Church growth and the fear of God...
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. (1 Corinthians 14:24, 25)
Driving west out of Nashville, recently, I saw a billboard that read, "A non-religious path to God." At first, it's hard to see any other text so we're left in doubt what path they're selling. Maybe a new diet or exercise regimen?
Then you notice a church name down in the bottom corner. Apparently, the billboard's an ad for a church that holds to some form of Christian faith. But what form? I'm guessing it's not the Christian faith of the church described in the book of Acts.
The Acts church wouldn't have needed a billboard to advertise herself. She had supernatural advertising consisting of miracles of faith and judgment that were known far and wide, attracting men by the thousands. Some were healed and could see and walk again. Others were killed. Ananias and Saphira played their part when the Holy Spirit struck them dead for coming into the church with their lies, thinking they could pull one over on the Holy Spirit. Then, after their bodies were carried out of the church, droves of people poured in. That's one sort of publicity.
It seems unlikely the Nashville church advertising "a non-religious path to God" is a place people are attracted to because the Holy Spirit has demonstrated His authority there. Would anyone think "non-religious" gets at the nub of the issue describing a church where people who lie in public worship are struck dead?
Holiness doesn't seem to figure too prominently in our church growth methods. Try to imagine a Willow Creek seminar on lessons for multiplication from Ananias and Saphira and you'll get the point...
And yet, God tells us the deaths of Ananias and Saphira led to the growth of the New Testament church:
And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things. At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number... (Acts 5:11-14)
The church growth movement has focused extravagantly on "signs and wonders." Why no parallel focus on the fear of God? Not to be impious but it's humorous to imagine Trinity Broadcasting Network running a weekly revival broadcast with death and persecution as it's centerpiece. And we can't dismiss this simply by pointing out that no one's falling dead during our congregational meetings.
The point isn't Ananias and Saphira's deaths, but God's holiness. When God shows Himself holy and gives us an awesome preview of the coming judgment, revival breaks out as men repent and believe.
The church growth tool consistently demonstrated in the book of Acts is the power of God seen among and through His covenant community. And such power draws men to God.
This is nothing new--men and women gravitate to power. We want to be around Michael Jordan and President Bush because of their power. Younger women marry rich old men because of their power. Is God's power any less of a draw? So then it's no surprise when souls turn to God in repentance and fill His church after He shows His power through the preaching or fellowship of a particular congregation.
Just now, reading again the account of Ananias and Saphira's tragic deaths, it's apparent the Holy Spirit intended to use their judgment to strike fear into the hearts of the Jerusalem church, but also the hearts of outsiders watching them. And as I read, I remembered a discipline case in our own church a few years ago and I became convinced we had failed to handle it biblically.
There was an older man, sweet as punch, who helped us take the offering each week. Most of the ushers were deacons, but he wasn't. Several years earlier, one of our elders had told me he thought he had seen this man stealing from the offering plate the previous Sunday, but I had let out a hearty laugh and assured the elder he had been seeing things.
Then a couple years later a deacon happened to be watching this older gentleman in the back of the church as he carried the offering plate over to the place where all the offerings were being consolidated in the church entryway, and he noticed him taking something out of the plate and putting it into his pocket.
He went to another deacon and, together, they went to the older gentleman and asked him to empty his pocket. Sure enough, it had some of the offering in it.
After Lord's Day worship, we talked with this man and he admitted to his theft that morning, although he claimed he wasn't stealing, but only embezzling; he said he'd needed a short term loan but was fully intending to return the money to the offering the following week.
Checking further, though, we found out that he had been stealing from the church offering plates for many years--likely decades. Not so much at any one time, but thousands and thousands of dollars over the years.
We were sickened to think of what we had to do. The elders met with the deacons who had caught him and we talked at length, trying to figure out what ought to be done. We discussed reporting the theft to the police, but we became convinced this would be needlessly aggressive since the amount of money involved was relatively small. Then too, the man's wife and daughter were beloved members of the church and some of the best Sunday school teachers we'd ever had. His wife also was quite sick and unlikely to live much longer, and we didn't want to have the final year or two of her life be consumed with a public shame.
Yet we also believed it was likely a number of people, young and old, had seen this older gentlemen stealing from the offering plate through the years, and that since his was a public sin, it had to be dealt with publicly. So we met with the man, his wife, and their daughter and explained to each of them individually that he would have to confess his sin publicly, during a worship service, asking the congregation to forgive him for his theft.
We did it during an evening worship service, when only two-thirds of our congregation was present, normally, and it was a wonderful time of tears, forgiveness, and prayer. Following his confession, the entire congregation came forward spontaneously and hugged him as they expressed their forgiveness and love. What a sweet time it was.
So far, it sounds redemptive, doesn't it? So why did I just become convinced we failed in our work?
Because the one theme that was not struck--in fact, I'd say the theme we scrupulously avoided striking--was the fear of God that should have been central to our whole proceeding.
Read the account of Ananias and Saphira and the key statement made about their sin is given by the Apostle Peter, who said to Ananias just prior to his being struck dead: "You have not lied to men but to God." And the next statement of Scripture is this:
And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. (Acts 5:5)
Like Ananias, our dear older gentleman had not stolen from men, but from God. But we avoided saying this during his public discipline, instead approaching the matter as if it all had to do with those of us within the fellowship of our church, and that it was within our power to forgive and forget. Now looking back, I'm convinced we failed by not emphasizing what a fearful thing had been done by this man as, over many, many years, he had stolen from God.
Maybe I'm quibbling over something that's of relatively minor importance, but I think not. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but it's my guess that we studiously avoided striking the theme of the fear of God in our proceedings because it's such an uncomfortable truth and we try to keep it at a distance.
What if the Apostles had acted similarly, though? Would the church have grown so explosively? Would it have grown at all? We try to keep away from things that frighten us, but it may well be that the reason the church today is so weak and innocuous--to men, that is, not to God--is that her pastors and elders are busy protecting her members from God's wrath. And also, from the fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom.