Pastor Johnold J. Strey
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Citrus Heights, CA
Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-11
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (readings from Pentecost 8, Year A)
August 14 & 15, 2011
CHURCH GROWTH—GOD’S WAY
- God’s Word is the tool for growth
- God’s Word has the power for growth
Have you heard of the “church growth movement”? At first glance, it might sound like something every Christian should be in favor of. Who doesn’t want the church to grow? But when pastors refer to the church growth movement, they are usually not referring to a simple desire to evangelize the lost so that the Holy Spirit might use the gospel to convert more souls to faith in Jesus. A complete description of the church growth movement would take far more than this sermon introduction, but let it suffice to say that the church growth movement refers to a movement in Christian churches that strives to grow the church’s numbers in any possible way.
Perhaps an example will help us understand this concept. Walt Kallestad, pastor of the Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, described his approach to outreach early in his ministry as “entertainment evangelism.” He said, “The only way to capture people’s attention is entertainment. … If I want people to listen to my message, I’ve got to present it in a way that grabs their attention long enough for me to communicate the gospel.” Based on comments like that, it sounds that the church growth perspective believes that the Bible’s message needs some help to gain an audience; with that additional assistance, the church will grow.
Is this the approach we should take as a congregation? Is the church growth movement the way to go? Would another strategy be preferable? How should we see to it that more souls come into the kingdom of God? The readings selected for this service address those kinds of questions, and Isaiah’s words in today’s First Lesson will help us to find out about real church growth. Isaiah isn’t going to talk about the church growth movement. Isaiah is going to tell us about church growth—God’s way! God’s Word is the tool for growth, and God’s Word has the power for growth.
My previous congregation’s property was a converted estate. Some of you have been there before. It is a unique property for a church. One of its unique features is that it had several fruit trees on it. There is a lemon tree on the property that we didn’t discover until we had been there several years. One day, I saw a few small lemons hanging from its branches after several years of never producing any fruit. This gave me a brilliant idea! I started watering the tree. Guess what happened? That’s right: Fruit! That lemon tree had not been receiving the level of water it needed; once it did, it began to grow fruit like it had not done before in several years.
What I just described is a variation of the illustration Isaiah uses in today’s First Lesson. Isaiah begins, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my Word.” The farmer’s fields do not see any growth without water. The corn will not be knee-high by the Fourth of July without water. It was not all that long ago that we had drought conditions in our state due to low winter precipitation. So we can easily relate to Isaiah’s picture, and that helps us easily understand his point. Just as precipitation causes plants to grow, God says, “So is my Word that goes out from my mouth.” Plants won’t grow without water from the heavens; faith won’t grow without the Word of God. The church cannot grow in number or in faith without God’s Word.
I trust that the members of St. Mark’s would agree with that statement. But we should take this observation a step further. There are many things taught in God’s Word. Everything taught in Scripture can be put into one of two categories. Lutherans can recite those two categories in their sleep: law and gospel. The law tells us how God expects us to live, and if we are honest, it shows us just how miserably we have failed to live as God’s people. The gospel tells us how Jesus, the Son of God, came into this world to live obediently on our behalf, and to suffer the law’s punishment on our behalf by his death on the cross. Both law and gospel are in the Word of God, but the law cannot make our faith grow. Telling people what to do does not make faith grow. Only the gospel can make faith grow. Telling people to look to Jesus Christ as their ticket to eternal life fosters faith and trust in human hearts. So when Isaiah says that God’s Word is the tool for real church growth, he really means the gospel message in the Word of God. In Isaiah’s day, the gospel message pointed forward to a Messiah who was to come. In our day, the gospel message points back to Jesus as the Savior who lived, died, and lives again for us.
I have heard some church leaders in various circles say something like this: “I will do anything short of sinning to bring more souls to Christ.” That is a common catch phrase among the church growth movement. And the zeal expressed in that phrase is certainly commendable. But is that what God said? Did God say, “Do anything besides sin?” Was the seed in Jesus’ parable that we heard earlier anything the church does? No, the seed is the Word. The seed is the gospel. And the one and only thing the church can do to reach more souls is to preach Christ.
Perhaps you identified what was wrong with that phrase. But it’s not just church growth advocates who speak that way. We can fall into this way of thinking too. When you invite others to church, what is the number one reason you give for checking out St. Mark’s? “You’re going to love the facilities!” “We have a warm and friendly congregation!” “Our pastors are the best preachers around!” All of these things are good, of course. We don’t want to come up with sinful excuses for not putting our best foot forward. But none of these things are the Word of God. None of them are the gospel.
