Churches have a nearly universal desire to grow. Sometimes this desire is grounded in godly motivation, and sometimes not. Sometimes churches can articulate and even quantify this desire, but more often this desire is just a general ill-defined wish.
Churches may or may not take steps to plan or to execute a plan, and they have different views even on whether planning (and in some cases growth itself) is godly and necessary.
Assume for a moment that growth is godly, and that God works through people to grow his church. What then does this mean for me who prays “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” What would God have me do?
1) God would have me pray: “If it be your will, work through me to grow your kingdom and to draw people to your gracious love.”
God does the work of growing, but he most often works through people to grow his church and to make disciples. I want to be one that he works through.
What’s more, prayer is probably the most important and most overlooked activity when seeking to grow the church.
Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still. He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned well how to talk to God for men.
E. M. Bounds (1835-1913), Power Through Prayer
Besides the most significant aspect of prayer, namely imploring God’s Spirit to work in the lives of those he desires to receive him, praying in this way has several secondary pragmatic benefits:
- It teaches and reminds me that the object of ministry is people. Programs, plans and strategies are not what ministry or growth of the church is about. Growth is a result, almost a mere by-product, of the Spirit working in the lives of individual people.
- It teaches and reminds me that whatever we do for people pales in comparison to drawing people to the presence of God through Jesus.
- It teaches and reminds me that I should not really be concerned with growth of the church per-se, but that I should earnestly desire spiritual blessings for individuals.
2) God would have me pray: “Let me not impede the work of your Spirit or be an obstacle to the communication of your love.”
Again, the work is the Lord’s–not my own. Because I am a sinner, on my own I am more apt to do harm than good both to individuals and to the growth of the church.
Besides trusting God to overcome the spiritual fact of my sinful nature, this prayer touches on significant pragmatic considerations:
When driving a car, how do you move forward? Most often people would say “by pressing on the accelerator”–but this is not the first or most important answer. Actually, to move forward you take your foot off the brake.
Removing impediments is vitally important to ministry and the resulting growth of the church. In fact, since this is God’s work and not our own, I could go so far as to say that the entirety of ministry is removing obstacles that prevent individuals from knowing the love of God.
What are the things that I do that prevent people from knowing their Savior? What are the things that the church collectively does that impedes discipleship? We should identify and work to remove these things.
3) God would have me pray: “Help me prepare to care for the people that you will bring to our church.”
Why should God bring people to the church if they are not going to hear the Word proclaimed, receive the sacraments, and be built up as disciples?
To expend effort to drag people into the church (through marketing, through programming, or even through “outreach”) when we are not prepared to be a conduit of spiritual blessing for them is futile and misguided.
Sunday morning corporate worship may be an important (or even central) element of our ministry, but arguably other avenues for spiritual care and discipleship are required to care for and make disciples of the people that God will bring to us.
Even if we succeed at getting people through the door we will likely not succeed in ministering to people and thereby growing the church unless we have a very clear understanding of why we want them there to begin with, and are prepared to provide them with discipleship and spiritual care.
As an individual I should be always praying for and preparing to care for other individuals that God will bring.
4) God would have me pray: “Open my eyes to opportunities to serve you, and make me receptive to your calling.”
All too often I focus on doing what I want do do–which may or may not have anything to do with what God would have me do. I may have ideas and plans–but most assuredly God has better ones.
God can and does work through even my misguided efforts, but I really desire to serve him and his people in the specific ways he wants me to.
Furthermore, effective ministry is never formulated in a vacuum–but rather is always a response to the needs of those God places before us. If I see nothing to “do” to help the church grow it is likely because either I am not seeing people, or because I have blinded myself to their needs.
5) God would have me pray: “In all I do, let me glorify you.”
The church is Christ’s bride, and not my hobby or crowning achievement–or even my comfortable club.
God is glorified when I honor him for who he is and what he has done. He is glorified when I trust that he has redeemed me, and when I trust him for his continual providence. He is glorified when I faithfully use the gifts that he has given me in service of his people.
The church does not grow by becoming a better institution, but by reflecting God’s glory.
If I were to pray in this way I completely believe that God would answer my prayers. If I am a willing instrument for the Spirit to use, why would he not use me in the ways he desires?
Likewise, if each of us in the church were to pray in this way, I completely believe that God would answer our collective prayers, and work through our church to accomplish his will.