Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10). Based on Isaiah 55:10-11.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, WI. Preached on July 9 & 12, 2020.
Church Growth–God’s Way
- God’s Word is the tool for growth
- God’s Word has the power for growth
You know what astounds me about Crown of Life congregation? There are many aspects of our church that I appreciate, but there’s one that I’m thinking about today: Crown of Life Lutheran Church has been steadily growing, even without a formal strategic plan for growth! We have had ten family units join our congregation this year—some during and immediately after the recent quarantine. We have a handful of people ready for a new Bible Information Class. Our school (K-8) is about to double in size in just three school years. We are blessed to be in a beautiful and relatively new church and school facility with room to grow even when we knock out half of the seats for social distancing. The growth of this congregation is something for which we are grateful, and for which we can only credit our gracious God.
A high percentage of our growth has been people from other congregations in our fellowship moving to this area and transferring to us. We are grateful for that, of course! But that reality suggests that we have room for more growth. A more specific game plan for reaching our community may, with God’s blessing, bring more souls to Crown of Life and, more importantly, into the Holy Christian Church.
That raises a practical question. How should we do that? What will we do not merely to bring more into membership, but to bring more souls to Christ? The answers we give to these questions determine what our church and school ministry will look like.
When we are confronted with questions like these, maybe our first inclination is to give practical answers. “Promote the school in the community.” “Plan events that will bring people to our campus.” “Advertise on social media.” And these are all very fine suggestions. But before we get to practical answers, we have to understand biblical answers. And that’s what the readings in today’s service do. The Bible readings selected for this week in the church year teach us how the church grows according to God’s plans and design. The following words from Isaiah will explain church growth in God’s way. Our reading is from Isaiah 55:10-11: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
The first congregation I served was located on a property that had previously been an estate. It was a unique property for a church. One of its unique features is that it had several fruit trees on it. There was a lemon tree on the property that we didn’t discover until we had been there several years. One day, I saw a few small lemons hanging from its branches after several years of never producing any fruit. That gave me a brilliant idea! I started watering the tree. Guess what happened? That’s right: Fruit! That lemon tree had not been receiving the level of water it needed; once it did, it began to grow fruit like it had not done before in several years.
What I just described is a variation of the illustration Isaiah uses in today’s First Lesson: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word.” The farmer’s crops will not grow without water. The corn stalks around us were knee-high by the Fourth of July because we’ve had rain throughout the summer. Isaiah’s everyday illustration ensures that we don’t miss his point. Just as precipitation causes plants to grow, God says, “So is my Word that goes out from my mouth.” Plants won’t grow without water from the heavens; faith won’t grow without the Word of God. The church cannot grow in number or in faith without God’s Word.
I trust that the members of Crown of Life agree with that statement. But we need to take this observation a step further. God’s Word teaches many things. Everything taught in Scripture can be put into one of two categories. Lutherans can recite those two categories in their sleep: law and gospel. The law tells us how God expects us to live, and if we are honest with ourselves, it shows us just how miserably we have failed to meet God’s standards. The gospel tells us how Jesus, the Son of God, came into this world to live obediently on our behalf, and to suffer the law’s punishment on our behalf by his death on the cross. Both law and gospel are in the Word of God, but the law cannot make our faith grow. Telling people what to do does not make faith grow. Only the gospel can make faith grow. Telling people to look to Jesus Christ as their ticket to eternal life fosters faith and trust in human hearts. So when Isaiah says that God’s Word is the tool for church growth, he really means the gospel message in the Word of God. In Isaiah’s day, the gospel message pointed forward to a Messiah who was to come. In our day, the gospel message points back to Jesus as the Savior who lived, died, and lives again for us.
I have heard some church leaders in ecumenical circles say something like this: “I will do anything short of sinning to bring more souls to Christ.” The zeal expressed in that phrase is certainly commendable. But is that what God said? Did God say, “Do anything besides sin?” Was the seed in Jesus’ parable that we heard earlier anything the church does? No, the seed is the Word. The seed is the gospel. And the one and only thing the church can do to reach more souls is to preach Christ.
It’s not difficult for us to fall into that way of thinking. When you invite others to church, what is the number one reason you give for checking out Crown of Life? “We have the most beautiful church sanctuary you’ve ever seen!” “We have a warm and friendly congregation!” “Our school faculty really cares about our kids!” And these are all great things! We dare not come up with sinful excuses for not putting our best foot forward. But none of these things is the Word of God. None of them is the gospel.
