The myth of self-made men and self-made churches

I am not a self-made man. Indeed, you are not either. Nobody is self-made. Che Guevara was right when he said:

The myth of the self-made man, has to be profoundly hypocritical; it is the self-serving demonstration that a lie is the truth.

You see, most of us were born in hospitals paid for by the taxes of others. The overwhelming majority are taught in schools funded by others. Even the few who go to independent schools are rarely paying for it from wages they were earning at the age of 11. Until around 20 years ago, many were put through university with grants paid for by others. You became the person you are through your interactions with others, in the institutions to which you belonged and the family from whence you came. As George Matthew Adams said:

There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.

The place where this ought to be recognised most fully is in the church. For it is not even our church that we are building; it is Christ’s. As Paul reminds us, one may sow and another might water, but it is God who gives the increase. If even my own faith is not a product of my self-will, how much less can any success in the church be mine?

Why, then, do we so often act as if that were not the case? We seem to believe in the church that I built. We wheel out so-called experts who have achieved greatness within the tiny pool of British evangelicalism. We ask them to come to share the wisdom of what they have built with the rest of us. Rarely is advice given with the caveat that God simply acted when universal, Biblical principles were followed that we can all read for ourselves. That is usually our fault rather than theirs, for it is we who seek the wisdom of the one who did the building.

Often the appeals to models and examples bear little reference to scripture. What we hear is that X model worked in Y place and – without quite using the phrase ‘pragmatically speaking’ – we are all encouraged to follow their lead. We hear of leadership models that depart from the Biblically grounded approach of co-equal plural eldership on the ground that others have seen other approaches work elsewhere. We are pushed into one-size-fits-all moulds that do not always translate to different places.

Those who become experts often only really understand their specific context. Naturally, those looking on from outside see what a great success they have made of X or Y and want to know how they, too, can emulate it. Expert status is conferred on them by those looking on, who themselves give away the fact that we do not believe God gives the increase by chasing after the man they believe did the building. As we onlookers fan the hype, so – to which we are all prone – those being hyped begin to believe it, even in small measure. Perhaps I really did have a hand in building the church after all.

As I noted here, in an article for FIEC:

Our work among Iranians began during the tenure of my predecessor, when one single Iranian man entered the church. From this, a work grew such that many Iranian asylum seekers have since come to know the Lord. Whilst many have moved on elsewhere, we have a number in church membership and a regular group of around 20 meeting with us. We now translate significant portions of our service, including the sermon, into Farsi.

I would love to say this was the fruit of some amazing strategy or vision, but the truth is that the Lord simply brought them in. Many have wandered into the church asking ‘what do I do to become a Christian?’

It was not our clever strategy or our wonderful gospel-heartedness that brought such people into the church; it was the Lord. There was no vision, just one guy who turned up one day. From there, a work grew and we merely responded. In short, we built nothing.

As Jared Wilson has said in The Pastor’s Justification:

I was once in a place where many enjoyed the success of gospel-centred ministry, but I did not. The problem was not with the word. But in my particular ministry, the preached word was regarded like the arrival of a UFO, only much less interesting.

In my current ministry context, church attendance has increased steadily. People are finding freedom in Christ. Our giving frequently outpaces our budget needed each month. People are excited, sparkling about the eyes and bringing their lost friends. We’re baptising adults and enjoying the gurgles of babies in the service.

And I am not doing anything differently than I did in the lean days. I’m in a different place, sure, and I minister to different people, but my preaching, my counselling, my leadership and everything else is the same same ol’, same ol’. I am the same guy stubbornly doing the exact same thing. I am insanely repeating the same “methods” and expecting different results. And it appears to be working. This proves to me it has nothing to do with me.

Success in ministry is about faithfulness to the word of God. It is about leading the church according to the principles God lays down in scripture; not according to the latest faddy church growth techniques. It is about preaching the gospel and allowing God’s word to do God’s work by God’s Spirit; not creating business-plans that will lead to exponential growth. It is about shepherding God’s people; not managing his company.

Here is the truth, there are no such things as experts in church growth, leadership or strategy apart from those offering systematic exegesis of the scriptures. To say there are implies there is something not in the Bible, that these folk have gleaned, that is necessary for the church. Even solid, theologically reformed believers have gone after such things and, I may be missing something, but we used to call that Gnosticism. They say (to a lesser or greater degree) the success of the church depends on things that are not stated overtly in the Bible. We cannot believe that and, at the same time, hold to the sufficiency of scripture and that it alone contains all things necessary for faith and praxis (as most standard Evangelical doctrinal bases insist).

If God cares far more about his church than we do (and he does), then whatever is necessary for her has been made manifest in his word. If God wanted us to know that without vision statements, growth strategies and the like the church would fail to grow, surely he would have said that to us in no uncertain terms in his word? That he hasn’t suggests such things are not the silver bullet we so often make out they must be.

There are no self-made ministers, no self-made churches and no church growth experts. There are simply faithful gospel ministers whom God may choose to use to grow the kingdom. All the models in the world cannot account for kingdom growth when the same strategies and plans rolled out elsewhere lead to no visible success. There is no such thing as a self-made church; there are only faithful ones grown by the Lord.