The church building cannot bring people into the Holy Christian Church. I hope that friendly people will present the gospel, but they are not the gospel. We hope that pastors are good preachers, but the preacher was not crucified for you. And yet there is at least a little part of us that is convinced that the key to church growth is something external, something beyond the simple Word of God. But if you replace God’s Word with some other tool to get the job done, you will turn off the only water spicket and shut off the one spiritual water supply that can quench thirsty souls in danger of wasting away in the parched wasteland of hell.
The Word of God—and specifically the gospel—is God’s tool for church growth. The Word of God is where you will come into contact with the grace and forgiveness of Christ. And along with the Word, we should also acknowledge the sacraments. There is a reason why theologians past and present have called the sacraments, “the visible Word.” The very same grace and forgiveness that comes to us in God’s Word is to be tapped in Baptism and Communion. This is how God presents his grace and forgiveness to you. This is how he hydrates your thirst soul right now! This is how God calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
Theologians from the past and present have noted that it seems like God has designed life on earth to reflect spiritual realities. Let me give you one example. If you time working outside yesterday, either here during our work day or at home in your yard, you probably felt dirty and sweaty after you were finished. So you take a shower to get clean. Water cleans your body. Baptism is the spiritual parallel. The words of Jesus combine with the waters of baptism to clean your soul—not from dirt, but from sin.
We can see that same phenomenon in our reading. Listen to God speaking through Isaiah again. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Rain doesn’t come down and then evaporate without watering plants and trees and crops. The spiritual parallel is the way that God’s Word works. God’s Word will also not “evaporate” without doing its work. When God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed, God will accomplish exactly what he wants to accomplish through that message.
We’re focusing on the First Lesson, but I’d like to take you back to the Gospel reading for today for a moment. Jesus described a farmer sowing seed in his field. The seed fell on four different kinds of soil, but three of those four “landing spots” did not produce lasting results. I don’t think Jesus envisioned only 25% of the seed sprouting, but Jesus’ parable reminds us that not every seed will grow. In other words, not every time we proclaim the gospel will a person respond positively and come to faith in Christ. Of course, that can get frustrating—especially when we have several successive incidents where it seems like our message falls on deaf ears. And if our sinful flesh cannot convince us to use another tool to do the church’s work, it will at last try to convince us that the Word of God is not as powerful as God claims it to be.
Lest we forget the power of God’s Word, Isaiah reminds us that God’s Word will achieve God’s will. God’s Word will do what God wants it to do. The Church shall never perish. We cannot program the results. We cannot program the stats for the Church’s growth. We simply use the tools God has given—the Word and Sacraments—and those tools are powerful!
You have seen those powerful tools at work again today. The Word of God was combined with the waters of the font and brought an infant to believe the very same words we will speak in the Apostles’ Creed even though that child cannot speak those words yet! The Word of God is powerful enough to bring spiritual life and growth to souls that began as a desert wasteland. The Word of God is powerful enough to deliver Jesus’ forgiveness to repentant souls that have disobeyed the commands of God and disregarded the promises of God. The Word of God is powerful enough to take the holiness of Jesus from 2,000 years ago and make it count as yours before God! The Word of God is powerful enough to take the shed blood of Jesus and apply its forgiveness to repentant hearts like yours and mine. The Word of God is powerful enough to take the resurrection of Jesus and turn it into the preview and guarantee of your own resurrection on the Last Day.
A friend sent me an email message last week, and at one point he wrote that it must be a lot different to live here than it was to live in the Bay Area. One of the biggest differences is the weather. I don’t need to tell most of you that it is hotter and drier here, especially in the summer. And for people who have spent a decade in the Bay Area, like me, that means we need to drink more water. After we moved, there were a few hot days when I didn’t feel so well, and I’m pretty sure it was a lack of water that was the problem.
Without water in a hot climate, our bodies will not function well. And without the water of life—the Word of God and the good news of Christ’s love—our souls will not function well. On a hot day, we would never say, “I know what water is like. I don’t need to drink it.” As we live in a world that daily flirts with the scorching fires of hell, we ought to never say, “I know what God’s Word is all about. I know who Jesus is. I don’t need to hear that again.” We need the exact opposite! We need to soak in God’s Word in worship and public Bible study and our private devotional life! We need to soak in God’s Word, and so does the rest of our world! So drink from it deeply, and shower it on our world generously! That’s how to grow the Church—God’s way! Amen.