Sermon: Who Grows the Church?

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
Listen to the Sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you think about growth in the Church, it’s easy to become depressed. Christianity in North America has been in catastrophic decline for decades. We can feel it in our own congregation. What if I told you that the Lutheran Church is growing and growing dramatically? Would you believe me? It is growing in other parts of the world. The largest Lutheran church body in the world is in Ethiopia. When it was founded in 1959, it had only 20,000 members. When the country fell to communism, the Church suffered brutal persecution. But the Church not only survived; it grew. By 2007, the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia had nearly 2.3 million members. In 2013, that number had grown to more than 6.1 million. As of 2019, the Church reported a membership of 10.4 million members. The story is similar elsewhere in Africa.

When you hear this, you might be tempted to ask, “What are they doing that we are not?” In fact, when we see thriving churches here in North America, we tend to ask the same question. “What is that Church doing? How can we emulate that and grow also?” Have you ever thought that? Surprisingly, our Epistle reading highlights how wrong this line of thinking is. We’re asking a simple question this morning: Who grows the Church? We’ll let St. Paul, the apostle, answer for us.

Growth does not depend on us

St. Paul describes the Corinthian believers’ spiritual growth as stunted. They’re immature, still infants in Christ. Why? They were divided into factions and spent most of their time quarrelling with each other over their favourite pastors. “I follow Herbolscheimer”, cries one. “I follow Teuscher”, retorts another. They have an immature attachment to one pastor over another.

Paul responds by saying it was not the pastors who served them that caused the growth. It was not their methods nor their personalities, or anything else. St. Paul uses the image of farming to describe the Church and its pastors. The Church is God’s field or farm, and pastors are the farmers. Paul planted the seed of the Word (Lk 8:11). Apollos watered what Paul had sown. Paul’s point is that God made the plants grow all along. Since God keeps giving growth, pastors are nothing special in themselves. All their efforts would be of no avail apart from the direction and power of God. The farmers can only do what they are told to do. They cannot make the seed come to life. They are always totally dependent on God for any growth. The growth is not up to us, whether in our individual life or as a church. St. Paul’s metaphor points out that God causes plants’ growth in a field, so God is responsible for growth in the Church. It is God who makes the Church grow.

Paul says that he and Apollos were nothing more than ‘servants through whom you believed’. The word ‘servant’ can mean “table waiter.” Pastors are simply the waiters who serve the food, while God is responsible for choosing and cooking it. What matters is that God is in charge of the kitchen. That food, the spiritual food, is the Word of God. If you are God’s field, then the Word of God is the good seed (Lk 8:4-15). Pastors are responsible for feeding you God’s Word. They plant or water the seed of God’s Word in you. They don’t make you grow. They don’t grow the Church. They preach and teach the Word and administer God’s Sacraments so that the Holy Spirit can use the Word to bring growth.

And yet, we expect our pastors to grow the Church. Call committees often ask pastors, “How will you grow our congregation?”  We want a human, man-made formula, program or magic wand.  Many seek to grow the Church by using the methods and techniques borrowed from the world. They think if they adopt some of the world’s ideas or some of the world’s entertainment styles, that this will grow the Church. Replace the liturgy with a praise band. Become more inclusive and affirming, and the Church is bound to grow.  If we do X, then the Church will grow. We end up thinking that church growth is under our control. We believe that if we do specific things, we will cause growth. St. Paul, however, says precisely the opposite. The only answer to that call committee question is that pastors are not called to grow the Church. Pastors are called to plant the seed of the Word of God and water it, but God gives the growth. 

 You cannot grow yourself. Your works and efforts do not cause your growth because growth is the work of God. The work doesn’t come from our own efforts but from the Holy Spirit. Adopting the ways of the surrounding culture will not grow the Church. Growth doesn’t come from us. Young pastors cannot grow the Church, and you cannot grow the Church. The source of growth is entirely and utterly outside of us and our control. While we can plant some seeds and we can water the field, we cannot make the growth.

Since we depend completely on God, we must rely upon him to grow the Church. Instead of attempting to grow the Church by our own efforts, we must have confidence that God will give the growth through the means he’s appointed. We mustn’t rely upon the methods and techniques of our culture. We must entrust our parish and its future to the Word of Almighty God. Only God gives the growth, and he gives it through the Word.

 Growth depends on God

When we try to take the growth of the Church into our own hands, we wreck it all, time after time. We become frustrated when we see small numbers, and we look for somebody to blame. But today, Jesus is reassuring us that this is his Church. It’s God’s farm! The field and the growth belong to God! That means you, St. Peter’s, also belong to God. And Praise God: the growth is up to him! The kingdom of God is growing, and it is growing his way: through the faithful proclamation and teaching of God’s Word through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. These are the gospel means, the means of grace that the Spirit uses. This is the seed that God has given us to sow. God gives the growth, and it’s all packed into the seed–the lowly, seemingly insignificant seed of God’s Word. The seed is the message of the cross of Christ. It’s a word that seems powerless but is full of life.

Does this mean we can just “let go and let God?” Is this a case of “Jesus take the wheel?” If God gives the growth, then I don’t have to do anything. Right? No. That’s precisely not the attitude which St. Paul has here. Instead, Paul says that pastors are God’s co-workers. The Church is the field, and pastors are God’s fellow farmers. As Christ, our Lord, said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:37–38). This means that pastors must work hard to preach and teach the Word. Your pastors are only instruments used by the Spirit for your spiritual benefit.

Jesus is the one who gives you life. He does it by using the gospel, the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for your salvation. God’s Son came down from heaven to live and die for you when you had no life in yourself. He fulfilled the law on your behalf, the law you broke. He was planted in the ground, buried like a seed that was sown. And out of his death comes resurrection life, life everlasting–always green, forever green. The seed is God’s Word. It will produce growth in us as Christians and in us as Church.

All the life-giving, growing power comes from God, and it is packed into the seed that is the Word. The growth may be gradual. It may be hard to notice from day to day. It can seem like two steps forward and one step back. Or sometimes one step ahead, two steps back. My growth can seem awfully uncertain and shaky to me. But God is doing his work, just as he promises. This is why we always need the Word of God, week after week, year after year. Our Christian life is one of often unspectacular but steady growth. It’s growth over the long haul in faith, discipleship, and love for God and others.

If we want to grow, we cannot do it ourselves. God will grow us through his Word. Pastors don’t grow the Church. Fancy techniques or programmes don’t grow the Church. Only God, through his Word, grows the Church. The hard Word of the Law and the priceless Word of the Gospel. He uses pastors to bring this Word to his people. Even today, God has prepared for you a feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation. He declares his Word to you. God feeds you with the very Body and Blood of Christ. Through his Word, he grows you, and he grows the Church. Instead of being anxious about the future, let us entrust ourselves, our whole lives, and his holy Church into his competent hands. God surely knows how to grow his Christians and his own Holy Church. 

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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