Church Growth in a Bottle?
by Maurice R. Valentine

A CBS news article recently proclaimed, “Tree Seed Grows After 2,000 Years.” Found on an archeological dig at Masada, a date palm tree known to botanists as Phoenix dactylifera, has grown from an ancient seed and produced a tree which has been dubbed Methusaleh. Medical researchers searching for natural cures say it germinated after what one researcher purports to have been two millennia. Sarah Sallon asserts that the seed was found in the caves of Masada and must have been stored there by Jewish rebels who eventually fell to the Roman army during their siege of the cave-lined fortification in A.D. 73. 

In regard to seeds Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

Question: How does something dead so long come back to life? Let’s read Mark 4:26-28:

26    And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground;
27    And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.

Answer: I haven’t the foggiest idea how. Remember verse 27 says, “he knoweth not how.” This tiny miracle is not best addressed by the question, “How?” It is better answered by asking, “Who?”

The ability of something to attain life after lying dead in a container for thousands of years is mind boggling to the scientific world. But not so to us, in that we understand our Creator engineered seed to first die and then come back to life. He who holds our future in His hand and is able to call fallen soldiers, missed loved ones, patriarch and prophet, and yes, you and me from the grave can surely teach us through the object lesson of a seed that nothing is impossible for God.

Let’s do some spiritual biology. In the same way we can’t grow seed, I respectfully suggest that we can’t grow churches. 

You may be tempted to say, “Great, if I can’t grow my church, I’m going fishing.”  Before you grab your tackle box and waders, please read a little further. Over the course of 11 pastorates, I’ve been blessed to witness more than a few churches that were on death’s doorstep rebound to life. Though it came with much prayer and toil, early mornings, late nights, developing leaders, restructuring committees, building renovations, enhancements of worship services and countless evangelistic thrusts, trust me, it was God’s doing and marvelous in my eyes. Let me illustrate it this way: Though Noah built the ark (man’s God-given role), it never would have stood the test of a deluge as described by the Bible except that God’s grace held it together. That’s God’s role!

Borrowing from the nomenclature of the Information Technology profession, in computer networking only the administrator has full control of the network. With the simple click of a mouse he or she wields complete control over what is called “administrative rights.” This person can, if he/she chooses, solely determine what happens on the network. They determine who can load programs, what folders they may open or what time they can access the Internet, among many other things. However, the administrator may also designate the savvy end-user to be a power-user. While not having the power to bring up or shut down the network, this individual can download files, load software, and make other minor adjustments to his or her computer. As years of service have passed by, more and more I have felt impressed that God has not given you and me “administrative rights” to church growth. That said, He has afforded us as under-shepherds, through the Holy Spirit, the opportunity to become power-users! God has given you power to download more power, access to files of infinite wisdom and discernment, the ability to call on heavenly intelligences for aid, and, maybe best of all, there’s always more bandwidth than we could ever use and His network never crashes!

In the book Natural Church Development (NCD), Christian Schwarz, after studying more than 1,000 churches on six continents, determined that there are eight principles that are necessary to facilitate a growing church.

1.    Empowering Leadership
2.    Gift-oriented Ministry
3.    Passionate Spirituality
4.    Functional Structures
5.    Inspiring Worship Services
6.    Holistic Small Groups
7.    Need-oriented Evangelism
8.    Loving Relationships

Are you struggling with a church that appears to have one foot in the grave?  If so, remember Ezekiel. 

3    And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. (Ezek 37:3)

Like Ezekiel, there will be times when not even you can see it. Once a visionary conference president told me that the church I was blessed to oversee was poised to become one of the fastest growing churches in the conference. At that point we were down to around 50 in attendance. I responded, “Maybe in five years we will have all the pieces in place to be a healthy, vibrant congregation.” But in two years and lots of hard work incorporating the aforementioned NCD principles, we went from empty rows to ushers searching to find new seats for old members whose usual seats were commandeered by new believers. When I originally sat in that president’s office, I wouldn’t have dreamed it could have happened so quickly, if at all. Arriving late to church became dangerous to those who believed certain seats belonged to them.  When God breathed His blessing of life into that dying church, attendance bounced from 50 to 250.  Dead seeds do come to life! 

Utilizing NCD principles is simply your way of doing your part to make sure that you have placed dead seed in the proper environment for growth. But all seed is dead. Nothing short of the breath of God will bring it to life. And with God, it doesn’t matter how old the seed is. Remember what Paul said. After working hard to plant and water dead seed, the apostle assures us that it was God who gave the increase! (1 Cor. 3:6). Only God can make a church grow.

Just as Jesus spoke of the miracle of germination of seed in the natural world, church growth, be it through revitalization using NCD, planting or restructuring, is still in the hands of God (John 12:24). Schwarz says it this way: “It is not possible to make the quantitative growth of churches. Effort and energy should be invested in ensuring that the institutional pole of church life is in harmony with God’s principles... This describes most clearly the strategic approach of natural church development” (NCD, p. 99). 

All we can do as pastors of God’s last-day movement is work to provide the proper atmosphere for growth. But that’s a blessing because it means that, ultimately, while we definitely do have a role to play the same as any farmer who plants seed in his field then fertilizes and waters it, how germination happens we know not. And that’s why I like Ezekiel’s answer: “Lord God, thou knowest.” Keep striving and be faithful to your call. And remember, while we can’t grow churches, God can and God will!

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