In 2004, our church building project hit a wall.
Up to that point, our plans to expand the church facility had moved forward slowly but surely. The congregation had approved drawings, voted to build, raised funds, and hired specialists to acquire the necessary building permits. And one by one the town granted our permits, until we came to the Board of Health. In 2004, the Board indicated that our septic system plans would not pass. So we withdrew our application from the town.
It was a confusing time for the church. Why would God lead us so far only to be denied? Why wouldn’t God want an evangelical church to grow, especially in New England?
But perhaps the most confusing thing was that our primary motive for the building was community evangelism.
The project’s centerpiece was a full-sized gymnasium. We envisioned using the space, dubbed the “Family Life Center,” for outreach programs: Christian basketball and floor hockey leagues for kids, teen drop-in times in the afternoon, and even adult sports leagues and exercise classes. We hoped to draw people into the facility, build relationships, and perhaps win a hearing for Jesus. In our community with lots of kids and lots of sports, the project seemed like a perfect example of contextualized evangelism.
Why wouldn’t God bless our sincere desire for community outreach?
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION
Good intentions don’t always arise from good theology, or result in good practice. We pastors often have a zeal to “reach people for Christ” that causes us to leap into evangelistic action without careful theological reflection. We sniff around for what “works” to bring people to Jesus. We ask each other, “What’s your church doing to reach out?” Is it a top worship song, the right lighting, a new program, a video series based on a best-selling book, a community service strategy, or a bold scheme for restructuring the church itself? Maybe it’s a new facility!
But sometimes, in order to move forward in effective evangelism we must pause and take a step back. Rather than speeding ahead asking “What works?” we need to pull over and ask a more fundamental question: “How are people saved?”
THEOLOGY BEGETS PRACTICE
Pastors need to ask this fundamental question because our theology of conversion begets our practice of evangelism.
If conversion is merely an act of a person’s will in responding to the gospel, then our evangelistic efforts will trend toward affecting the emotions and felt needs of the hearer. We will spend the majority of our brainpower puzzling about what makes people tick, and then the majority of our evangelistic energy constructing circumstances and packaging that will connect with and influence people. Evangelism will become more and more concerned with attuning our communication to people’s mindsets, feelings, and desires so that they will perceive the message as relevant to their lives. If conversion ultimately rests with the person, then to the person we must appeal. And if people have kids and like sports, then building a Family Life Center makes great sense.
However, if conversion is fundamentally an act of God’s Spirit changing a heart through the gospel message itself, our practice of evangelism will trend in a very different direction. We will labor to make the gospel itself clear, rather than appealing to “felt needs.” If what “works” is God’s Spirit working through God’s Word, then we will spend the bulk of our mental energies studying the Scriptures so we can express them accurately, rather than assessing how the elements of our services might connect with people’s various learning styles. We will struggle more over selecting songs with biblically faithful lyrics than over orchestrating an instrumental arrangement that will put people in the right mood.
WHAT ABOUT THE BUILDING?
Does this latter view of conversion mean that things like music, buildings, or our personal charisma don’t matter? Well, yes and no.
They matter insofar as they serve as a platform for communication. Buildings, for example, are good for enabling people to gather together and hear a sermon. So in that sense we need to be sure that circumstantial elements don’t distract from the ministry of God’s Word in its various forms.
But here’s the key: removing distractions does not impart converting grace to anyone. Nor can a certain combination of music, humor, empathy, artistic skill, and sanctuary ambiance bring anyone to Christ. Only the Spirit of God, working through the gospel, can convert sinners and enable them to repent and believe in Jesus. So our concern for the message should far surpass our fretting about the packaging. In evangelism, the message is the medium!
Furthermore, God’s Spirit-empowered gospel can change hearts even when the music is lousy, the speaker is unattractive, the sound system hums, and the sanctuary decor is painfully dated. God sovereignly converts sinners by means of his Word.
GROWTH WITHOUT A GYM
As our church worked through the confusion of the building setback, we noticed something strange. The congregation had grown and people had come to faith in Jesus, even without a gym. We had continued to proclaim God’s Word from the pulpit, in small groups, and in our daily interactions outside the facility walls. And despite our building woes, the Holy Spirit had been at work converting people through that gospel ministry. We hadn’t built it, and yet they had come.
By God’s grace, our congregational vision refocused. We now became more overt in trumpeting expository preaching and gospel proclamation as central to our mission, and central to saving souls. And our building project changed as well. We scrapped the gymnasium plans and designed a new sanctuary and lots of classrooms. We wanted more space for people to hear and study God’s heart-changing Word. Our theology guided our architecture. Our theology of conversion begat our practice of evangelism.
And on September 18, 2011, we celebrated our first worship service in the new sanctuary.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
What is the moral of the story? That if you have the right theology, God will bless your building project and increase church attendance? Of course not. We cannot manipulate the sovereign Lord.
Is the lesson that it’s wrong for churches to build gyms, or for Christians to organize a church softball league and use it for building relationships with unbelievers? Not at all. I would still love for our children’s and youth ministries to have a gym, and it’s good to build friendships with non-Christians.
Instead, here’s the point: when we understand conversion as a Spirit-wrought, Word-mediated miracle, we will focus our evangelistic resources more and more on articulating the gospel itself than on enhancing the gospel’s appeal and perceived relevance to an unbelieving world.
Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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