What makes the church grow? In the New Testament we read that in the first days and years after Pentecost the church grew rapidly. The first days it was about thousands who were added to the Christian congregation in Jerusalem. When through persecution the church was scattered over the surrounding areas, those who fled, took the gospel with them and didn’t stop preaching the gospel, and many churches were established. One of those churches was Antioch in Syria. This church later sent out Paul as missionary and he traveled through Asia and Greece and even ended up in Rome, as prisoner evangelist. The centuries thereafter the church continued to grow, in times of persecution as well as in times of freedom. In the first part of the Middle Ages, Christianity was flourishing in large parts of Europe and the Middle East, even for many centuries after the rise of Islam. When in the fourteenth century Islam became militant, the Christian church in the Middle East and North Africa was decimated. In Europe however, the church didn’t have a good time either. It went through a time of fighting between church leaders, struggle between government and church, about who is the highest authority on earth (investiture struggle), and the church was rapidly deforming in what we know from the time of the Reformation as the Roman Catholic Church.
Reformation and Enlightenment
The Reformation brought hope again. Christ did not give up His Church in Europe. The Reformation spread and brought new life again. After the colonisation of large parts of the world, Christianity spread to other parts of the world. Churches sent out missionaries. However, from the time of the enlightenment and especially from the twentieth century on, it seems as if the church in western countries is constantly declining and at the moment Christians are a minority in almost all western countries. At the same time we see that Christianity is growing in almost all non western countries, in some areas even rapidly. Why is Christianity in decline in most western countries, while it is growing in so many other parts of the world?
Called to be witnesses
We know that ultimately it all depends on Christ. He gathers His Church. If it is His will that the Church is being gathered in western countries as well, then it will happen. Nevertheless, we also have received a certain responsibility. We are called to be witnesses in this world. The Church has to be the salt, and the light of the world. It is important that we examine questions like this, because the (possible) answers may open our eyes for where we fall short in our task to be a light and to be the salt in the world.
‘Our culture has separated Sunday from,Monday and spiritual from secular and religion from the real world
A Christian cultural commentator in the USA offers us his view on this matter. ‘Our culture has separated Sunday from,Monday and spiritual from secular and religion from the real world’, he said during a speech at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The website ‘Christianpost.com’ gives a summary of his speech. He mentions different estimates of people who convert to Christianity every day. Conservative estimates mention 82,000 per day (World Christian Encyclopedia), while some others speak about one million per day. From all those people who come to faith, only a small part can be found in western countries. Then in typical American style Denison tells about his personal experiences during trips he made to different places in the world.
We will have to take these numbers and ‘facts’ with a grain of salt. Much depends on what you define as conversion to Christianity. That is probably also the reason for these vastly different numbers being mentioned by Denison. He praised Australia as an exception in the western world, and he mentioned especially the ‘Hillsong Church’ as an example. I don’t believe that we would really see this as an example of true Christianity. The Hillsong Church is known for its ‘worldrenowned’ worship music. However, it is not the music that brings people to repentance, but the Word of God. It is remarkable that apart from the singing of the congregation, in the New Testament (instrumental) music is hardly ever mentioned as having a place in the life of the Church, except in the book of Revelation. That is not to say that music is unimportant. Music can have an important function in the worship service, but always only as supportive of the congregational singing and not as an independent element. And the singing of the congregation is emphatically connected with the Word of Christ dwelling in us richly (Colossians 3:16-17), and being filled with the Spirit addressing one another and giving thanks to God (Ephesians 5:19-20). It all starts with the Word of God. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17, 1 Peter 1:23).
Jim Denison is the founder of Denison Forum on Truth and Culture and leads the Institute fro Global Engagement at Dallas Baptist University. There are essential differences between baptist theology and the Reformed theology. However, without marginalising these important differences, we can still find some valuable lessons in the words of Denison.
We can note with thankfulness that, indeed, Christianity is growing, worldwide. That is in agreement with the Word of God: Christ told His apostles to go to all nations, make them all to His disciples. In Daniel 2 we read that the rock which came down from the mountain, not caused by a human hand, destroyed the statue which Nebuchadnezzar saw, which symbolised the great empires, and destroyed them all. And this rock filled the whole earth. Yes, the Bible tells us that Christianity will spread all over the earth and that the Word of God will go over the earth with power. Because to Christ is given all authority in heaven and on earth. We can and must be thankful that we see God’s Word being fulfilled in what we see happening now. And that despite all resistance, or maybe because of the resistance. Denison, who has lived in the Muslim world, noted that in the last 15 years more Muslims have come to Christ than in the previous 15 centuries.
