To have faith is to know that the will of God is always best, even when it isn’t what you want for yourself. To have faith is to pray, “Thy will be done.” After all, the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 15:21–28
Reminiscere, 2016: The Secret to Church Growth
Zion, Summit
Immanuel, Hodgkins
Around the Word Bible Studies

[i] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 31.

[ii] 36.

[iii] Ibid., 34, 36.

[iv] Ibid., 46.

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