Marks of a growing church 8 – using your gifts

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 23rd November 2014

Readings – Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28


In a few months’ time we will have to fill in all the annual paperwork from the diocese who quite rightly want to know how we are doing. It will be time to calculate our annual membership, who comes along on a Sunday, report how many people have left and how many people are new to the church. In some ways you could argue all this is bare statistics, and of course we know numbers do not tell the whole story. But the figures we send up to the diocese each year tell us something, and they force us to consider just how well our church is doing.

I haven’t, of course, calculated the figures for 2014 yet. But unless something dramatic changes, our returns to the diocese will show that this year both churches just about held their own. The membership of the church isn’t plummeting, but neither is it exactly taking off. We are somewhere in the middle ground. We are not doing as badly as some churches, but we are not doing as well as others.

Of course it would be great to report instead that our churches were flourishing, that people were coming to know the Lord and many new projects were having a dramatic impact on the local area. And I know from talking to you, just how many of you are praying for our churches to grow, and have a real desire to see St Barnabas and St Michael’s flourish.

But that still leaves the practical question: how do we achieve church growth? Well, I think we’ve all learnt over the years there are no easy answers. Indeed, if growing a church was as simple as some leaders or some books suggest, then in fact I’d question whether the growth was coming from the Lord or not. Church growth comes from listening carefully to the Lord, from gaining His vision, from seeing His priorities.

This is why I believe our current sermon series from 1 Thessalonians has been so significant. Many months ago, when I first planned our readings, almost without thinking, I called the sermon series, “Marks of a growing church”. Somehow the Lord has taken that title and Sunday by Sunday given us, as it were, another piece of the jigsaw to fit into the overall picture of church growth. And I believe it’s really important that as we plan and pray for the future here at St Barnabas and St Michael’s, we remember what the Lord has taught us, and come back to this book again and again.

So in answer to the question, “What are the marks of a growing church?” we have seen that they include at least the following:

Chapter 1:1-10 – Deep sharing of lives one with another. The gospel made a deep impact in the city of Thessalonica because it came, as verse 5, puts it, not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. And why did the gospel make such an impact? Because as verse 5 tells us Paul shared not only the gospel but his very life with the first believers there. All the way through the book, we have seen that a growing church is one where people are deeply, deeply committed to each other.

Chapter 2:1-12 – Loving leadership. In verse 7 Paul describes how he cared for the Thessalonians like a mother caring for her little children. A little later on in the same passage Paul talks about dealing with them as a father deals with his own children. Paul loved the church as if they were his own flesh and blood, and treated them accordingly.

Chapter 2:13-18 – Spiritual opposition. Here we saw that where church growth occurs, the evil one will seek to disturb and disrupt it. His tactics include persecution, and frustration of our plans. But as we saw when we looked at this passage, even the tactics of Satan cannot ultimately frustrate God’s purposes. If we want any proof of that, we just need to look at the cross and the empty grave.

Chapter 3:1-13 – A community of faith. It was fascinating to listen to both Joy and John preach on this passage, because they both delivered a very similar message. Joy reminded us that we are a church, not a club. John asked us what we see when we look at our church. Do we view St Barnabas and St Michael’s from a human point of view or with the eye of faith?

Chapter 4:1-12 – Holy lives. In this passage we were reminded that God calls us to live lives that are different from those of the world around us, and we looked at the particular issues of sexual purity, brotherly love and honest endeavour. If we are serious about growing as a church, then our faith has to impact how we live every hour of every week. There can be no gap between the words we say in church and our behaviour when we leave.

Chapter 4:13-18 – A living hope. The supreme difference that our faith should make is an assurance in the face of the greatest enemy, death. The Thessalonians were worried that those of their number who had already died would miss out when the Lord returned. Paul reassures them that because the Lord Jesus died and rose again for us, one day we will be with the Lord forever whatever physical state we happen to be in.

Chapter 5:1-11 – A state of readiness. We do not know when the Lord will return, but members of a growing church will always be ready to meet Him. In those great words I read out on Remembrance Sunday, from 1 Thess 5:9-11:

9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I think you’ll agree we’ve covered a lot of ground over these past few weeks. So let’s pause for a moment, and take some time to look through these marks of church growth once again. It would, I believe, be worth thinking and praying about what the Lord is saying, to see where we as a church are strong and where we need to improve. Maybe some of you have missed out on some of these Sundays; if so, I would strongly encourage you to go back and read the sermons online, or ask the preacher for that Sunday for a copy. Talk amongst yourselves whether, for example, you are living in the hope of Jesus Christ, or what it means for you to lead a holy life. Because how we respond to the teaching the Lord has given us will, I believe, have a direct impact on how St Michael’s and St Barnabas will grow.

But if you want to sum up all that Paul has been saying in one tidy phrase or sentence, I guess that it all boils down to this: the Christian faith is all about relationships. A growing church is one where relationships are growing. It is one where you don’t just bump into another church member on the rare Sundays that you happen to coincide. It is one where the newcomer and the outsider are welcomed in. It is one where, day by day, each and every church member supports and is supported by others in prayer, and where our faith is understood to have a practical impact on the way people live. That’s the kind of growth God wants, and if we are working on our relationships, then I believe that all the other big issues that worry us so much, like numbers or finance, will eventually fall into place.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that as Paul comes to the end of this letter, his concluding remarks are all about relationships. Look for a moment at the very final verses:

25 Brothers, pray for us.
26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. (Or, as one very English translation puts it: Give a handshake all round among the brotherhood)
27 I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

And if we learn anything from these little verses, it’s that they are all about relationships. Wherever Paul went, he always aimed to build up fellowship. Whenever he wrote to a church, he was always concerned to challenge anything or anyone who was disrupting that fellowship. Paul was passionate that believers didn’t just talk about the love of Christ, they lived it as well.

