Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace…. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheap jack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices…. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When a mega-church pastor is asked why his church is growing, the answer you will likely hear is this: “God is blessing us.” But, what should we say about the church that is not growing and even losing members? “God is not blessing them?” What are we to say about the faithful pastor who week after week comes off of his knees and into the pulpit to faithfully preach the truth of God’s Word and there is no growth in numbers?

I wrote in other letters about the pastor who chaired our denomination’s church growth committee and in our first session claimed to be able to build a church any place. I had called this man several years earlier for counsel when my church was going through a growth spurt. I asked him to tell me the secret for his spectacular growth. He answered, “It is prayer, brother.” But, in this meeting, he told us the turning point came when he visited another church and discovered contemporary music. He told us that he went back to his church, cancelled the choir, got rid of the organ, changed the music style, and from that day the church grew.

I raised my hand and said, “But, when I called you, you said it was prayer that made the difference.” He quickly responded, “Well, everybody knows that!”

Do they? Is it possible to build a large church without prayer? I think so. The church has discovered the secret of marketing their product. You find a niche in the marketplace and then design all of your energy to appealing to their likes and preferences, sometimes called “felt needs.” Big parking lots, clean and safe playgrounds, contemporary music, short and entertaining sermons, spiced up with drama, humor, visual experiences and charismatic leadership- are all likely to be part of the mix for success. Those who have the resources and the right situation can build “success”- anywhere. And, the standard of success for any effort is this: numbers.

Now, what I am not saying is that all ministers who have bought into this system do not pray nor am I inferring that the “success” they are claiming is not of God. But, what I am saying as clearly and as forcefully as I can is this, that everything must be weighed and judged by theological rather than pragmatic concerns. I am convinced that many pastors have been sucked up into this “marketing system” without thinking or praying through its implications. The “church growth” seminars are everywhere and you can’t attend a gathering of church leaders in which one of these “successful” leaders is not set up as a model to emulate.

Are numbers and growth the ultimate test of a church or pastor’s effectiveness? If that is the case, then Jesus failed, for all left him. I am convinced we must ask ourselves some serious questions before we jump into this popular current. Here are some: Are the preferences and felt needs of “our market” shaping our message as well as our methods? Are we preaching anything to our niche that is alarming rather than acceptable to our hearers? And, if it came down to holding fast to the truth, would we be willing to see our church shrivel to nothing because we refused to move one inch from our theological convictions?

I am reminded of an incident that took place in one of the largest and most celebrated “success” stories on the west coast. The pastor of this church is known for his positive approach to life and ministry. He is recognized as one of the great motivators of our time. One of my friends went to this pastor to see if he could teach the principles of biblical counseling to his young married class. Many of his couples were desperate and struggling with marriage and family issues. This friend felt they needed to be taught the truths found only in God’s Word. The pastor’s response to his request was totally unexpected. This pastor asked, “How many people will we lose over that course?” He decided it was not worth the risk.

Here is my fear. I believe that one of the greatest dangers to the church comes when she judges her success by her increase in numbers instead of judging her success by her faithfulness to the message. A “gospel” that is shaped by the desires of men, rather than the demands of Scripture, will always fail to produce genuine men and women of faith.

One church in America’s Southwest promoted its ministries by promising its attendees, “stronger family relationships….greater satisfaction at work….And even better sex.” Now, who would not want to go to that church? But, is that what Christianity is all about? Is it just about meeting psychological needs and fulfilling our passion for personal happiness?

I think not. Our greatest need is not psychological but moral. We all stand before a Holy God who hates sin and who judges sinners. Hell and wrath and judgment are part of the gospel message. Jesus began his ministry with these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” [Matt 4:17] We must start at the same place. Repentance comes first. But, what are we to repent of? Is it repentance of our ignorance because we don’t know the techniques that produce stronger family relationships, or greater job satisfaction or deeper sexual satisfaction? Or, is it repentance for our sinfulness and rebellion that has cut us off from a Holy God and made us the focus of his terrible and eternal wrath?

The gospel message is not “you can have it all.” It is not a promise that you can have everything your heart desires and Jesus too. He is the Pearl of great price. He is the One who is so precious and valuable that we sell all that we have, all of our desires and wants that we previously could not live without, just to have him. It is a radical, hard, life-changing decision that will not be welcomed by all, or even the majority. In fact, Jesus reminds us that “many are invited, but few are chosen.” [Matt 22:14] All of our techniques and our strategies will not convince one soul to believe in Jesus. Only the Word of God, made alive to the heart of the sinner by the Holy Spirit, will convince them of their sin, their need of forgiveness, and open their eyes to the glory of Jesus.

Paul came preaching one message: Jesus Christ and him crucified. [1 Cor. 2:2] He knew that the gospel would be rejected by the wisdom of this world. But, he did not try to make the message more appealing by offering improved marriages, job satisfaction or exciting sex. To have done so would have taken away from the seriousness of sin and the majesty of Jesus Christ. He is the reason for faith. He is the source of our salvation. He is life’s greatest joy.

A recent study of church growth in America has found that 85% of the churches are stagnant or losing members. Is that a sign of the times or a lack of faithfulness to the message? I don’t know. But what I do know is that cheapening the gospel is not the solution. What we need more than ever is the truth, given to us straight without trying to make it cute or entertaining. And, we need men and women, who love the glory of Christ and who trust in the power of His Word. Their faithfulness may not win the masses but it will save their people. May God raise up a whole new breed of leaders who will fight for costly grace, the only grace worthy of our Lord Jesus Christ.