The growth of Christianity comes from the centre not the margins. Christianity grows from the heart by the gospel of Christ, not from the edges by political alliances with other organisations. Like our unity, Christian growth is forged by our common experience of Christ, not by ecclesiastical coalitions.
God unites us by the death and resurrection of his Son, declared to us in the gospel and made effective in us by spiritual rebirth. We are to maintain this unity of the Spirit by our love for one another and by our common mind and understanding (Ephesians 4:1-6, Philippians 2:1-11).
In Christ, the divisions of humanity are overcome. We “are all one in Christ Jesus”. We all share in the one and the same Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus. “There is one body and one Spirit – just as we were called to the one hope that belongs to our call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 1:4-6). This common experience of Christ unites Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, and Scythian (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).
Consequently, Christianity has a missionary focus, reaching out and welcoming in people of every background, for our standing is in Christ and not in ourselves. The welcome we extend is the message of God’s gospel: of Christ crucified and resurrected; of repentance and regeneration. For in this message we are reconciled to God, and He to us, as we are to one another, without respect of persons.
Sydney is a marvellous city for Christian mission, for the multicultural nature of our city enables us to welcome peoples of all nations and ethnicities in the name of Christ. We enjoy the wonderful privilege of free speech to share with others the amazing news of Jesus’ death for the sins of the whole world. People, who, in their home culture, are unable to have the message of God spoken to them, have free access here to the gospel of salvation.
This circumstance gives Christians the opportunity to liberate ourselves from the cultural accretions of our Church practices and return to the core message of Christ crucified. For, if we are to cross cultures to reach people with the message of Christ, we have to be willing to forego our own preferences for the sake of others’ salvation. We often hear the stories of overseas missionaries doing this, but it is now time for Christians living at home to undertake the same process. But we do not forego our culture in order to adopt other people’s culture or to create a new compromise culture. We forego our culture so as to clarify the core message of Christ. For wherever growth happens or unity forged, it will be God’s work of bringing people to new life in Christ Jesus.
It is out of that unity in Christ that the church grows. And it is out of that growth that the church is united.
There are other ways for churches to grow, but not for Christianity. Individual congregations can grow by any number of adaptations: more attractive programmes, better advertising, clearer goals, a simpler, more accommodating message, or greater social involvement, etc. Congregations often grow through demographic changes in their locality, by charismatic leadership, by transfer from other churches and even biologically by growth in families.
Denominations, organisations and movements can grow by associating with other groups. There is an ever-present pressure for widening our appeal by working with others in some peaceful collaboration, minimizing differences and avoiding controversy. This can give warm positive public relations, not only with those with whom we disagree but also with society as a whole. And our society wants unity, peace and nationalism to be our religion. But the short term growth advantages and positive public relations of working with those with whom we disagree, is always undone by the loss of gospel clarity leading to the long term weakening and decline of the organisation. In the short term the organisation may grow but Christianity stagnates.
The growth of Christianity comes from people being saved. That happens from hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:15). By all means we need to change ourselves to welcome strangers with a clarified core message of salvation. But we must not change God’s message in order to expand our organisation. By all means we must live at peace with others (Romans 12:18), living quiet industrious lives (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12) and not being quarrelsome (2 Timothy 2:24) – but in all this we are called to be holy and not to tolerate false teaching or immorality (Revelation 2:14-16, 20-23).
The world takes a census, of our numbers, size and influence but it does not know what it is counting. For the institutional size of a Christian denomination or church tells you little about its growth or impact. We will not have greater effect in Australia by being in a bigger organization, but by being a more Christian one.
This creates an ambivalence amongst Christians that is seen in the pendulum swings of Christian opinion. We want to be clear on the gospel, but we also want to be part of society in order to proclaim it. So we become more accepting and accommodating of society and fail to declare the gospel accurately or we become more purified and separate from society and fail to share the gospel with anybody.
The solution does not lie in working collaboratively around the margins to involve and include fellow travellers into our midst, nor by withdrawing into the safety of the holy huddle of our uniform home culture. The Solution lies in the sacrificial love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our thinking must be his thinking – of going into the world to voluntarily lay down our lives for the salvation of others. This is what brings Christian unity and the growth of Christianity.