My wife loves red raspberries. The trouble is, raspberries are expensive. So I planted three healthy raspberry plants in our garden. I added fertilizer, wood chips, and water. A year later the three little plants multiplied—to fifty! I was amazed, and so was my wife, who is enjoying the season's daily supply of mouth-watering raspberries.
The analogy, of course, is simple: what dynamics cause a church body to thrive and multiply, like the raspberry plants? What is the environment in which God is free to step in and make a church grow? "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Cor. 3:6, NIV). Researcher Christian Schwartz sought to understand church development from studying growing churches.1 After researching 1,000 churches on six continents, he concluded that eight characteristics were closely linked to spiritual and numerical growth (see Ministry, January 2001, p. 9). The preceding article in this series of three dis cussed the first four of these eight principles (see Ministry, March 2001). This final article addresses the remaining four of these characteristics exposed in the church program called Natural Church Development (NCD).
Sadness and depression had gripped the two men traveling the road to Emmaus as Jesus approached them. As He opened the Scriptures to them and showed that the Word pointed to Him, a new passion burned inside the two men. Overcome with joy they ran to tell friends.
This kind of passionate spirituality is found in a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship based upon God's grace and kindness and the disclosure of Himself to us. The practice of spiritual disciplines such as Bible study, prayer, and meditation have the purpose of opening us up to recognizing the Lord's presence and hearing the Spirit's joyful assurance that we are, indeed, the children of God (Rom. 8:16). Knowing that Jesus lives and getting in contact with God's grace through Him is what fires passionate spirituality!
Practical actions that increase passionate spirituality in a congregation include: + Encouraging church leaders to devote time to Bible study and prayer.
- Making sure church members are serving in roles best suited to their spiritual gifts.
- Mobilizing those with the gift of inter essory prayer into a prayer ministry.
- Leading involvement in weekly small groups.
- Preaching sermons on God's grace and how to know Him.
Passionate spirituality affects our relationships with others. Jesus said that "'all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another'" (John 13:35, NIV). The expression of God's love in a church body generates a magnetic attraction. And with love comes unity.
It is difficult, however, to enhance loving relationships in the church if love is absent at home. The expression of love between a husband and wife needs encouragement. Parents need empowerment to repeatedly show and tell their children, "I love you." Increasing the expression of love in a congregation takes time because it is not done simply through a program but through the building of relation ships.
Small groups are an exceptional way to nurture love and form positive relationships. The acts of spending time together, getting acquainted with one another, and learning to trust each other in God's presence helps create an environment in which love grows. In a loving climate, fear dissolves.
Simple steps to increase loving relationships in a church body include:
- Activating the formation and practice of attending small groups.
- Proclaiming a sermon series on the way Jesus loved people.
- Planning marriage and family events facilitating the expression of love and appreciation at home.
- Using the art of listening in order to better understand others.
The forging of loving relationships is a vital key to outreach. Jesus put the needs of others first. Jesus first fed the five thousand and then shared, "'I am the bread of life'" (John 6:35, NIV). Jesus stood up for the condemned adulterous woman. Then he shared, "'Neither do I condemn . . . Go now and leave your life of sin'" 0ohn 8:11, NIV). Jesus earned the right to be heard. When we reveal God's com passion and meet the needs of others we begin to win a hearing. Meeting felt needs can lead to meeting spiritual needs. Jesus' way of reaching people still works today: "The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow me.'"2
Need-oriented evangelism means focusing on the needs and questions of non-churched friends. Evangelism is not merely a program or event. It is loving and reaching people with the gospel. "Most men and women are not looking for religion, nor do they have the time or inclination to ask themselves questions about the meaning of life . . . but most men and women are looking for love."3
Some ways of developing a program of need-oriented evangelism in a local church include:
- Identifying and empowering those with the spiritual gift of evangelism.
- Equipping members to pray for their relational network, which consists of friends, family, neighbors, and work colleagues.
- Inviting those receptive into small groups.
Holistic small groups
The most compelling characteristic for healthy church growth lies in the area of holistic small groups.4 Many church leaders will find this claim simplistic or too challenging. The reality is that many churches sustain no small group life. Yet small groups are the principal way to empower nurture, fellowship, spiritual gift discovery, evangelism, and leadership development.
What happens in a holistic small group? A healthy emphasis is placed on applying the Bible to personal needs. Here immediate personal concerns are shared and brought to God in prayer. In groups edification and mutual encouragement can occur more easily than in larger congregational gatherings.
In our local church, the first NCD survey revealed small groups as our weakest characteristic. As a result we focused for nine months on raising up small-group leaders. Coaches sup ported and equipped our small group leaders. Assistant leaders were groomed to launch new groups from existing groups.
Considerations for starting a small group ministry include:
- Asking God for a vision for reproducing small group ministry.
- Starting with clearly defined group leaders and apprentices in training under the leaders.
- Providing coaching to every small group leader.
- Multiplying the group once it reaches ten people.
Church leaders can then empower the church body to strengthen weak characteristics. Our church did. We moved from one small group to more than ten. Be innovative and adapt able, and pray for a vision, involving your local leadership in the development of an effective small group ministry.
We're now planting two churches and hope to eventually start the whole process over, and then over, and over again. . . .
It's not quite as easy as growing raspberries, but the fruits last for eternity.
1 Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (Carol Stream, 111.: ChurchSmart Resources, 1998).
2 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1942), 143.
3 Arther G. McPhee, Friendship Evangelism (Grand Rapids, Mien.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1978), 56.
4 Schwarz, 33.