Proposition: Material prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing and should never be taken as a sign of God’s approval.
Unpreached Application portion:
What about the church? Can we evaluate the church on this principle?
With regard to the church we think that numbers and people down the aisle and in the baptistery is the be-all and end-all when, as important and as exciting as that is, we don’t have the right to compromise the message, mission, or the integrity of the church to accomplish it. It has to work God’s way not ours. What is shameful is that those who compromise the gospel and the commission of the church then point to the numbers and the large-ness of their church for validation of their worldly methods or their heretical teaching. Their defenders say things like, “Well, if you’re so smart and you know how it’s supposed to be done, then you go build a bigger church.” Their worldliness is revealed in that very statement. They assume that the true measure of a church is how big it is. I don’t see that anywhere in the Bible.
A. Numbers in the NT
Nothing has changed in this respect since the Book of Acts. The church is supposed to grow because believers are sold out for the Lord and they witness and live in holiness and because preachers are committed to prayer and the ministry of the Word and the church is supposed to dwell in unity and to uphold the standards set in Scripture and to love one another and to show God’s love to the world. There’s nothing in here about dramas and coffee bars and movie nights and Christian rock bands leading the services and carnivals with iPod giveaways and on and on and on. And yes, that is what happens in many of these churches.
There are large numbers given early in the Book of Acts, but those numbers are there to stress the miraculous nature of those events. We aren’t looking for those events to be repeated (though some in the Church Growth Movement so expect that) so why would we expect the same results. In fact, Paul tells us to expect the exact opposite as we near the end of the age when “evil men and seducers will grow worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13) and that people “will turn away their ears from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:4). We are told to expect persecution and poverty and dwindling faith (such that Jesus asked in Luke 18:8 if he would find faith on the earth when he returned). Why then would we expect to see large numbers of Gentile believers embracing the Gospel? That has never been our goal anyway; our goal has been to be faithful until the Lord comes.
Before I moved from Jacksonville I had a friend who was one of the pastors at the church we attended there (he has since moved on to a church in AL) and I got the impression that he wasn’t crazy about my move up here. I asked him one day, “You don’t think I should go there, do you?” His response was very telling. He said, “This is a fine move, if you want to spend the rest of your life pastoring a church of a hundred people, because that’s what will happen if you take this position.” He explained that I wouldn’t have the connections at a small church here in Michigan; I wouldn’t be able to network and advance. (I have since discovered that this is not true. Some of the most well-known pastors who write books and preach on the radio don’t have churches that many of us would consider large and yet they are used mightily of God.) My response was the same then that it would be now, “Are you saying that those people in the church of one-hundred don’t deserve to have a pastor who loves the Lord, loves his Word, and loves them? Are you saying they don’t deserve to have a pastor whose educated and who loves his people and the Word?
B. False judgments based on outward measurement
I hear people say all the time about pastors and churches, “They must be doing right because look how big they are and how many people they are reaching.” But that is not a measure of whether their ministry is in line with Scripture.
One time someone I know had an area of ministry and it never really took off. Later it came out that this person had some sin in their life and people said, “That’s why he was never successful at that.” I responded, “What about Bro. so-and-so who was soliciting prostitutes for 14 years?” If we apply this standard then we must apply it across the board, even to ourselves and the people we like. I know of guys with big churches who are addicted to internet pornography. I know of one man who built a huge ministry. He started twelve ministries or so in his almost-forty years there. He is now awaiting trial on a dozen counts of molestation involving little children (all around 8 years old) and has been accused of at least that many more (29 or so if I remember correctly).
I was trained under a pastor who believed that the Church Growth Movement was the way to go, who admitted to me once, “I could read every book ever written about church growth and go looking for another one.” He has used all the techniques and I learned them from him but there are two problems: (1) His church really isn’t any bigger now than it was ten years ago. Oh, don’t get me wrong it’s big, one of the largest in the region, but no bigger and actually a little smaller. And, (2) I’m not willing to compromise on the methods given in Scripture.
I said all that to say this: Numbers and programs and budgets and buildings are not a measure of a man’s ministry or a church’s ministry. If you think that, you need to ask God to teach you not to judge by outward appearances.
C. The measure of a ministry is faithfulness and obedience
Think about the opposite. I know guys who pastor small churches and they pour their hearts into their messages and their ministry and they have, even after many years, not experienced the growth or numbers or budgets they would like to see. Are they sinning? Are they not profitable servants because they don’t have million-dollar budgets and multi-million dollar facilities? Since when does God judge based on the outward appearance? If he did David would never have been called. Neither would Moses, or Jeremiah, or Elijah. Jesus didn’t even have a home or a bed and when all was said and done, he only had three people watching when he did his greatest work and one of them was his mother. Consider what Paul said about this in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” I think this is why the Lord would not let David number the people; it would become a reason for vain arrogance rather than a reason to glorify the Lord. Sadly, that is what our measuring often becomes, as well.
The measure of a man’s or a church’s ministry is not in their worldly success, but in their faithfulness. In 1 Cor. 3, Paul talks about the divisions in the Corinthian church and he mentions that some plant and some water, but it is God who gives the increase. Then he says this in chapter four, 1 Corinthians 4:2 “…it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.”
Application: Is the poor Christian not as faithful or as spiritual as someone who is making money? Is the person who practices integrity in marriage or business not as spiritual as someone else or do they lack faith because they have not been outwardly prosperous as others? Is the pastor of a small church not spiritual or not blessed because he doesn’t have a big crowd? Since most churches in the USA are less than 75 people that means we’ve got an awful lot of pastors and churches who aren’t “being blessed.” That doesn’t mean that they are without God’s approval while the mega-church pastor has God’s approval.
Or is it that maybe that standard isn’t the one to judge by. What this belief does is make people put on an outward show so that they can appear prosperous by human standards. The young couple is in debt to their eyeballs so they can have the trappings of prosperity so that people will believe that they are “blessed.” The pastor surrenders his standards and lets different things into worship so that people will feel like the Spirit is there and they find themselves lowering the standards for professions of faith and baptisms so that more people can walk down the aisle and claim to be saved just so that people will believe his church is successful.