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IS THAT HOW TO BUILD A CHURCH?
by Philip Owen

   One of the driving forces—if not the main thrust— of the church growth movement has been the production of a “seeker-friendly” atmosphere. If only the church could make the message and the atmosphere in which it is delivered more palatable to sinners, they would come, they would listen, and they would be saved. To that end, members of this movement depict Jesus as a loving, gentle, and, although young, grandfatherly figure. How then do they explain that the disciples whom Jesus called, who sat at His feet and were taught His doctrine directly from His mouth, who followed and watched Him daily for three years, and who were commissioned by the Lord to proclaim the message He had given them, behaved in the manner Luke describes in Acts and engendered the responses he records there?

   The Message. The church was inaugurated at Pentecost, and Peter preached his first sermon (after Christ’s resurrection and ascension) on that day. Speaking to a massive crowd made up predominantly of Jews, Peter said this: “Men of Israel, . . . Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:22, 23). By no stretch of the imagination can those words be described as seeker-friendly. Did Peter play hooky on the day Christ taught the lesson on building the church? Did the chief among the twelve ordained by God to begin the church veer dramatically off course right out of the gate? Or did he do exactly what God intended him to do—eschew anything that appealed to the flesh and proclaim the saving gospel that makes no appeal to man’s flesh and condemns sin?

   If Peter’s first message was a mistake, he failed to correct his errors in his second message, doubling down on the same off-putting truths. Speaking to a similar audience and pulling no punches, he announced, “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead . . . . Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away . . . . And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:14, 19, 23). That’s no way to build a church according to those in the church-growth movement. Yet it was the method employed by Peter as he was taught by Jesus Christ and empowered by the Spirit of God at Pentecost to proclaim soul-saving, church-building truth.

   The Method. If you want to build a church, you must use methods that the lost find attractive—or so proponents of the church-growth movement believe. Once again, Peter, the first of the apostles, flunked. When Ananias and Sapphira sold “a piece of property” and gave a sizable donation to the budding church, Peter did not thank them profusely and engrave their names on a bronze plaque to be admired by all. He accused them of lying to God (Acts 5:4) and watched in condign approbation as God executed them on the spot. The result? “Great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). As if that weren’t bad enough from the church-growth perspective, “none of the rest dared to associate with them” (v. 13)! Peter’s method for building the church was to create fear within it and to frighten people outside away from it.

   The Meaning. For us the meaning should be clear. There is never any excuse to be other than kind and to show Christian charity toward the lost. But this kindness and charity do not include modifying the message regarding sin and its consequences. A merely religious organization may be friendly in a way that puts sinners at ease in their sin, but the church of Jesus Christ is going to proclaim a message that will frighten away the rebellious and unrepentant. The greatest of all unkindnesses is a failure to be faithful to the gospel and the glory of God. Building the church requires faithfulness to the reality of sin and the offense of the cross. Any other message may produce a multitude of adherents, but it will not build the church of Jesus Christ.

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