Some awful statistics are tossed around in Baptist circles - or maybe the statistics are for all evangelical churches - at any rate, the numbers say that something like 80% of churches baptize no one in a whole year. An even larger percentage of churches are plateaued or declining in membership. And the way that this data is usually presented, the finger is pointed at those declining churches, making them responsible for the loss, pouring out guilt on their pastors, and beating up the members for not sharing the gospel more than they do. Here's an odd thing: I've never been a member of a "growing" church (at least not one that is growing numerically), but for some reason, I always thought that I would pastor one. I suppose the odds should somewhat prepare young pastors for the likelihood that they will lead churches that are declining, but they don't.
I think about this issue a lot. Recently, at our association's annual meeting, I had to sit and listen to the evidence that my church was in the 80% as the various annual church profile numbers were read aloud from all of the association's member churches (we'll not discuss at this point whether or not such a practice is sinful - maybe that would be a good topic for another time). Why do churches seem to lose ground? Why aren't people saved? I mean, I'm a pastor that loves Christ, I preach the Word of God and try not to preach myself, I share the gospel, I organize mission trips, outreaches, revivals, etc. So why does this happen? I always had in my mind the picture of pastors who didn't care about the Bible or God's people, who didn't know the gospel or how to proclaim it, who were content to maintain the status quo and nothing else. Those were the ones who were supposed to make up the 80% in my mind - not me!
Then I read a passage like Isaiah 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
It sounds like the source of power for growth is the proclamation of the Word of God, and from these verses, it sounds like what it accomplishes will always look positive. And yet we know that such was not Isaiah's call. When God told Isaiah to go and proclaim this powerful Word (Isaiah 6:9-10), He told him:
Go, and say to this people: "Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive." Make the heart of this people dull,and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
What I think we have to gather from this is that sometimes God's intention is that His Word will drive away as much as it draws near. His Word always accomplishes God's will as it goes out. It never returns void. But God's will is not always what we think it ought to be. It is not always a positive number in the 'baptisms' column on the annual church profile, or consistently higher numbers on the Sunday School attendance board. We have to know that God is at work even when we can't count the signs during the reading of the church letters at an associational meeting.
This reminds me of another passage in Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God knows what He's doing even if we don't. He is conforming His people ever closer to the image of Christ. He is crushing pride, stirring up a hunger and a desperation for Himself, and even purging His church of those who were not of His people. He is working on the pastor, He is working on the pillars of the church who love Christ, He is working on the immature who need to grow, and He is working on the seed of the enemy sown into His field. Who knows, tomorrow He may begin to bring in a harvest of souls, adding thousands to the number of the faithful. He's done it before. But we must remember that when He does, it is not Paul who planted or Apollos who watered who are anything, but it is God who gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).