In the last few decades there have been a number of fine preachers who have gathered significant congregations and, having gained a reputation as preachers, they have received many invitations to preach and even have become regular speakers at conferences and conventions.
Unfortunately, some of these men, though they have gained a reputation as conference speakers, have failed to build a strong church. After they have moved on, unless an equally competent preacher has succeeded them, the church they pastored for some years has gradually dwindled and become small and weak.
What has gone wrong? The answer is that they have gathered a crowd but failed to build a church. Now while it is true that ultimately only Christ can build his church (Matt. 16:18), nevertheless he does use men as co-workers with himself (see I Cor. 3:10-15 for example). We do not need extra-biblical gimmicks in order to build a church; all the principles required are found in the Word of God.
Before we look at these principles let us attempt to diagnose the disease. Basically there are generally two or three problems that have led to the decline. First, the sound teaching which they enjoyed and appreciated was the preacher’s but it never actually became the possession many of the hearers. It was never their deep conviction. Some may not even have fully understood it. Secondly, several of the metaphors describing the church have been enjoyed as ‘pictures’ but have never been worked out in practice. Thirdly, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has never been thoroughly understood and put into practice.
What are some of these principles? First there is the principle of following the practice of the Lord Jesus Christ who not only preached but he also taught. The Gospels frequently tell us that the Saviour went about preaching and teaching. This is not mere tautology. Though there is obviously some overlap in content, the methods of preaching and teaching are different. Preaching is declaration without any necessary interaction. The preacher is a herald who announces the good news. But teaching is different. Here I am talking about method not content. Every good teacher knows that unless the pupils or students can express what is taught in their own words they have not grasped the lesson. What did Jesus do? He asked questions. He answered questions. He gathered small groups; sometimes the twelve, sometimes only three, sometimes he dealt with individuals. Only if a teacher has some form of interaction will he know whether the pupils have understood and grasped what is being taught. Unfortunately many young ministers have been taught almost entirely by lectures. A lecture has been cynically described as the process by which the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either! This sometimes means that a new minister thinks that he must work hard at lecturing his congregation. And many faithful men do just that. They lecture (preach) twice on Sunday and again in the mid-week meeting. And they are often grieved and frustrated that some of their church members do not seem to grow spiritually. They must learn to teach and disciple people. Teaching is best done in small groups. Every educationalist seems to know, at least in theory, that small classes are better than large classes.
There are various ways this may be done in a church. In our own church we practised this in two ways. First we had All-Age Bible School on Sunday mornings before the main service. The adult section was divided into small groups, each taught by a trained leader. They did not lecture or preach. They led discussion based upon prepared study. The other channel of teaching was in the Home Groups, again led by a trained house group leader. In addition to that I met with the elders both individually and as a group for training, fellowship and discipleship. In these ways church members are much more likely to grasp the teaching and make it their own than if their instruction was limited to hearing the sermons on Sunday, no matter how good the preaching.
The second principle is the realisation in practice some of the metaphors for the church. For example, the church is described as a body, the body of Christ. A body has life flowing through it. The limbs are closely and firmly attached to one another. It is through these joints that life and blessing flows (Eph. 4:16). If you were walking along and saw a severed hand on the pavement you would recoil in horror. But when someone extends their hand to shake yours you do not react in that way, I trust. Remember that the word ‘member’ in I Corinthians twelve and elsewhere in the New Testament does not mean someone who belongs to a society or club; it means a limb of a body. We use that word when we speak of a corpse being ‘dismembered’, i.e. cut up. The teaching of I Corinthians twelve on the various limbs of the body should be carefully studied and applied.
Another metaphor is the church as a building (I Cor. 3:10-15; Eph. 2:20, etc). There is a huge difference between a pile of bricks and a building. Anyone can steal a loose brick. A brick on its own has five of its sides exposed to the elements; but built into a wall only one side is exposed. Individual bricks or stones in a building are supported and in turn support others, and so on.
The third principle is the application of the truth of the priesthood of all believers (I Peter 2:4, 9). All members are to be active in prayer, worship and witness, though not all in the same way. Every one has a gift and needs to be encouraged to exercise that gift.
These are some of the ways in which a church may be built. All such methods must be accompanied by earnest, fervent, continued prayer.