|Spiritual Renewal and Church Growth
I recently saw an advertisement which made the claim that a particular seminar could bring revival. "Your church can be revived," it announced. "This seminar will bring spiritual renewal to your congregation." The ad held out the hope, even the promise, that any church could be renewed if they would only host the seminar and follow its principles. Is spiritual renewal the sort of thing that can be generated by a seminar? Are there some mechanistic guidelines for experiencing spiritual renewal? Is church revival something as simple as having the right seminar, the right speakers, or the right method?
Of course, most of us would balk at any such notions. We recognize that spiritual renewal is not like assembling a computer workstation where if we follow the blueprint the product will naturally come together. There are no such blueprints for spiritual renewal. There are no detailed, step-by-step strategies which guarantee spiritual renewal. Nevertheless, we often fall into the trap of thinking about church revival in those kinds of terms. We have all thought, said or heard said, "Our problem is we don't have gospel meetings anymore," or "If we'd only begin this program, then the church would truly grow," or "We need to have this speaker here because he would really motivate us and get us going." The danger of these sentiments is that they look at the problem of renewal superficially. They do not see the deeper spiritual problems which lie underneath. Are a lack of gospel meetings, the best speakers and a particular program the problem, or is it the heart of God's people which needs pricked? Is the problem that we are not working the problem with the right method, or is the problem that we are working the problem without the right focus?
As we think about spiritual renewal and church revival, we must keep three important principles in mind.
First, spiritual renewal cannot come through our own best efforts. Revival cannot be conjured up by some magical formula, method or seminar. We must recognize that we cannot draw upon our own resources for renewal. We cannot renew ourselves as independent, autonomous persons. Neither can a church renew itself by pulling itself up by its own bootstraps and kicking itself into high gear. Church renewal is not guaranteed by a human method, a new building, a new preacher or a new eldership. If we pursue spiritual renewal through such efforts as if we can obtain it simply by doing the right things, then we have misunderstood the real source of renewal. Very quickly our methodological decisions will be based upon mere pragmatism, and we will attempt to reproduce the successes of others by focusing on their method. In fact, it may not have been the method at all, but the one who used the method, that is, God gave increase through that method, not because of the method, but because of the hearts of his people. Methods do not revive, God does. Of course, it is possible that the increase was not God's work at all, but is merely the temporary, superficial effect of pragmatic methods which gave the appearance of spiritual renewal. Human charisma can motivate many people, but it cannot offer spiritual renewal. Only God can renew the heart.
Renewal does not arise out of our own efforts, but flows from the Spirit of God. God renews his people; he sends his power among them and invigorates their lives and ministries. We are strengthened and renewed in the inner person through the Spirit of God (Eph. 3:16; 2 Cor. 4:18). Genuine renewal is accomplished through divine power and strength (Eph. 6:10), and all other renewal depends upon human charisma and ingenuity which are fleeting. This is the constant emphasis of Paul. God is the one who began the work in us, and he is the one who will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). God is the one who gives increase to the church; God is the one "who makings things grow" (1 Cor. 3:7).
The quality which most hinders spiritual renewal is the human pride which congratulates itself on achieving great things for God as if human accomplishments are the root cause. When a seminar takes credit for church revival, when a counselor takes credit for saving a marriage, when a minister takes credit for a conversion, when a method takes credit for spiritual renewal, the danger is that pride will suppress genuine renewal, grieve the Spirit of God, and reveal the superficiality of what was accomplished. In everything, God is to be thanked, and God is to be given the credit. We are mere waterers and planters, but God makes things grow. All genuine spiritual renewal flows from him, and he gives it according to his gracious purposes.
Second, spiritual renewal cannot come without our own best efforts. While our own best efforts are not the source or the cause of spiritual renewal, without those efforts spiritual renewal will not come. To confess that God is the source of my spiritual strength and to understand that God renews his people by his Spirit does not mean that we are passive receptacles who idly await God's work. On the contrary, we are God's active instruments, not his passive loiters who wander aimlessly in the kingdom of God. God is the one who gives the increase, but he gives that increase through the active watering and planting of his servants (1 Cor. 3:6-7). We are God's fellow-workers; we are participants, his instruments, in the great work of building the church of God (1 Cor. 3:9). While Paul recognizes that God began and will complete his work in the Philippians, he also rejoices in their "partnership in the gospel" (Phil. 1:5).
Paul constantly calls his readers to renewal, to struggle for the kingdom, to offer their lives in the service of God's work. Paul calls upon us to offer ourselves as a "living sacrifice" and to be "transformed by the renewing" of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Paul calls us to "to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self" (Eph. 4:23-24). Paul exhorts, "Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). He tells Archippus, "See to it that you complete the work you have received from the Lord" (Col. 4:17). Paul offers his own life as a model, an example, of one who is always involved in the struggle for God's kingdom. He puts out his own best efforts in the service of Christ because his goal is to "present everyone perfect in Christ," and "to this end," he writes, "I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me" (Col. 1:28-29).
