Building Back Better: Church Growth After Covid-19

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.

Help Others

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

Why Did Jesus Stop Doing Miracles?

The story of how Jesus brought Jairus’s dead twelve-year-old daughter back to life resonates with our souls (Matt 9:18-23). The deep sorrow of associated with burying a child has few equals. It is a special kind of anguish that brutalizes the heart. What parent would not run to Jesus as Jairus did, longing to hear his child laugh again?

The story also presents us with a problem of eternal proportions: Where is Jesus now? What about today’s children who are wasting away in hospitals? Why does Jesus not come to our homes?

Since no Christian can see into the secret mind of God, we should not speculate about the intent of God’s secret will. We do not know it. We do not know why some live to 80 and others die at 8 weeks.

Why Jesus Left

But we do know why Jesus left earth. He could have set up a permanent health clinic in Judea and healed the sick without end. People today could still be talking of that time when Jesus spoke over Fred and his cancer disappeared. But they don’t because Jesus understood that such healings were temporary. Everyone whom Jesus healed in the New Testament has long since died. Had Jesus hung up a shingle and gone into the professional healing business, his ministry would have never ended. Such a healing ministry would have addressed the symptoms of humanity’s problem (though not in a universal since as Jesus was bound by the limits of time and space) without addressing the root cause of our problems: the curse of sin and death. In other words, Jesus goes and dies on the cross so that humanity can spend eternity in a world with no sin, death, and misery. The empty tomb addressed the root cause of all our problems. In short what is even greater than an extended life on earth is an eternity in heaven.

In 1929, the famous preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones reflect upon a similar dilemma when he had exchanged the doctor’s stethoscope for the pastor’s pulpit in 1925. People would have easily understood and celebrated Lloyd-Jones had he given up being a bookie to preach. But giving up medicine…surely the healing of the sick was a noble profession. Lloyd-Jones responded:

I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to then end; but a man with a healthy body and a diseased soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face an eternity of hell…We have sometimes to give up those things which are good for that which is best of all – the joy of salvation.

Jesus no longer walks among us because he wanted to free us from the whole tragedy of death and dying once and for all. Because he died, we get to live forever without sickness. As Jesus tells us in John 14:3: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Jesus left to conquer sin and death for us.

Does God Still Heal?

Though Jesus ascended into heaven, Christians should continue to take their health concerns to Jesus. When their children feel the weight of illness, mom and dad should ask Jesus to heal their precious child for he instructed his followers to ask him to “Give us this day our daily bread.” No one can doubt that health proves to be one of our must urgent daily needs. God still dispenses the gifts of healing sometimes supernaturally and sometimes through normal medical means. Jesus still heals.  

What About My Loss?

But when he does not heal, we should not despair for as Jesus told Jairus and later those who mourned the death of Lazarus, death proves not to be the permanent end of human existence but rather to be a type of sleep, a transition to eternity (Matt 9: John 11. In other words, the goodness of God reigns even during and after death. The puritan, pastor John Flavel beautifully encapsulated Jesus’s sentiment when he wrote:

Look not upon the dead as a lost generation; think not that death has annihilated and utterly destroyed them. On no, they are not dead, but only asleep; and if asleep, they shall awake again. You do not…make outcries and lamentations for your children, and friends, when you find them asleep upon their beds. Why, death is but a longer sleep out of which they shall as surely awake as ever they did in the morning in this world.

The dead in Christ are not lost. The end goal of Jesus’s ministry was not an eternal life of misery here on earth but rather an eternal life of glory in the new heavens and the new earth. Those who trust in Jesus though they die reside with him forever.

As for those of us left behind, we too need not despair. The Jesus who responded kindly to the simple and slightly misinformed faith of a woman with the flow of blood who touched his clothes invites us to bring our problems to him. Even those who struggle with fear, anger, and fractured theology will find deliverance and life if they will but make Jesus the object of their faith. As the Puritan Richard Sibbs helpfully reminds us, “God can pick out sense out of the confused prayer (50).” No problem is too great for God and no amount of faith is too small. If we will but go to Jesus as Jairus did, he will come to our home and deliver us from our griefs and sorrows. Jesus reigns.  

Final Thoughts

Do not begrudge, Jesus for going back to heaven and removing the miracle shingle. In doing so, he did something far greater than extending our loved one’s life for a few years. He made it so we could all spend eternity with him in a world forever free from sin and death. God is Good. May God help us all trust him more.

Where Did All the Miracles Go: Jesus, the Supernatural, & the Empty Tomb

The western preoccupation with the supernatural leads modern men and women to prioritize accounts of healing and of spectacular alterations within the physical world. Even in the imaginary worlds of comic book heroes which often mimic societal norms, the heroes validate their uniqueness through displays of self-healing and superhuman strength that defy the limits of nature. When modern readers encounter the Jesus of the New Testament, many somewhat predictably demand that Jesus prove his divinity through the manipulation of scientific laws within the modern context. They want to see Jesus heal someone today.

Why Jesus Did Miracles

While Jesus certainly carried out hundreds of miracles throughout his lifetime as attested to by the first four books of the New Testament and by secular authors such as Josephus and Tacitus who labeled Jesus “a miracle worker,” Jesus never saw the miracles associated with his teaching ministry as the ultimate proof of his divinity. He performed healings, led exorcisms, and calmed storms to prepare his audiences and the modern reader for the greatest act of all, the resurrection.

In Matthew 9:1-8, the Pharisees take issue with Jesus when he tells a disabled young man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” They complain that Jesus’s sentiment while nice is completely unprovable. Anyone can promise the remission of sin. Only God can grant it. To prove that he has the power to forgive sins, Jesus responds to his critics and says,

“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home.

In other words, Jesus heals the man to establish that he can do something even greater. He can forgive sins. The means of accomplishing this forgiveness proves to be the ultimate miracle of all, the theological telos of all miracles past and present.

Just One More

When the Pharisees come back to Jesus in Matthew 12:38-40, asking for one more proof of his divinity, Jesus responds to their demand with a cryptic allusion to the prophet Jonah whose ministry prefigures Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (40).” The implication remains clear. The greatest sign of Jesus’s divinity is the cross and the empty tomb.

Men and women who walk about with contempt for Jesus because he has not performed a miracle in the last decade fundamentally misunderstand the point of Jesus’s miracles. They do not stand in isolation. Yes, they affirm his Messiahship, but they do something more. They point to the cross. If that does not convince someone that Jesus is the Messiah, nothing will. Nothing proves harder than overcoming sin and liberating sinners from death. Abraham failed, Moses failed, and King David failed at this. For all their greatness, they all fell victim to sin. Only Jesus was able to resists the temptations of the devil and conquer death. He alone can heal sinners. In other words, Jesus does not have to perform additional miracles today for nothing is greater, mightier, or more significant than living a sinless life, dying unjustly, and then rising from the dead. The forgiveness of sins depends exclusively upon this miracle. Nothing can top it.

Jesus concluded in Matthew 12:41:

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold something greater than Jonah is here.

Those who demand that Jesus must do one more miracle so they can believe devalue the empty tomb, the vary apex of Jesus’s ministry on earth. If the greatest earthly miracle cannot convince a person to believe, the miraculous curing a quadriplegic will undoubtedly prove ineffective. Even if God where to raise someone from the dead, the skeptical modern soul still would not believe (Lk 16:29-31). The problem facing modern men and women is not one of a lack of miracles but one of a lack of faith. The empty tomb is more than enough. Will you believe?