WHENEVER the question of church growth surfaces among pastors or church leaders, it presents an opportunity for either boasting one’s achievement for the church or defending the existing condition of the church. Statements like “We have experienced phenomenal growth under my leadership”, “stability is the key to our membership” and “quality is more important than quantity” are some common answers.
More than 2,000 years ago, the prophet Zechariah spoke to the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. In one of those eight reported visions the prophet reported a man measuring Jerusalem (Zechariah 2:1-13). At that time, the Temple was still in ruins and the discouraging sight created doubts among the Jews on the success of its rebuilding task.
Without a proper place of worship, the scepticism of the Jews was understandable. It is not the loss of a physical building but a loss of a human security. The mighty forces of the Babylonians cruelly shattered a previous belief in the inviolability of the city of God, Jerusalem.
Was that a human tendency to link the glorious city and its religious institution to its security? Would the church also look towards its achievement as a divine endorsement of its own security? Impressive architecture, vibrant worship, huge congregations, impressive administrative structures and social networks become human signs of protection and prosperity.
But the proposal of a New “Jerusalem inhabited like villages without walls” was mind-boggling (Zechariah 2:4). How could the elect cope with a city without walls? How could they integrate with friends and foes alike?
The contemporary church faces a similar dilemma. Falling short of the church’s expectation could lead to a ferocious defence of how one read the signs of divine blessing. Confusion arises when people of different social standing quarrel over their integration or projects failed to take off. Where is God who is responsible for defending and blessing the church? It is indeed an irony that “a humiliated and defenceless church must go into a hostile world to rediscover the God-man in the least of his brethren”. (Paul Oestreicher).
Tirelessly, the religious leaders try to work out the implications of having a God that is with the church. If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:31) God remains as the source of security for the elect. Protection does not come from physical walls but God alone who vows to be a wall of fire all around Jerusalem and its glory (Zechariah 2:5).
Besides recognition of the proper place of God in the church, here is a test of trust and discernment. When the chips are down, our leaders must be prepared to look beyond the insurmountable obstacles to reassuring the wavering faithful. Poor progress or external pressure would not change the basic premise of the dependence of the people on God alone. God is with us means that the divine is acting on our behalf. Patience and trust are two virtues that each one of us should acquire as God leads His church through the turbulent periods into the uncertain future.
Glorious years may be waiting ahead of us. Prosperity and peace should not distract us but rather remind us to be thankful of divine blessings. Due honour must be given to God and to His house. Reaching out to the unfortunate and underprivileged ones is an act of our responsibility and privilege. Acting out of one’s gratitude and giving to meet human needs are insufficient. We also need to honour the people without looking at their merits.
Zechariah spoke of a glorious future for the people of God. A church without its wall would not prevent people of different social or ethnic backgrounds to come together to worship God. Could the well-defined and comfortable community accommodate others that are radically different from them? Would the church turn them away, citing a lack of resources or even discomfort? Mission works is never the same again as the church breaks through barriers of culture, race, gender and religion. Peace and unity are needed as the church grows in different phases of life.
Traditional understandings of church growth and mission require constant revision in the face of fresh challenges from society and the world at large. Numerical growth and physical achievement are no longer the indicators of vibrancy of the church. Instead, its readiness to change, to plunge into the unknown and to become wiser from the process of orientation, disorientation and reorientation are signs of its vibrancy.
Larry Dipboye rightly pointed out that “God has a bigger measuring stick for churches than counting bathrooms, budgets or heads”. The church must be one that is pervaded with the spirit of Christ and readily admits men through a baptism of both heart and body. As a community, they must live with few defences and let their relationships reflect liberated prisoners who in turn release others from their isolation from God.
Is your church ready to be the church without border?
Chan Yew Ming is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.