Here it comes. Do you feel it?
Roads are busier; lines are longer; more and more people seem to have no idea where they are going. Like nervous newlyweds preparing their apartment for a visit from the in-laws on Thanksgiving is our town in the first weeks of August. The students are here, Fall is here, and the vague, intangible, undefinable pressure is on.
If you've been around Watkinsville for a full calendar year, you know what this means for us. We may ebb and flow with the tide of the UGA schedule, but whether the Dawgs are home or away, our church property is blessed with an abundance of collegiate passion. Last year that meant 700+ students worshipping with us on the second Sunday in August.
"WOW!" you might say. "Maybe this year we'll have 800 or even 1000!"
Maybe so. And maybe not. But as we start another Fall Semester I feel we need to say some things out loud, in case you miss them in the insanity to come.
1) NUMBERS ARE IMPORTANT, BUT NEVER PRIMARY
Do we want more and more people to be in a room where Jesus is worshipped and the Gospel is preached? Yes and amen. That's why numbers are important.
Does it matter if we gather 800+ students for one hour on Sunday morning but never see those that are gathered growing in their walk, multiplying their lives and making new disciples? No, not really. That's why numbers are never primary.
It's not that hard to gather Christians in a room. It's much harder to get Christians to scatter from the room and tell their lost friends, neighbors and classmates about Jesus (It took heavy persecution to see that happen in the first century church). It's much harder to dig into discipleship, to 'present everyone mature in Christ' (which Paul says he struggles at with all his energy).
This is why we make such a big deal about "wholehearted followers of Christ" at Watkinsville (see our mission statement). If we are excited about lots of people gathering on our property, it is only because of the potential for that many people to be following King Jesus wholeheartedly.
2) CROWDS ARE A MEANS, NOT THE END
In John 6 we see Jesus seemingly wreck a very successful public ministry. Read it yourself, but essentially our Lord is at the height of popularity, known far and wide as the best party guest you can ask for, a healer of the sick, giver of life and provider of mass free lunches.
This most recent miracle has him standing before a crowd of well over 5000, many of whom wanted to crown Him as king then and there. This seems to our modern minds like a good time to whip out a clear Gospel presentation and make an invitation. But Jesus pretty much does the opposite - He gives a hard teaching (about eating his flesh and drinking his blood) and then sits by and watches the vast majority of His followers desert him and move on. But not the twelve.
The Gospel is offensive, by design. If our end goal is to draw as many people as possible, we will eventually have to cater to the whims of the crowd, avoiding anything offensive to them - declawing the Lion of Judah so that no one gets hurt. But if our end goal is discipleship, we will hold tenaciously to the truths that Christ taught in this story (He is God, there is no other, and only those that follow Him as Lord will live forever). Some people may leave and our numbers may suffer - but those that stay will be a force to be reckoned with.
No matter what happens in our country or our town, we are committed to preaching the whole counsel of God, the full Gospel of Jesus Christ of which we are unashamed. If lots of people want to come to our church to hear that, praise God; but we won't change the message just to draw the masses.
3) GROWTH WITHOUT FRUIT IS DANGEROUSLY DECEPTIVE
In Matthew 21 we find Jesus on a stroll and looking for a snack. He sees a fig tree in the distance, growing and full of leaves, and walks up to get a fig. On closer examination, it turned out that the tree had no figs, so he cursed it and left (and later it withered up and died).
The tree was growing, but producing no fruit.
As we head into the Fall and see students pouring in, our numbers going up, and new families moving to Watkinsville and joining our church, I am truly excited about the opportunities before us. But I want us to be cautious how we measure and define fruit.
If our church is growing because more Christians are coming, but no one is moving from death to life, we aren't producing fruit. If our church is growing but the Kingdom of God is not, then we aren't producing fruit. If our church is growing, but on closer examination our people are not multiplying their lives and living on mission and making disciples where they live, work and play, it's quite possible that we will wither up and die.
We need your help, church. We need to work together to not let the busyness of the Fall distract us from our goal or make us think the job is done. Let us remember, as the Fall comes and the students come and everything gets crazy, why we are actually here; let us work together to keep our focus and priority on what really matters, and to use the blessing of a growing church to reach a lost and dying world; let us define fruit by lives changed, souls saved, and advancement of the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ into the darkness. Anything else is just leaves.