Hang on; this isn’t going to be a typical December Christmas article. But these aren’t typical times.
Here’s a list of things I’ve tried in the ministry:
- Visiting people with a partner (two-by-two visitation)
- Visiting the new moves in a city
- Memorized Gospel presentations (modelled on sales pitches)
- Meeting with people one-on-one
- Meeting with couples in their homes
- Teaching small groups or classes
- Daily 15-minute radio broadcasts
- Morning devotional talks on a local television station
- Door-to-door visiting, distributing Gospels of John
- Door-to-door visiting, distributing flyers for a revival meeting
- Door-to-door visiting, distributing dollar bills (just kidding)
- Posting flyers in stores about special meetings
- Ads in the newspaper featuring the devil (“Don’t come to this church!”) or sensational headlines (“Come Hear a Message from Mars!” based on Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill in Acts 17)
- Sunday School giveaways and contests
- Special Sundays with guest preachers
- Special Sundays with guest musicians
- Revival meetings in the church
- Revival meetings in a barn
- Camp meetings
- Organized weekly visitation nights
- Building programs
- Church fairs (I was in the dunking booth.)
- Door-to-door visiting distributing information packets with popcorn (“Why not pop in for a visit?”)
- Door-to-door visiting distributing information packets with light bulbs (“Here’s an idea: Visit our church!”)
- Visiting the homebound
- Visiting hospitals
- Visiting nursing homes
- Visiting jails and prisons
- Church planting (Two times. I’m not a church planter. Fool me twice, shame on me.)
- Spiritual gift inventories
- Evangelism training classes
- New member classes
- Vacation Bible Schools
- Block parties
- Expository preaching
- Topical preaching
- Sometimes really bad preaching
- Preaching from entire chapters of the Bible
- Preaching from a single verse of the Bible
- Telling lots of jokes
- Not telling any jokes
- Using lots of illustrations
- Not using any illustrations
- Using a cattle prod (kidding again)
- Contemporary praise and worship music
- Music with a full band, including electric guitars and drums (and didn’t lose my job)
- Music with piano and organ
- Music with just piano
- Music with just guitar
- Music with piano and guitar
- Using chalk boards and white boards to teach
- Using overhead projectors to teach
- to teach (I’m still using PowerPoint to teach.)
- Using PowerPoint in my sermons. (Still do, occasionally.)
- Using videos in services
- Special seminars
- Leadership retreats
- Discussion groups
- Brainstorming groups
- Mission statements/vision statements/purpose statements
- Diagrams for “how we do church”
- Slogans for “how we do church”
- Statistical analysis of church attendance
- Demographic studies of areas surrounding the church
- Pastors’ conferences
- Leadership conferences (often using the same books as the business world)
- The latest book/workbook/seminar/set of tapes/set of CDs/set of DVDs/thumb drives/digital downloads about the latest church growth model (often the same as the previous bullet point, just 18-24 months later)
- Dressing formally so people take me seriously
- Dressing in blue jeans so people can “relate” to me
- Being young and cool (I thought)
- Being old and…I don’t know, fill in the blank.
My point in sharing the above laundry list is to try to make you understand why I often feel so jaded and disappointed when I go to a seminar or a conference, or when somebody approaches me with an idea. When I’m asked, “Hey, have you ever tried this?”, my answer, at least internally, is most often “Yes. At least two or three times.” It’s kind of like spending an hour looking for something you’ve lost. Then someone comes in and asks, “Did you look here? Did you look there?” And they list all the places you’ve just spent an hour searching.
Please understand: I don’t want to be a wet blanket, or rain on anybody’s parade. And maybe whatever the idea is will work better for you than it did for me. Maybe you’ll do it better than I did. Maybe for you it’ll be the “secret ingredient,” the “magic bullet.” I hope so.
But probably not.
Churches all over America are struggling, and declining, and closing. The ones that aren’t struggling most often are growing because people are transferring from smaller, struggling churches to one with a bigger building, better programs, and cooler music. But that doesn’t change the fact that overall church attendance is declining, and more and more people identify themselves in the category of “None” when it comes to religion.
At this point in my life and ministry I find myself yearning to see a real work of God. I want to see God at work in people’s lives. I want to see God at work in churches. I want to see God at work in our church.
