In a recent interview in ‘Christianity Today’ magazine, Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the USA, talks about a conversation he had with a Chinese Pentecostal pastor who, at the age of 75, had restarted a church after four decades of communist opposition and persecution.
He told me that when the church re-started 5 years earlier, he had 30 mostly elderly people. But, in answer to my question, he handed me a book with the names of the adult baptized members of the church hand-written on its pages. As I turned page after page, I learned that Pastor Mung’s church now numbered over 1,500 people. I was astonished at this and asked, “How did this happen?” He smiled and I surmised he thought I had asked a typical American question. After all, we Americans are interested in the techniques of church growth: what books did you read, what conferences did you go to, what strategies did you employ? I’ll never forget his answer: “Well,” he said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And we pray a lot.” Then he went on to describe what the Lord had done in that town, including some remarkable healings.
The entire interview is worth reading. In my earlier years as a Christian I was very much influenced by Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity (Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning was the ‘burning bush’ that God first used to get my attention as a young teenager). I’m not so interested in it any more, but I resonated deeply with George Wood’s emphasis on Jesus and prayer.
A few years ago a survey taken among people who had recently started going to church revealed an interesting fact: overall, the new churchgoers were surprised about how hesitant long-time church people were to talk about God. The new churchgoers had assumed that church was all about God; why wouldn’t lifelong church members want to talk about him? And I think this applies all the more to Jesus. We want to talk about service opportunities, action plans, growth statistics, social justice, climate change, pastoral care – all good things, to be sure, and I’ve done more than my share of talking about them. But if the risen Jesus isn’t a living reality to us, how are we any different from social service agencies (apart from being less well-funded?).
No – we have to emphasize what is central to us – Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, and his living presence among us by the power of the Holy Spirit (and if that’s not real to us, then we have some pretty basic problems). And prayer – the way we connect with God, individually and corporately – should surely be our greatest joy, and also our first resort when we’re facing challenges and problems, successes and failures, opportunities and setbacks.
Deep down inside, this is the church growth strategy I really believe in: put Jesus at the centre of our life and message, pray a lot, and teach people to pray. Everything else follows on from that.