The COVID19 Pandemic has reduced the size of the average evangelical church. An overwhelming majority of churches (88%) have failed to regain their pre-COVID attendance levels. According to a PEW research study, most people who planned to return to church after the mask mandates were rolled back have already reclaimed their spot on the church pew. With each passing day, the rather bleak 2020 Barna estimation that as many as 1 out of every 3 Christians would not return to church appears to be prophetic.
Both those in the pew and behind the pulpit must once again face the question of: How do we grow the local church? Or to borrow, the language of the Gospel of Matthew: How do we expand the kingdom of God?
God’s Plan For Church Growth
In Matthew 9:35, we find Jesus’s plan for kingdom expansion. The verse says, “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” To advance the kingdom of God, pastors do not need to hangout in the metaverse, host town halls, or double down on green goo in the children’s ministry. To press back against the kingdom of darkness, we need to champion and commit to teaching the full counsel of God within the Church, to proclaiming the gospel to the lost, and to caring for the sick and oppressed.
Teach/Preach the Word
We often think of Jesus bouncing about the Judean hillside, holding tent revivals. However, the gospels report that Jesus located much of his teaching ministry within the contexts of local synagogues. Mark, Luke, and John place Jesus’s teaching ministry within these pseudo temple structures whose services were built around Scripture reading and exposition. Luke writes,
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read (Lk 4:16).
In other words, Jesus anticipated the primacy of local church preaching. Gospel expansion occurs through faithful exposition. As the apostle Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim 4:16).” Preaching both protects the church from decay and adds to its number through conversion.
Though preaching proves essential to kingdom expansion, it forever proves controversial. Well meaning men and women will forever call their pastors to preach less and to share more stories, jokes, and illustrations. But the local church must not give into the impulse to hire preachers that preach twenty minutes sermons that feature a joke, two moving stories about the pastor’s dog, and a brief moralistic sentiment about loving one’s neighbor. Such calls for less teaching arise not from faith but from unbelief. Again, Paul tells Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Tim 4:3).” The truth of God’s Word is never irrelevant. Preach the word!
Proclaim the Gospel
In addition to teaching, Jesus proclaimed the gospel. The concept of proclamation in Matthew is tied to evangelistic teaching. Such teaching should occur in the church. Each sermon should articulate humanity’s sinfulness and Jesus’s redemptive actions. As Paul tells Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist.” But the task of proclamation proves not to be the exclusive domain of the pulpitare. All believers should share the gospel in whatever context they find themselves. Jesus preached the coming kingdom of God when eating dinner, when chatting at the local watering hole, when visiting the dead, when resting on the mountain tops, and when walking from town to town. He evangelized all the time. The believer should do the same.
Many will punt on verbal proclamation, pointing to their faithfulness in nominal tasks. In other words, they hope coworkers will come to faith when they observe the Christian’s commitment to the company schedule. Similarly, they believe praying for a meal will bring world transformation. To use the somewhat trite phrase, many think they should “Preach the gospel always and if necessary, use words.” Jesus leaves no room for such a sentiment. The kingdom expands through words and proclamation. Unless we explain our reasons for our faithfulness at work and for our gratitude for the food we eat, the world will never connect the dots back to Christ. If we long to see the kingdom expand, we must proclaim the gospel of God.
Some have wrongfully drawn a line of separation between the practice of teaching and proclaiming and that of caring for earthly needs. Jesus did not believe that proclamation and love of neighbor were at war with one another. He affirmed both saving those whom he healed and healing those whom he saved. While I do not believe the gifts of healing continue today (I have yet to meet someone who could heal people on demand), I do believe the principle of care remains in force. In other words, as the gospel expands into hearts, it should also improve lives. When the apostle Paul prepared to set out for his first missionary journey, the church asked Paul to take an interest in social ministry. Paul writes, “Only they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal 2:10).” As we carry the gospel forth into this dark and dingy world, we will encounter men who need Jesus and help cleaning out their alcohol cabinet. We will bump into women who need Jesus and a safe place to stay as the escape an abusive spouse. We will counsel with those who need Jesus and help paying their electric bill. The faithful Christian responds to both concerns. The author of James reminds us: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,”’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead (Jm 2:14).” If we have been saved, we will both share the gospel and meet needs. The failure to do either militates against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The effects of COVID19 upon the local church can be easily accessed. But so can the plan back towards kingdom expansion. To grow the church, we don’t have to hire some church guru. We need to only reflect upon Jesus who expanded the kingdom through teaching, proclamation, and helping others. And then we do as Jesus did!