There is almost a paradoxical relationship between the two principles I have offered above. It is reflected in the last text which I quoted, that is, Paul struggles, but the power of God works in him to enable him to persevere in that struggle. This paradoxical relationship is exhibited in all dimensions of our life with God. God saves, but he does not save unbelievers (Eph. 2:8-10). God saved Israel from Babylonian exile, but he did not save without Cyrus (Is. 45:1ff). God transforms us through his Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18), but calls us to transform ourselves (Rom. 12:2). God sanctifies us (2 Thess. 5:23), but calls us to sanctify ourselves (1 Pet. 3:15). God works through his servants--God is the ground and source, but his servants are active participants in, instruments for, his work. Consequently, God will use our methods, our pragmatic decisions, our seminars, and our programs if we use them to his glory and according to his purposes. Congregations, then, ought to pursue methodological discussions; they must make pragmatic decisions; they must evaluate the effectiveness of programs; and they must decide which seminars to host or whether to host any seminars at all. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that spiritual renewal does not rest in those efforts even though they may be the instruments through which God renews his people.
This paradoxical relationship is expressed in a famous text in Philippians. We quite commonly quote the first part of the text without reading the rest of it. We have all heard the command to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling," but we have not always heard the reason Paul says this. We must work out our salvation because "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:12-13). We actively pursue the will of God, we actively pursue spiritual renewal and church revival, but we recognize that whatever good is accomplished is God's work through us. God does the good work, and he brings it to fruition (2 Thess. 1:11). God must receive the credit for whatever renewal flows from our decisions and actions. Recognizing this permits us to see the importance of the next point.
Third, the primary tool of spiritual renewal is prayer. When Paul asks churches for help, he asks for prayers (Rom. 15:30-32; 1 Thess. 5:25), and thanks God for the effectiveness of those prayers (2 Cor. 1:10-11). When he looks forward to future evangelistic activity, he asks for prayers (Col. 4:3-4; Eph. 5:19-20; 2 Thess 3:1-3). Paul understands that God opens doors (1 Cor. 16:8-9; 2 Cor. 2:12), and it is through the prayers of God's people that he opens those doors (Col. 4:3).
It is little wonder, then, why Paul almost always includes a prayer section in his epistles where he thanks God for the faith and joy of believers and also prays for those believers. In Philippians he thanks God for their partnership (1:3) and prays that their love may abound and bear the fruit of righteousness (1:9-11). In Colossians he thanks God for their faith and love (1:3-4) and prays that they may be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding (1:9). In Ephesians, on two occasions (1:15ff; 3:16ff), he prays that God would give them "the Spirit of wisdom and revelation" that they might "know him better" (1:17). In the Thessalonian letters Paul thanks God for their work (1 Thess. 1:2-3) and faith (2 Thess 1:2), and fills his words with prayers for the believers in Thessalonica. He prays that God will increase their love and strengthen their hearts (1 Thess. 3:12-13), that God would sanctify them fully (1 Thess. 5:23), that God would fulfill their every good purpose and act of faith (2 Thess. 1:11), that God would encourage their hearts (2 Thess. 2:17), and that God would give them peace (2 Thess. 3:16).
Clearly the most important tool of church growth is not a particular method, a dynamic program and a motivational seminar, but prayer. Renewal comes from God, not programs. Revival comes through God's Spirit, not through gospel meetings. We must ask for God's blessing and expect those blessings as we are faithful to the task given to us. Prayer becomes the centerpiece of evangelism. It is not the right technique, the right words, the salesmanship of the evangelist, but it is God who works through us to give the increase. When we focus on methods, we will fail to see God's fruit. We may achieve success, but it will be short-lived or personality-dependent if God is not the one giving the increase.
A growing church is one which has been blessed by God--God has given his grace to that believing community (Acts 11:22-23). Consequently, a church committed to revival, committed to growth, must fundamentally and foundationally be a praying church. We see this throughout the book of Acts (e.g., 4:23-31; 13:3) and in the letters of Paul (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:1; Col. 4:3). Church growth is a divine blessing, not a human achievement. Church growth is a divine act, and, as Ken Hemphill states, "If you want to see your church grow, teach your church to pray." As we seek God's blessings in prayer, God will be faithful according to his gracious purposes.
The first theological step, then, to spiritual renewal is to recognize that God gives it. The first practical step to spiritual renewal is to ask God for it. Within the framework of those two steps, we must then fully devote ourselves to the work of the Lord, explore all the revelant tools which God in his providence has given his church, and we will then discover that our work will not be in vain though it may not produce the results we would most desire. We must water and plant, but God will give the increase. We must be faithful to our task and permit God in his sovereign grace to give the church its growth.
First published as "Spiritual Renewal: God's Blessing or Man's Work," Church Growth 11.1 (Jan-Mar 1996), 3-5.