Multiplication and Church Growth
An LCMS pastor recently mused on social media: “Leading people to Jesus takes multiplicative thinking. Not one by one, but multiplying everyone by one.”
Of course, multiplying anything by one yields the same number. This is called the “multiplicative identity property.” There are even videos out there to teach this principle to young children:
You’ll want to be very careful with the above video. It is a guaranteed ear-worm. Dr. Stuckwisch will now have to listen to a complete Megadeth album to get rid of it.
Obviously, I’m poking a little innocent fun here. Lord knows that I have made my share of gaffes. But as a method of church growth, multiplication by one is the very definition of numerical stagnation.
The real problem is that there is a persistent school of thought among western churches that we can “grow the church” through programs, methodologies, leadership, or marketing. I’m not arguing that leadership is a bad thing (it most certainly isn’t, after all, “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd”), nor am I saying that we can’t engage in telling people that we exist through advertising. But I do think we cross a line when evangelism drifts from the sacred (“I cannot by my own reason or strength…) to the profane (“Now how much would you pay?”). There is indeed a vast difference between the Holy Spirit and Ron Popeil.
When we leave behind biblical, confessional, and ecclesial terminology from our Western, Catholic, Augsburg tradition and exchange it for secular slogans, business buzzwords, advertising hype, and other emotion-driven sales techniques to close the deal, we drift away from faith to psychology, transgressing from the supernatural to the ordinary, departing from Luther’s view that we cannot by our own reason or strength “believe in Jesus Christ [our] Lord, or come to Him” and embracing the Arminian view that faith is not really faith, but rather choice - a choice that can be helped along by reason, emotion, coercion, manipulation, or a combination of sales techniques. As the wonderful Arab sales guys at the photography shops on 42nd Street in Manhattan used to say to me back in the day, “I make special deal for you, my friend!” This kind of “outreach” is commonly done by Christians, who are then amazed that people treat the church as if they were customers making choices, or cafeteria diners picking and choosing what suits them.
Arminianism is simply incompatible with our confession. It is an insidious encroachment against the mysterious and divine work of God the Holy Spirit. Arminianism is rejected by our confession from the Small Catechism that every Lutheran young and old has learned and made his own. But Arminianism runs in our fallen veins, from the time of childhood in which we promise to be good if we get a cookie, through adulthood, when we promise to give our children a cookie if they are good. It’s all about choice, and choices can be coaxed. If we can dicker with the salesman in the showroom, why can’t we bargain with God in the heavens? If some people can sell ice to Eskimos, why not sell Jesus to atheists?
Furthermore, why not make the decision fun, a sort-of show?
But the catholic faith is not a cosmic Let’s Make a Deal. There is no “door number one” or opportunity to be convinced by the studio audience to spin the wheel. Nor are we led to Jesus by images of girls and sports-cars and beer during the commercial breaks. Exciting music and dramatic dubbed words with just the right level of emotion do not make Christians.
So how are Christians made? How does the Church grow? In the ordinary mode of evangelism, Christians are indeed a process of multiplication, as Scripture teaches: to Adam, to Noah, and as something the Lord actually blesses us with. We “multiply” with the Lord’s blessing when we carry out our vocations as men and women in bringing forth new life. And this is never a multiplication by one, for each new person conceived in the womb is a new soul, an addition to the household of faith, one who will by God’s grace be born and born again.
Having multiplied by the Lord’s command and by the grace of His creation, we then lead our children to Jesus by bringing them to the font. We physically bring them. And Jesus says not to hinder them. There is no pitch, no slogan, no technique - other than three splashes of water combined with the omnipotent Word of God!
By this method of Church Growth, Christianity blossomed into the world’s largest religion. To be sure, mission work was, is, and ever shall be crucial to bring the Gospel to those corners of the world where darkness reigns. But nevertheless, the Church is always one generation from virtual extinction if Christians do not multiply and do not raise their progeny in the faith. The most common (and the most neglected) mission field is the Christian home.
Our baptized babies are then immersed in the Word, in prayer, in the Divine Service, and in observing father and mother, brother and sister, piously living the Christian faith day by day. Not bringing them to church ought to be as unthinkable as not feeding them.
In old school evangelism, there is no bonus, no salesman of the month, no set of steak knives for second place.
Let us not forget the tenets of the Reformation that the Gospel is not for sale, and that grace is not a commodity. We do not bring people to Jesus with clever arguments, wheeling-and-dealing, or persuading them to “sign on the line which is dotted.” In fact, we do not multiply the Church. Rather, we sow the seed of God’s Word in faith and in faithfulness, by His means of Word and Sacrament.
It is God who decides when and where and how much He multiplies.