Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Secret of “Success”

2 Sam. 5:10; Ps. 48; Mk. 6:6; 2 Cor 12:9-10[1]

There are a great many ideas out there about what it takes to succeed at church growth. In the first part of this century, the “secret” was tent revivals. Once a year, at least, a church should pitch a huge tent and hold meetings every evening to get new members. Back in the 1970’s, it was bus ministry. Every church needed an old school bus to bring children from all over town into their building every Sunday morning. The idea was that if you get the kids, you’ll get the parents too. In the 1980’s the “secret” was Bible studies in apartment complexes. One church in Arlington, Texas had over 2000 people involved in Bible studies all over town. In the 90’s it was contemporary, seeker friendly worship (a la the Donny & Marie Osmond show), complete with multimedia. These days it’s small group ministries. If you start a small group program in your church, you’re sure to get new members.

One by one, each of these theories about what it takes to make a church thrive have come and gone. That’s even true of small groups—their popularity is already fading. While it’s true that some churches have benefited from one strategy or another, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern that can explain why one “secret” succeeded for them but not for others who tried the same exact strategy. I think the reason for this is that the Christian life can rarely be reduced to one specific strategy or “secret” of success. As I’ve said before, we’re in the business of changing hearts! That means that to succeed we must respond to life in all its bewildering and chaotic variety.

In my opinion, contrary to the popular film and book that has been sweeping the country, The Secret is not a particular strategy or mindset. Rather in scripture the “secret” is the presence of the living and life-giving God![2] Look at the fledgling King David—he succeeded because the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him (2 Sam. 5:10). Now, I’m not so sure I would define his life as one of success—in the end the Bible describes him as a man who became obsessed with his own power.[3] But it’s clear from the text for today that David’s rise as King over all Israel is inexplicable except from the premise that it was the presence of the living God that accomplished it.[4]

It’s easy to forget in our results-oriented society that one of the central truths of our faith is “God will never forsake you.”[5] It’s the central truth about the God of the Bible: God is the one who is completely faithful,[6] which also means that God is always, always, always with us. Our Psalm for today puts it this way: “Our God is like this forever and will always guide us.” (Ps. 48:14). The Psalmist evidently saw the fortress city of Jerusalem as impregnable—even as the Jebusites who claimed that “even the blind and the lame” could repel David’s army (2 Sam. 5:6). As the ramparts of David’s city appeared so strong that they would stand forever, the Psalmist declared that God’s faithful love would also stand forever. Jerusalem’s defenses may have vanished, but God’s faithfulness is still standing.

But the question is whether we will have the faith to entrust our future to such an ambiguous strategy for success. Or will we be like the people of Jesus’ native region, whose unbelief caused Jesus to be amazed? Over and over again, Jesus amazes the crowds with his words and deeds. In Nazareth, it was the unbelief of his own friends and relatives that amazed Jesus (Mk. 6:6)! The difference between them and those who saw Jesus and found new life, restored health, forgiveness of sins, and re-invigorated hope was their faith.

It’s the difference between the view that nothing will happen unless I can muster enough talent or will-power to make it happen and the view Paul expresses in his “boast” that the power of Christ is made all the more effective by his weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9). What makes a church thrive is to remember that we are the “church of Jesus Christ,” which means that the presence and power of Christ is the secret of our success.[7] What makes the church thrive is the confidence that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).[8] That’s hard to put into a strategic plan, but I think trusting in the presence of the life-giving God and trusting in the power of the living Christ is a strategy for true success.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/5/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:750-762, where he speaks of “the secret” to the church’s existence in that Jesus Christ “is present and alive” in the church in and through the Holy Spirit.

[3] Cf. David A. Bosworth, “Evaluating King David” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 191-210, for an overview of the difficulties.

[4] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2:374-384, where he discusses David as an example of the “election” of an individual.

[5] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; cf. Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16.

[6] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 134; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148.

[7] Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 361: “The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with Christ is its secret. The Church of Jesus Christ is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Unity in freedom, holiness in poverty, catholicity in partisan support for the weak, and apostolate in suffering are the marks by which it is known in the world.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:751-762.

[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:742-750: “in all its weakness [the church] is sustained by a strength compared with which all other strength is really weakness” (750).

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