Those are words you often hear in churches that are in decline. It doesn’t matter what size the church is, when there is a perceived threat of extinction due to loss of numbers, the go-to solution is very often the creation of more programs. The theory goes that the more programs a church offers, the more it will attract people to the building, and the more evangelism will take place. This belief is centered upon the secularist mantra: “If you build it, they will come.”
Entire church complexes are built under this belief.
The underlying principle for such attitudes is rooted in a theology of glory, not the theology of the cross. R. Scott Clark defines the two in the following ways:
In short, a theology of glory is a theology that 1) seeks to present one’s self to God on the basis of works; 2) that elevates human reason above divine revelation. The theology of the cross looks to Christ and His righteousness imputed, received through faith alone, resting in Christ alone, according to the Scripture alone.
In other words, the theology of glory is the method that most mega-churches, and churches rooted in church-growth principles, employ. They are seeking to use human wisdom to build a church, instead of the wisdom of God, namely, the gospel. They exalt their own ideas, their own means, and their own methods to grow the church, instead of trusting in the means God has given us. (Read about God’s means of grace here.)
Yes, those rooted in the theology of glory will often say their goal is to be able to share the gospel with more people. But they never really camp out on the gospel. They don’t need to. The gospel itself is not what brought them the success they are yearning for, therefore there is no need to bring it up once the church machine is up and running like a finely tuned BMW.
But even in churches where the theology of glory has failed, they still appeal to it. It is often the case with churches in decline that members lament the fact that so much of what the church had done in the past has fallen by the wayside. In one sense, it’s a longing for the church’s glory days . A church’s past should never be ignored, and we need to be thankful to God for what has happened in the history of a particular congregation. But returning to the past, or the programs of the past, is never the answer to a church’s current situation. The goal should always be to use the means and methods God has given us to grow the church, not programs.
Why is this so?
First, we must realize that we are not called to build the church. We are called to be faithful in our worship, which is centered on the preaching of God’s word, prayer, and the sacraments. Using such means causes us to trust Christ and His methods in growing the church. After all, He did tell us that He would build His church.
Second, we do need to make disciples. But that doesn’t come about by holding an ice-cream social, or a spaghetti dinner, or cooking pancakes on Saturday morning. Those things are nice, and do feed people with physical food. You can always attract a crowd when you promise them food and entertainment.
The same thing happened with Jesus. He was attracting crowds because He turned five loaves of bread into enough feed the multitude. The people were following Him in order to have physical food, not because they wanted spiritual food (John 6:26-27). The more spiritual food He gave them, the more they quickly vanished (John 6:66ff).
The point is that if you bring people in with food and entertainment, the moment you shift to the word of God and start preaching the gospel, is the moment they turn to leave. They see the bait and switch for what it is, a dishonest trick in pursuit of something honest and noble.
Making disciples must always be built on the word of God. Yes, there are those who advocate using hospitality to have people over and then sharing the word of God with them. That is an excellent way to make disciples. However, if hospitality is reduced to simply hospitality, void of the word of God, then the problem remains. The word of God must be so central to our meals and our lives, that when we have people over, the reading of the word naturally flows out of what we are doing.
Machen helps understand this when he writes:
…Christian service consists primarily in the propagation of a message, and specifically Christian fellowship exists only between those to whom the message has become the very basis of all life.
This means that when we seek to do hospitality and outreach, it must be centered upon the message of the cross and not the food that we serve, or the event that we hold.
Even if we do things like hospitality well, we still must trust God to work in the lives of those we are trying to reach, and that will take time. This is another reason so many run to the gimmicks of the world in building their churches: it seems much quicker than the means God has blessed us with. But using God’s means is much more satisfying because there is true and lasting spiritual fruit.
Though the theology of glory is much more appealing to the flesh, the theology of the cross is what our Savior has called us to. The simple question: are we going to be faithful and obedient to the calling He has placed on our lives, or will we run with the world?