How do you try to fill up your church building? And what does that say about your belief in the Holy Spirit?
TWO WAYS TO FILL A CHURCH
Nineteenth-century Baptist Francis Wayland suggests that there are basically two ways to fill a church (Notes on the Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches, 43-47). One is to preach in a way that is agreeable and inoffensive to both believers and unbelievers. The other is to preach in a way that highlights the difference between true religion and mere profession, and thus creates a sharp contrast between the church and the world.
The first approach seems reasonable. After all, why would non-Christians come to hear sermons about things they’ve never experienced and can’t understand? Why would non-Christians come to a church that highlights the fact that they are outsiders?
Yet Wayland argues that the price of this approach is far too steep. In order for his preaching to equally please Christians and non-Christians, a minister must “talk of generalities that mean nothing, or the trumpet must give an uncertain sound, so that no one will prepare himself for battle.”
Anticipating the natural objection, Wayland writes, “But it will be said, Are we then to drive away all but the children of God?”
His response compresses volumes of biblical wisdom into a mere five words: “I reply, Is there any Holy Ghost?”
Wayland’s point is that this whole line of thinking assumes that it’s finally up to us to convert people. It’s up to us to get them into the church building. It’s up to us to stir up their interest in the sermon. And it’s up to us to change their hearts and get them to repent and believe the gospel.
Wayland cuts through all of that by asking just whose power we’re depending on for the success of our ministry—ours, or the Holy Spirit’s?
IS THERE A HOLY SPIRIT?
“Is there a Holy Spirit?” I can think of few better questions to ask in order to assess whether our ministry strategies are faithful to Scripture.
You could put it like this: if there were no Holy Spirit, would your ministry work just as well?
What are you trying to accomplish in your ministry? Is that goal something that can be attained without the Holy Spirit?
What means are you using to carry out your ministry? Are they strategies and techniques that sociology, psychology, and common sense can fully explain? Or would your ministry methods prove utterly futile if the Holy Spirit didn’t sovereignly decide to work in and through them?
It’s easy to see, for example, how the promise of wealth will draw a crowd and convert them to your team. Same thing for the promise of better relationships, fewer conflicts, lower stress, or a better self-image. It’s easy to see how consummate presentation, engrossing music, and pleading appeals can generate adherents to whatever cause you’re promoting.
But none of these things need the Holy Spirit to make them work. All those strategies and messages can get along just fine without him.
SPIRIT-DEPENDENT MINISTRY IS WORD-DRIVEN MINISTRY
But let’s put this positively. What does ministry that depends on the Holy Spirit look like?
It looks like preaching to dead people and praying that the Holy Spirit would give life as only he can (Eph. 2:1-3). It looks like shining the light of the gospel as brightly as you can, and praying that the Spirit would give people eyes to see it (2 Cor. 4:6). It looks like aiming for things only the Holy Spirit can give to people: new loves, new hearts, new lives, new selves.
What means does the Holy Spirit use to give new life? God’s Word.
“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Spirit causes us to be born again “through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23).
Therefore, Spirit-dependent ministry is by definition Word-centered and Word-driven ministry. Ministry that believes in the Holy Spirit trusts the Spirit-inspired Word to do the work God has promised it will do.
And to return to Wayland, he argues that such Spirit-dependent, Word-driven ministry will in fact fill churches:
If we preach in such a manner that the disciples of Christ are separate from the world, prayerful, humble, earnest, self-denying, and laboring for the conversion of men, the Spirit of God will be in the midst of them, and souls will be converted. The thing will be noised abroad. There is never an empty house where the Spirit of God is present.
Is there a Holy Spirit? There is, and he speaks through the Word. And when he speaks, the dead hear and rise to new life.
(To think more about ministry that depends upon the Spirit to bring new life, check out the new 9Marks Journal on conversion, especially the articles by Jonathan Leeman, Jeramie Rinne, and Owen Strachan.)