Balancing grace and growth in the ministry of the church


I came across an interesting discussion on LinkedIn regarding the state of the American church, namely that the “seeker” model has failed to create real disciples and failed to make an impact in our culture. “Felt needs” (always a poorly defined term) have replaced authentic discipleship, and the church and culture are sick because of it.

There is a pretty fair divide between those who see the role of pastor or church (not “the body of Christ” Church, but local body “church”) as to evangelize and bring people into the body of Christ (the Church), and those who see the main role of the pastor/church as teacher or pedagogue.

The first will use any means necessary to get people through the doors because it sees salvation as the end result. People come to church, hear the gospel, and get saved. If it takes a light show and Starbucks in the lobby to get them in, so be it. I worked at one of these churches for a time and saw the good and bad of it. They were great at getting people in the door, but it didn’t know what to do with them afterward. Growth was secondary. It was part of the program, but was not a primary driver. The church grew and became very influential, and still is. But the leadership had difficulty seeing themselves as something other than a youth group for adults (thankfully I can say that has changed).

The second is less focused on getting people through the doors than with building disciples. There is a focus on orthodoxy, orthopraxy, thinking over feeling, theology, tradition and the building up of believers. This was the church I came from growing up. It did a great job of making sure people were receiving correct instruction and growing in faith and knowledge. But they couldn’t get new people through the doors! At one point the church roughly doubled in size, but this was due primarily to an influx from other churches in the area. Now that church is failing, as they haven’t reached anyone who hasn’t been reached already. It did a better job at depth, but eventually it became a “holy huddle”, bemoaning the fact that nobody wanted to come and be more biblical than the other guys on the block.

I’ve heard it said that the gospel itself should be the draw, and that we shouldn’t cajole people to come to hear it with songs and dances. That’s probably correct. Nothing bothered me more than to hear people leave the Sunday service at the church I worked at saying “wasn’t that music great?” or “wasn’t the preacher funny today?” as if that was all that church was for. But then again, I was equally bothered by my more conservative church when people fought openly – and left the church – over having a space for young folks to gather for coffee after the service. I think that puts a stumbling block in front of many who don’t feel welcome in a church by hiding the gospel among demands for depth and sacrifice that non-believers simply can’t fathom to entertain because they only hear the call to obedience, not the grace that calls us to obedience.

I’ve had many co-workers say to me that they would never go to church, not because they didn’t believe in God or Jesus, but because they weren’t good enough. Pastor A responds “hey c’mon in, grab some coffee and hear some great stuff about how to make your life better!”, and then challenges them only by giving and serving. Pastor B responds “you need Jesus in your life, which means you have to understand how horrible you are so you better straighten up and fly right, and don’t bother suggesting anything new because this isn’t about you.”

In short, Pastor A tends to preach grace without obedience, while Pastor B preaches obedience without grace.

Neither is a good option, but I’d guess that the majority (maybe – hopefully – not the vast majority) fall into one camp or the other.

One issue is that regardless of what Pastor B thinks, “felt needs” matter. People come to Jesus because of “felt needs” – I hurt, I’m in despair, my life is a wreck. To say that these needs don’t matter is to say that the people who feel those needs don’t matter. When ministers say that we are called to put ourselves aside and forsake ourselves to follow Christ, I think that can only come from a place of healing and hope, not from pain and suffering. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is influenced by and influences every other area of our life: our relationships, our emotional health, or physical well-being. Preachers who dismiss needs, be they real or perceived, as irrelevant and “selfish” compartmentalize faith and don’t reach the whole person.

I think we as leaders and ministers need to walk the tenuous tightrope of preaching grace which leads to obedience. I think we need to have growth as the goal, not “sainthood”. If we project sainthood, which I would call being completely orthodox in thought, word and deed, as the only possible goal of discipleship then you will necessarily lead people to despair and confusion over their own salvation. Yes we are called to be “perfect” but that perfection comes from the power of the Spirit, not from the sweat of our brow and how much Calvin we can quote. I think that seeing “sainthood” as the end goal also leads to hubris in the church and ultimately to stagnation. If we know all we need to know, where can growth happen? If depth is marked by only reading and studying what you already know, then where is growth?

If believers are growing, that is cause to rejoice. Some will grow faster and farther than others. But that does not mean that those that grow less are failures or need to “try harder”. I think to do so is to promote comparison to an earthy model, which usually ends up being the pastor (“if only you read the scriptures daily like I do, pray like I do, tithe like I do…”) rather than to a heavenly one.

So I think part of the solution is for leaders to quit putting themselves up as saints to be emulated and instead present themselves as fellow travelers and sufferers on the journey, who point to Christ and not themselves or any other person or “-ism”, and who humble themselves not only before Christ but before the congregation they serve. I think if that happens everything else works out.

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