The church building cannot bring people into the Holy Christian Church. I hope that friendly people will present the gospel, but they are not the gospel. We hope that pastors are good preachers and teachers are good educators, but the preacher and the teacher were not crucified for you. And yet there is at least a little part of us that is convinced that the secret key to church growth is something external, something beyond the simple Word of God. But if we replace God’s Word with some other tool to get the job done, we shut off the one spiritual water supply that can quench thirsty souls in danger of wasting away in the parched wasteland of hell.
The Word of God—and specifically the gospel—is God’s tool for church growth. The Word of God is how we come into contact with Jesus’ grace and forgiveness. And along with the Word, we acknowledge the sacraments. There is a reason why theologians past and present have called the sacraments, “the visible Word.” The very same grace and forgiveness that comes to us in God’s Word is there for you in Baptism and Communion. This is how God presents his grace and forgiveness to you. This is how he hydrates your thirst soul right now! This is how God calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
God seems to have designed life on earth to reflect spiritual realities. Let me give you an example. If you’ve been doing some yard work on these recent hot and humid days, you probably felt dirty and sweaty after you were finished. So you take a shower to get clean. Water cleans your body. Baptism is the spiritual parallel. The words of Jesus combine with the waters of baptism to clean your soul—not from dirt, but from sin.
We see that same phenomenon in our reading. God uses an earthly reality to reflect a similar-sounding spiritual truth. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Rain doesn’t come down and then evaporate without watering plants and trees and crops. God’s Word will also not “evaporate” without doing its work. When God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed, God will accomplish exactly what he wants to accomplish through that message.
We’re focusing on the First Lesson, but I’d like to take you back to the Gospel reading we heard earlier in the service. Jesus described a farmer sowing seed in his field. The seed fell on four different kinds of soil, but three of those four “landing spots” did not produce lasting results. I don’t think Jesus envisioned only 25% of the seed sprouting, but Jesus’ parable reminds us that not every seed will grow. In other words, not every time we proclaim the gospel will a person respond positively and come to faith in Christ. Of course, that can get frustrating—especially when we have several successive incidents where it seems like our message falls on deaf ears. At times like that, our sinful nature wants to convince us to use another tool to do the church’s work, or that the Word of God is not as powerful as God says it is.
Lest we forget the power of God’s Word, Isaiah reminds us that God’s Word will achieve God’s will. God’s Word will do what God wants it to do. The Church shall never perish. We cannot program the results. We cannot program the stats for the Church’s growth. We simply use the tools God gives—his Word and Sacraments—for those tools are powerful!
Those tools are at work in this congregation. God has recently given some of our families the gift of a new child. Sometime after the birth of those children, the Word of God was combined with the waters of the baptismal font and brought infants to believe the same words we speak in the Apostles’ Creed! The Word of God is delivering Christ’s grace to you right now, forgiving you of the times you have doubted its power and strengthening you to trust its potency for your future witness.
The Word of God is powerful to bring the holiness of Jesus, lived 2,000 years ago on your behalf, and make it your own personal identity. The Word of God is powerful to take the shed blood of Jesus and apply its forgiveness to repentant and believing hearts like yours and mine. The Word is powerful to take the resurrection of Jesus and turn it into the preview and guarantee of your own resurrection on the Last Day.
When the weather turns hot and humid, it’s important for us to drink water. I remember that after we moved from my first church, in the cool San Francisco Bay area, and arrived at my second church, in the hot and dry Sacramento area, there were a number of days after we moved that I didn’t feel well. At some point I realized I wasn’t drinking enough water. Sure enough, that made the difference!
Without water in a hot climate, our bodies will not function well. And without the water of life—the Word of God and the good news of Christ’s love—our souls will not function well. On a hot day, we would never say, “I know what water is like. I don’t need to drink it.” As we live in a world that daily flirts with the scorching fires of hell, we would never say, “I know what God’s Word says. I know who Jesus is. I don’t need to hear that again.” We need the exact opposite! Soak in God’s Word! Drink deeply from the well of Jesus’ forgiveness! We need that refreshment, and so does our world with its fiery rhetoric and spiritually parched culture in these sad days! So drink deeply from the Word! Shower it generously on our world! That’s how to grow the Church—God’s way. Amen.