Why is the church growing in some lands and not in others? Think of China, Brazil and Zambia, to give just one example from three different continents. None can doubt that the number of born-again Christians in these lands is increasing rapidly. Then turn to look at Scotland. The last 100 to 150 years has seen a steady decline in the number of true Christians. When I began my ministry 35 years ago the Free Church was at least twice the present size of the combined two churches which have descended from it. The Church of Scotland has also halved in size. The same could be said of the other churches in our land. The Charismatics have gone through various cycles of growing and disintegrating. Gifted personalities, often with emotional contemporary music, attract a crowd for a while. This is often at the expense of other congregations. But then there is a split or a scandal and usually the church disappears. It is relatively rare to hear of conversions and to see genuinely changed lives. Why? And why is it that ministers who have struggled for years in this country, when they go abroad to other lands sometimes see dramatic blessing? Others who have experienced church growth in America come to Scotland expecting to usher in a new reformation or national revival only to return home disillusioned after a number of months or years. Britain is spiritually hard. I heard of one man who planted a church in Algeria and saw it flourish in that Muslim country into a congregation of 150. He then came to Liverpool to try to start a church but was brokenhearted at the lack of response. Why?
Church Growth is God’s Work
Genuine church growth is the work of God. No one can convert a single soul by himself. The Bible teaches unconditional election and that only those whom God has predestinated will be saved. Effectual calling and the new birth are the work of God alone. Jesus said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Mt. 16:18). Some preachers have great gifts and speak with amazing eloquence but as Paul states:
My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.1 Corinthians 2:4-5
kerIt takes the power of God to save. Converts made by eloquence, persuasiveness, or the minister’s charming personality will not last.
God withdraws His blessing
We are told that the wind of the Spirit blows where He desires (Jn. 3:8) but that does not mean that it is completely random. God has His plan and there is a pattern to His work. As sovereign Lord He chooses to bless one country or district at one time and another place at another time. Church history reveals God moving His work from one place to another. Revivals come to different countries.
But also, in studying the Scriptures, it becomes plain that God reveals His mercy to Israel more in one century than another. There is such a thing as chastisement and also trial. God is grieved at His people’s sins and their hardening of their hearts. He withdraws His blessing. At certain times His judgment comes upon His people. Cycles of judgment and blessing were particularly obvious in the days of the Judges. In the letters to the churches in Asia there is a warning of the removing of the candlestick (Rev. 2:5). There can be no doubt that God did remove His candlestick from Ephesus. The church there completely disappeared. Surely that is a warning to us in Britain today. As we labour to communicate the Gospel the blessing is not there.
The Cause of Judgment
In Ephesus the judgment came because they left their first love (Rev. 2:4). Is that not the case with us today also? Where is our love for Christ? We love our families, our homes, our possessions, our pleasures, our selves. People grudge giving a whole Sabbath to God. Few serious Christian books are read. Fellowship has to be organised. Little time is spent wrestling with God in prayer. Fasting is almost unheard of. Spare time is spent in front of a television or computer screen. It’s amazing how quickly the hours pass. There is just time for a quick prayer and off to bed. God is jealous. A girlfriend knows something is wrong if her boyfriend spends less and less time with her. Do we love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind? We ought to (Mk. 12:30). Are we not backsliders and does God not have every right to withdraw from us in judgment?
Response to Judgment
Our duty is to repent and do the first works (Rev. 2:5). Search your own heart as an individual Christian. See where you have departed from the ways of the Lord and return to Him. Confess your faults to God. Lay hold by faith on the blood of Christ. Seek the grace of God to change your priorities and paths. Consider the love of Christ and let that love constrain you to new obedience. Our love arises out of His love for us (1 Jn. 4:19). But also as congregations and denominations we ought to humble ourselves before the Lord and return to Him in repentance. Pray to Him to return and revive His own cause amongst us. At the end of the day we are helpless to return to Him but we must pray with the Psalmist: ‘Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?’ (Ps. 85:6).
Wait for God
Since we are under God’s judgment some would argue that all we can do is sit tight waiting for God to have mercy on us and to return to save us. However when the Psalmist speaks of waiting on God, e.g. in Psalm 40, he was certainly not inactive. He cried and he trusted. We must pray to the Lord for deliverance. The Ninevites cried mightily to the Lord (Jonah 3:8). What an example they are to us! Also the work for God must continue. We must preach the Word, evangelise and witness for the Lord. Even although we see nothing happening yet we must continue to sow the seed. There may at present be a famine but one never knows when the Lord may choose to send the refreshing showers. Though little is happening yet one here, and one there, is born again. We must not despise the day of small things. What a marvellous blessing it is to be used even in a minor way in the salvation of one soul! That is worth a lifetime of labour. Remember ‘Your labour is not in vain in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 15:58).