I was at a seminar recently and heard the leader explaining how, when you try to talk to others about Jesus, you have to be willing to accept a lot of rejections and “nos.” I’ve heard this kind of thing before in other training sessions for evangelism. I’ve also heard it in training sessions for selling cookware and household products. Can you tell me what there is in such an approach that would cause any atheist or skeptic to look at it and say, “Oh, yes, God is working there!” There isn’t anything. Instead they’d say, “You’re just using a secular sales technique and saying it’s God.”
When I made my first attempt to start a church back in the early 1980s, a friend of our family who was a businessman told me, “Dave, your approach to religion is like someone selling size 9 shoes. Not everybody wears size 9 shoes. But some people do. You’ve just got to go out and find them.” He was trying to encourage me, and I tried to be encouraged by his comments. But even back then, in the back of my mind, I wondered how that was any different from a secular sales approach. What is there in an approach like that that would cause unbelievers to say, “Oh, God is at work there!” They’d just conclude we were using a secular technique from the business world. And they’d be right.
Listen to these words from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth in the 1st century:
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25
Don’t get distracted by that word “prophesy.” It could mean a supernatural message directly from God. But it also meant proclaiming the truth that God had already revealed. The literal meaning is “to tell forth” or “to tell out.” In that sense, it is synonymous with “preaching.”
The point is that when the church met together and God’s truth was proclaimed, even unbelievers had a sense of the Presence of God. The truth of God would pierce even to the secret heart, and the unbeliever would be moved to acknowledge “God is in you of a truth.” (King James Version)
I was so moved by what Pastor Nasser Kajou reported happening in Sudan: all of the Christians facing threats and being stoned by Muslims, and being arrested and imprisoned by the government, yet remaining faithful. And all of the Sudanese people who are turning away from Islam and native religions and putting their faith in Jesus. Baptizing over forty people on one day, including a 79-year-old woman. And all of these things happening in the most primitive places, with the most meager resources. These things are amazing. These things are incredible. These things are God at work. It made me weep to know that God was at work somewhere in the world.
But don’t you want to see God work here? Oh, I do. So very much.
But what I don’t want to do is find another way to gin up some excitement, find another trend to follow or method to try. I’m 65 years old. More and more I feel I don’t have time to waste. I don’t want to go to all the effort of putting lipstick on a pig and then trying to convince everybody how beautiful it is. I don’t want to go to all the effort of doing things and pretending that God is at work when He isn’t. If it isn’t from God, I don’t want it. If it isn’t from God, it’s a waste of time. The bottom line is, I would rather fail doing what God told us to do than to “succeed” doing anything else. Life is just too short to waste on anything else.
There are a handful of very simple things in the Bible that God told us to do. Things like simply reading and teaching the Scriptures and proclaiming the Gospel (1 Timothy 4:6, 11, 13; 2 Timothy 3:16, 4:1-2; Titus 2:1, 15). Things like learning what the apostles taught about Jesus (i.e., the New Testament), continuing in fellowship with one another, eating together and taking the Lord’s Supper together, and praying together (Acts 2:42). These things aren’t very much in style right now. I’m not sure they ever were. And just because we do these things doesn’t mean God’s Presence will show up or that God will work. We can go through the motions just like ancient Israel did in their temple worship.
But if we call on God together, as God’s people have time and again in the Bible and throughout history, in His grace and mercy God may just show up! And He may just begin to do things that only He can do, things that can’t be explained in any other way than by pointing to God. This is what I long for.
I don’t care if it’s a traditional church, or a contemporary church, or a blended church. I don’t care if it’s purpose-driven, program-based, or seeker-sensitive. None of those things matter if God isn’t there. If God is there, nothing else matters. And if God isn’t there, nothing else really matters.
This is the season we set aside to celebrate the coming of Jesus to us here on earth. God told the prophet Isaiah that His Son would be called “Immanuel.” Matthew’s Gospel explains that this title means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
That’s what I want. That’s what we need. Immanuel. God with us. God with us when we go through our day. God with us when we go through our week. God with us when we’re happy. God with us when our hearts are breaking. God with us when we’re sick. God with us when we die. And God with us when we gather as a church. We need Immanuel. We need God with us.
May God be with us this Christmas season.
Soli Deo Gloria!