Being a Baptist in Texas the very air that I breathe is full of evangelism, growth, outreach, and marketing. Everything is either big or needs to be bigger and it seems that the church is no exception. Here in Big Texas (and America seems to be just a bigger version of Texas) it’s all about Big Business and trans-national corporations, mega-churches, and mega-plexes. We want Big Answers and Big Solutions to Global Problems and we want to super-size everything from fries to storage buildings to football stadiums. Politicians and economists of every persuasion keep telling us that a bigger economic pie is the answer to everyone’s concerns. Closer to home, every day I receive mailings and emailings on how to grow, be bigger, reach more people, raise massive amounts of money, train more people, build bigger buildings, have a bigger sound system, a bigger music program, a bigger youth program, get a bigger church van, where to order a bigger pulpit, or how I can get a bigger Bible with larger print (okay, so I’m keeping that one). In other words, bigger is always better; it is a sign of blessing and success, and if we’re not getting bigger then something is wrong.
When we open the New Testament and read Jesus, the contrast is startling. He talks about seeds, shrubs, leaven, sparrows, lost coins, and lost sheep. Instead of big productions he washes feet and every time he gathers a big crowd, off he goes to be alone. Instead of seeking power he seems intent on giving it up. Faithfulness is talked about a lot while success never seems to come up. About the closest he came to defining a church is “two or three gathered in my name,” and when he talks about growth, he talks about a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, growing into a shrub or a small tree.
I am well aware that evangelism and growth is also part of the New Testament. I grew up on hearing sermons and Sunday School lessons on The Great Commission. From late childhood onward I was trained in “personal evangelism” – how to go door-to-door asking people if they knew Jesus as “their personal savior” and if they didn’t, how to hand them a tract that would explain it to them. I know by heart the stories of the remarkable growth of the New Testament church – how, for example, Peter and the Disciples baptized 3,000 new converts on Pentecost (Acts 2: 41). I know all this but I wonder just the same.
My concern is not with the teachings of the New Testament on growth and evangelism. What I wonder about is whether in our contemporary context in the United States, much of the church has conflated evangelism with capitalism, and become confused enough that we don’t know the difference in the growth brought on by the Holy Spirit and growth brought about by slick marketing campaigns.
What I do know is that much of the evangelical church has long made a distinction between the end of the gospel (interpreted as “getting saved”) and the means, and has abstracted the word of the gospel from the flesh of the gospel incarnated in a people called the church. In the past we left a tract, now we use the latest technology, but we still have narrowed the good news of Jesus to one concept – ask Jesus into your own individual heart – and severed it from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his body, the church. Isolated and abstracted this narrowed call to get people saved has become entangled with consumer capitalism so that a church’s success is tied to making a profit (growth in the “three B’s” – bodies, budgets, and buildings); local congregations become franchises of successful mega-churches and denominational offices using the same marketing plans and success strategies, and people are reduced to religious consumers who go church shopping, looking for the best congregation to meet their spiritual needs just as they go shopping for the best dentist to fix their teeth. No wonder we have to look hard to tell the difference between the Wal-Mart or the shopping mall on one side of the interstate and the mega-church on the other. A bigger question is whether we can tell the difference in the people produced?
The answer is not to cease doing evangelism and become lazy with being little. Evangelism is part of the gospel. We are called to share the good news, but our sharing has more to do with mustard seeds than it does with McDonalds. Mustard seed evangelism is the slow, long-haul work of relationship and intimacy, self-giving and forgiveness, worship and prayer, and living the Way of Jesus so that when someone asks us why we live in such a way we can tell them and invite them to become part of God’s Way in Christ incarnated in the church (I Peter 3: 15). When we are faithful to Jesus, we can trust God that we’ll grow. And if the growth is large, then it’ll be because the Holy Spirit came while we waited and prayed.