This past week, I have been preparing to preach from Zechariah 8:1-23, which is part of a sermon series on “The Hope for Restoration and Revival” at Waller Baptist Church. Admittedly, I was struck by the impact of God’s presence on the corporate witness of His covenant people. I realize that this may seem obvious, but for me, it was enlightening, particularly as it relates to church health.
According to Zechariah 8, as the people of God (in this case, the Judahite exiles that had recently returned from Babylon) repent of their sins and pursue obedience to God’s express will for them, God promises to bless them with His presence (i.e. – His dwelling). The result of the blessing of God’s presence is the numeric growth of worshippers in that covenant community (Zechariah 8:23). Isaiah speaks in a similar manner regarding how foreign nations will affirm the presence of God in the midst of His people as they see His salvation (Isaiah 45:14). In other words, where God is manifestly present in the life and work of His people, there will be recognition and response from those outside of the covenant community.
For me, I have always been a little apprehensive to speak of a relationship between what churches do and the numeric growth they experience. This is probably due to the fact that large numbers prove nothing in and of themselves about the health of a church. However, this is not to say that “small” or “growthless” churches are more healthy or Biblically preferable. It is exceedingly clear that God is the One who gives growth (1 Corinthians 3:5). Yet, this presses the question, “Where there is no growth, is God even manifestly present or at work at all?” In other words, can God be working in the context of a church and yet no impact be made on those who are outside of that community? Scripture would seem to suggest that the answer to that question is simply, No. Clearly, God’s timing is not our timing and He is free to bless and withhold as He pleases, yet such a perspective is never meant to engender apathy toward growth. Furthermore, if there are passages of scriptures, which clearly reveal a relationship between a people’s response to God’s Word and a subsequent blessing of God’s presence that necessarily results in growth, then we must take seriously the nature of this relationship and pursue it for the sake of the glory of God in His church.
While passages like Zechariah 8 occur in a particular covenantal context and speak to a specific people, the reality of the blessing of God’s manifest presence in the communities of His people remains true in the New Covenant. In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, Paul writes, “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” Without getting into the debate of the nature and continuation of the gift of prophecy, all should at least recognize that it is a gift that comes from the Holy Spirit, who mediates the presence of God both in the life of the believer and in the life of the church. According to Paul, then, as the Spirit of God is at work in the people of God, those who are on the outside will “be convicted and worship God, declaring that God is really among His people.”
If one will take the reality of Zechariah 8 with the admonitions of 1 Corinthians 14, then one must start thinking about the implications that this has on defining church health. In other words, if the manifest presence of God in Zechariah 8 and 1 Corinthians 14 necessarily results in salvation of “outsiders” (in both covenantal context), then it is fair to conclude that church health can and should be measured at least in part by the number of conversions seen in the context of that community. This should drive churches and leaders to start asking the question, “What are we doing/not doing that is quenching the manifest presence of God in our lives and churches, which hinders others from coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior?”
Many suggestions could be given at this point regarding the need to be more “missional” or committed to “contextualization.” While many of these suggestions would probably be warranted in light of Christ’s incarnation and Paul’s example of becoming “all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel,” I believe that the hinderances are more fundamental. In Zechariah 8, the returned exiles were instructed by the post-exilic prophets to the repent of the sins that they had learned and practiced while in Babylon and return to being faithful to the covenant. Part of their obedience to the obligations of the covenant was to rebuild the temple of God, which principally pointed to the re-prioritization of worship in the community of God’s people. As can be seen in Haggai 1, the returned exiles were more concerned with living in their own panelled houses than rebuild the temple in which the presence of God dwelt. They preferred their own houses over the presence of God. This was due in small part to the fact that it had been so long (over 70 years) since they had actually experienced the presence of God in their community. For them, it was easy to forget and neglect something that they so rarely experienced or enjoyed. According to the prophets, the recipe for the return of God’s presence was repentance and faith-filled obedience to God’s word.
Given the fact that the Spirit of God can be “quenched” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) and that “lamp stands” can be removed from churches on account of their respective “lovelessness” (Revelation 2:1-7), it would seem that corporate and personal expressions of continual repentance and obedience to God’s Word continue to be vital to the sustained, manifest presence of God.
If churches are going to see true, God-wrought and God-blessed numeric growth, there must be a re-focusing on the priorities of loving God and loving others in both word and deed. This includes, but is not limited to, laboring faithfully in the advancement of the kingdom through the proclamation and adornment of the gospel, living peacefully with each other and those outside the covenant community in light of the Spirit of peace, repenting openly and frequently of any and all known sin, and speaking truthfully about matters like sin, repentance, obedience and grace. According to the example of Zechariah 8, which ultimately finds its consumate fulfillment in the New Covenant community, and the express teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14, such lives and churches will provoke those who are on the outside to worship God and proclaim, “God is with You! May we come too?”
In humility, I propose that churches and their leaders honestly ask and answer the question: What are we doing/not doing that is quenching the manifest presence of God in our lives and churches, which hinders others from coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? May the LORD give us wisdom to answer accordingly for the sake of His glory in the salvation of the lost!