I work full-time encouraging churches to grow in a world where there is a huge industry encouraging churches to grow and, generally speaking, the Church is not growing
I could never have made a living in the first century. There was no church growth industry in the first century. There were no Sunday School growth conferences and no church growth consultants. And the church was growing and growing rapidly.
This is not to disparage the industry of encouraging churches to grow. It is my opinion that the church would be doing even worse if it were not for those who serve in encouraging churches to grow.
But, it is my conviction that the great need of the hour is not better methods or means or Sunday Schools or visitation programs or Seeker Services. The problem does not fundamentally lie in methods and means. The problem is the way we perceive God and the message of the gospel. It is a cleverly disguised lie that I could say in any Sunday School class in America and get everyone there nodding their heads in agreement. I could stand in any pulpit in America and state this lie and a house full of people would say Amen! It is a lie that just sounds that good.
I heard it again last week in my own Sunday School class. And, as always, a room full of people nodded in agreement. I didn’t have the strength to argue the point again. But, it has been haunting me all week. I offer my response here. This is what was said.
“Well, I think there is doing what is right, and then there is doing what feels good. I think we ought to do what is right.”
A room full of people nodded in agreement. Yes, we should do what is right; not what feels good. Everyone nodded their “amen.” Did you? It just sounds so good. It sounds so good to say we ought to choose what is good for God over what is good for me.
Here is the problem with that statement. That statement has an assumption behind it. The assumption is that we have a choice. We can do what is right, or we can do what feels good. We can do what is right, or we can do what leads to happiness. We can do what is good for God, or we can do what is good for us, but we can’t do both. We should do what is good for God because, it is not all about us. We don’t matter. Our happiness doesn’t matter. We should sacrifice our happiness for obedience. We should choose obedience over happiness.
Here is one I have heard a few times: God is more interested in your holiness than your happiness. There is a problem here. Do you see it?
So the choice comes down to choosing between two columns:
- God’s way
- Leads to God’s happiness
- We are not happy, but God is
- Our way
- Leads to our happiness
- Disappoints God
This is not the gospel. This is the problem.
It is the problem for three reasons:
We will never get all that excited about living it. We will always struggle with, as one old hymn has it, “plunge in today and be made complete.” We will never plunge in because we don’t believe it is good for us. We might stick our toe in the water. We might dabble at it. But we won’t plunge in.
We will never get that excited about telling about it. We won’t really care whether our class doubles every two years or less. It won’t bother us that the church does not grow because, well, it is kind of good news/ bad news anyway. Sure there are good points–we get to got to heaven when we die. But there are tough parts too–all that stuff of obedience and dedication and so on. We accept the message. We take the good with the bad. But we are not that excited about the spread of this message because we could certainly see why some would not accept it.
It is not true. The gospel is not a gospel of good news and bad news. It is a gospel of good news, good news and more good news.
We will never get that excited about living it, and it will never be that important that our class grows and our church grows until we believe it is good news, good news and more good news. His commands are not burdensome (1 John 5.3). God is a rewarder (Hebrews 11.6)
John Piper talks about this in a message called, “Let your passion be single.” He talks about the inner struggle of growing up in a home where he knew that a passion for the glory of God must be central. This was the only right way to think, biblically. But, he had another passion. He wanted to be happy. The pivotal day was when he realized these two joys come together. The greatest pleasure is found in God, and there is no way to please God except to delight in Him. He quotes Pascal:
“All men seek happiness,” says Blaise Pascal. “This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” We believe Pascal is right. And, with Pascal, we believe God purposefully designed us to pursue happiness.
Piper was the one who set my thinking straight on this matter, so allow me to excerpt an additional quotes from him, found at www.desiringgod.org
Christian Hedonism teaches that the desire to be happy is God-given and should not be denied or resisted but directed to God for satisfaction. Christian Hedonism does not say that whatever you enjoy is good. It says that God has shown you what is good and doing it ought to bring you joy (Micah 6:8). And since doing the will of God ought to bring you joy, the pursuit of joy is an essential part of all moral effort. If you abandon the pursuit of joy (and thus refuse to be a Hedonist, as I use the term), you cannot fulfill the will of God. Christian Hedonism affirms that the godliest saints of every age have discovered no contradiction in saying, on the one hand, “We are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36), and on the other hand, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Christian Hedonism does not join the culture of self-gratification that makes you a slave of your sinful impulses. Christian Hedonism commands that we not be conformed to this age but that we be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) so we can delight to do the will of our Father in heaven. According to Christian Hedonism joy in God is not optional icing on the cake of Christianity. When you think it through, joy in God is an essential part of saving faith.
So then, Christian living is not a choice between what is good for me and what is good for God. It is a choice between what is bad for me and God and what is good for me and God. God’s ways are always good for me in the long run. God is a rewarder. We must believe that He is a rewarder or we will never come near to Him. We must come to love the Christian life, or we will never come to live the Christian life. You cannot be holy and grumpy. Our holy, boss, Lord God commanded us to delight in Him. He commanded us to rejoice in Him. There is no obedience to God except there is obedience to the command of God to rejoice.
Hebrews 11.6 spells this out. “And without faith it is impossible to please God.” The question is, faith in what? Faith that God exists? No. The demons do that, and tremble. What is it that the demons don’t believe about God? They don’t believe He is a rewarder. Here is the rest of the verse, “because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 [NIV]
The disciples were corrected by Jesus at the point.
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42 [NIV]
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. Mark 10:29-30 [NIV]
Some would argue that the reward is incidental and that if we were really spiritual we would not do things for the reward. I agree with Piper, (again), that this not a the Christian position:
Christian hedonism aims to replace a Kantian morality with a biblical one. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who died in 1804, was the most powerful exponent of the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is “disinterested.” We should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or reward corrupts the act. Cynically, perhaps, but not without warrant, the novelist Ayn Rand captured the spirit of Kant’s ethic:
An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)
Against this Kantian morality (which has passed as Christian for too long!), we must herald the unabashedly hedonistic biblical morality. Jonathan Edwards, who died when Kant was 34, expressed it like this in one of his early resolutions: “Resolved, To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.”
C. S. Lewis put it like this in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken: “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.”
Well, I could go on an on, but this article is getting a bit long. Here is the summary: it is always in our best interest to live the Christian life. Following God is always good for me in the long run. I pray because it is good for me. I serve because it is good for me. I forgive because it is good for me. I seek to dedicate myself completely to God because it is good for me. Yes, it is good for God as well. Let your passion be single. It is one single passion to please God and create a life that is good for me.
With good news like that, it drives me batty that churches can be indifferent about spreading that message. A properly understood gospel compels us to spread it. Paul said, “I am compelled to preach.” 1 Cor 9.16. Good news compels us to tell. When you feel like, “This is such great news! It is good news, good news and more good news. It is the best way to live and the only way to die!” you want the message to spread and spread rapidly.
I close with one more quote from Piper:
God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
We all make a god out of what we take the most pleasure in. Christian Hedonists want to make God their God by seeking after the greatest pleasure—pleasure in him.
By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. We mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. We should pursue this happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.
All John Piper quotes from www.desiringgod.org I suggest you click on the link that says “essential Piper.” Start with the sermon on “Let your passion be single.” Enjoy. Really. Enjoy.
By the way, this is a central part of the message of the Disciplemaking Teachers Conference. I’d love to come to your church and present it.