So just before Paul writes these closing remarks, he gives some very practical and very important teaching about relationships:

  • Relationships with church leaders (vv.12-13)
  • Relationships with each other (vv.13-15)
  • Relationships with the Lord (vv.16-24)

Let’s start by looking at relationships with church leaders.

Now verse 12 is a real gift to any vicar who wants to lay down the law:

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.

Could I have some fun with these words!? But seriously, I know that particularly in more established and more traditional churches there still lingers that attitude that “father knows best”, that nothing is to be said or done without the blessing or approval of the person in charge. But to understand this verse in this way completely undermines all that Paul has said earlier about loving leadership. The way you show you are over somebody else according to the Bible in general and Jesus in particular is by your willingness to serve them and lay down your life for them. There has to be a two way attitude of respect and love between pastors and their flocks.

So if I say something you disagree with, the right response is not to grumble about it to someone else. Or equally if you say something that upsets me, my right response is not to complain to others about the dreadful things you have said. Again, if I choose to admonish you because you are doing something that is not in accordance with God’s word, then you have an equal right to admonish me if you see that I too am doing something that dishonours the Lord.

Too many churches fail to grow because this two-way relationship is lacking, that there isn’t this honest communication between those who are called to lead and those they are called to serve. A church where those in the back row vote with their feet, or where there are constant games of Chinese whispers going on, is not going to glorify the Lord, no matter what their goals and mission action plans might be.

And of course in many ways the relationship a church has with its leaders is a mirror of the relationships the whole body of Christ has with each other. Now here I believe it is worth just for a moment being very honest with ourselves. One thing we learnt when we did the Everybody Welcome course a few years’ back is that every church sees itself as warm and welcoming, just as every church considers itself loving and caring. It can be so easy to think we have already carried out Jesus’ command to love each other, but the reality is, there is always more love that we can show, more care we can offer. As Paul wrote back in chapter 4, verses 9-10:

Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

Because as we have seen, the love that we are commanded to show is not just the brotherly love of a club or a charity or even a masonic lodge. That kind of love may be very real and very sincere, but more often than not, it is for members only, for those who happen to share the same interest or point of view. We are commanded to show agape love, that is the love of Jesus that extends to the newcomer and the outsider, that does not finish at the church door but flows out into our streets, our neighbourhoods and our homes.

And what does that love look like in practice?

Back to today’s reading, verses 14-15:

And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

That’s agape love in practice. It’s not always about being nice to people. But it is always about seeking the very best for the person next to you on a Sunday morning. That’s why Paul tells the church at Thessalonica to warn those who are idle and to encourage the timid. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is tell someone exactly why the Lord is not likely to bless them if they carry on behaving as they are at the moment.

And this costly, precious agape love will not always be easy. If we are serious about growing the church by following Jesus, we will sometimes end up loving some people who are very different to us, and others who, if we are being brutally honest, aren’t that easy to love. And even with those we find easier to love, there will be occasions when we won’t see eye to eye, when we will genuinely disagree.

So, finally, a growing church has to be one where each and every member is growing in their relationship with the Lord.

But I wonder what you make of Paul’s words in verses 16-18?

16 Be joyful always;
17 pray continually;
18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

On one level it is very easy to agree with Paul’s words. Of course we should be joyful and pray and give thanks if we are in Christ Jesus. But on another, aren’t those the things that we find hardest to do day by day? Rejoice always – even when we are facing that big hospital appointment? Pray continually – when we are snowed under with all the jobs we need to do today? Give thanks – when we hear some terrible news about a friend? Seriously, Paul, do you know what it’s like to live in the real world?

Well, of course, Paul did know what it was like to experience real suffering. He knew what it was like to cope with an ongoing illness. He knew what it was like to be lonely and to be afraid. But if Paul could be with us this morning, I think he would say there are three things we should remember. And although there is plenty more I could get out of this passage, I want to leave you with these three great truths, because I believe they undergird everything Paul has written in this remarkable letter, and if we allow the Lord to write them on our heart, then I believe our life as a church would be transformed.

First of all, we have a relationship with the Lord can never ever be broken. Let me quote again those words from 1 Thess 5:9-10, which as I think you might guess, are some of my most precious verses in the Bible:

9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

As that modern hymn puts it, No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand; and whatever you are going through this morning, the Lord Jesus is right there with you, with His love, His peace and His mercy. That’s why we can rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. There is no situation where He is not present; no tragedy where we cannot turn to Him in prayer. We have a relationship with Him that can never be broken and will last into eternity. It is called eternal life and it is yours to claim.

Secondly, none of Paul’s words are written to individuals. Loving each other means we meant to be there for each other constantly, weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice. That’s why belonging to a church is an essential part of being a Christian, because Jesus calls us to belong to Him and to each other. And if for any reason you choose not to take part in the life of the church, not only will your faith suffer, but also the faith of those who are deprived of your blessing. Church growth really does come from everyone actually turning up.

And thirdly, let’s end by claiming the wonderful promise that Paul gives us in verse 24: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. Brothers and sisters, I do not know what the future holds for St Barnabas and St Michael’s. But: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. I do not know how these churches are going to grow and to flourish. But: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. I do not know what we will be called to do in His service. But: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

So let’s commit ourselves anew to each other and the Lord, and trust in His unending faithfulness. For His name’s sake. Amen.

Rev Tim


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