Faith as Hobby
We must also note with concern, that, indeed, our western societies have made Christian faith to a hobby. It is something that everyone is free to do in his own time, in his own enclosed area, but not in public. Christian faith must be kept away or removed from public life. On Sunday you can go to church, but on Monday, in the workplace, in university, in politics or anywhere else in public life, there is no room for the Word of God.
The Word of God has no authority anymore in the life of many who still call themselves Christian. It has become something that must give them a good feeling, in times of difficulties and distress, but that can conveniently put back in the box in times that you don’t need it. If Christians don’t live the Word of Christ, then they are not witnesses of Jesus Christ anymore. Then they deny Christ before the people (Matthew 10:33).
Now I’m sure that most of us will agree with this analysis. However, the next step is that we also must examine ourselves. We are quick in judging other Christians and pointing at what is wrong in our society, but what about ourselves? Are we so much better?
Why is it that our churches don’t show a lot of growth? Granted, it does happen that people from outside join our church. In the recent couple of years we have seen a number of adult baptisms in our churches. God be praised for that.
We also know that Christ gathers His church and we cannot give faith to others. That is true. But yet, Christ does command us to go out and make all nations to His disciples. Also our own nation. How? By living our Christian lives before the eyes of our neighbours, our colleagues, our peers, and whomever God places on our path. Lord’s Day 32 mentions as third reason why we must do good works, that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ. The catechism uses as proof texts for this the following: Matthew 5:14-16; Romans 14:17-19; 1 Peter 2:12; 3:1,2. Please check out these texts. That shows that there is still a lot that can be improved, also in our lives. And please don’t nod your agreement with these words while pointing your finger at ‘The Free Reformed Churches’, but point your finger first at yourself. Ask: ‘How can I do more?’, ‘How can I be witness of Jesus Christ?’ It doesn’t help to tell each other ‘that we must be open for outsiders’. It doesn’t help to appoint a welcoming committee to welcome strangers at the door of the church. It doesn’t help if the minister or serving elder at the beginning of the service extends a hearty welcome to ‘all guests who worship with us’. All this doesn’t help if we ourselves are not genuinely interested in our neighbour and in his salvation. If we don’t speak to them from the heart. Relationship, that is an important word here. Care, love, empathy, that are other important words. The willingness to step out of your comfort zone and talk to that stranger who walked into church and looked a bit lost.
And not only on Sundays, but also on Monday. Reach out to your neighbour. That guy that seems to be such a loner. I can tell you that there is a lot of loneliness out there. A lot of people who would love to have someone to talk to. Someone who is genuinely interested in them as person. And it are not only the weak in our society. What about your prof in university? Or your fellow student? Just speak a few friendly words to them. And don’t walk away if they respond, but take time to listen. Invite them to go for a coffee. And let them talk, hear them out, encourage them to talk. That makes them feel that you care for them and for what they have to tell. Then you build a relationship, in which you sooner or later will receive the opportunity to share with them the hope that you have, which you received from the gospel and which dominates your entire life. You could even invite them to share dinner with you at home. We’ve had the blessed experience, several times, to have guests at our dinner table, who didn’t know Christ, but got to know a bit of how good it is to belong to Christ, when they shared with us the joy of having a meal together. It was an eye opener for them to see us sitting together around the dinner table, parents with their children, even teen aged children, talking together, having good fun together, and also doing our devotions together. They will remember it. Some of them asked if they could come again.
Be friendly, always. Have patience. Don’t get angry if someone hurts you. Be kind if someone disagrees with you. Don’t repay evil with evil. Don’t get grumpy if the cashier isn’t really quick and you have to wait a few extra minutes in the grocery store. A friendly smile can do so much more than a sneer or tight lips. Make sure you’re never in a hurry, so that you can grab the opportunities which God gives you. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone (Philippians 4:5), and pursue gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11). Be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
Live your Faith
There is no need to keep our faith to ourselves. We can and must live our faith every day again, in all our relationships. Let the people discover that those Christians, which they revile based on what the media report, are very reasonable and pleasant people. We don’t need to stand on the barricades against abortion and same-sex marriage, in order to get our message across. We don’t need the ways and means of this world to proclaim the gospel. In weakness God’s power is made perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).