“If you preach the law as the Bible really does, or the gospel as it’s really meant to be proclaimed, you will empty the Compaq Center.”
– Dr. Michael Horton
Let me start off by expressing my appreciation for Michael Horton and the weekly radio show he hosts: The White Horse Inn. I download and listen to every episode. Even when I disagree with the panel discussion, I find their discussions worthwhile. Their conversations have increased my appreciation of the gospel and my dedication to preach it faithfully. I heed their warnings against watering down the gospel – a temptation for many pastors and churches that subscribe to some church growth philosophies.
But I am afraid that the above quote by Dr. Horton could be misinterpreted.
I agree with Dr. Horton that, if he has in mind Joel Osteen’s church in Houston (which meets at the Compaq Center), he is probably right. Were Osteen to preach the biblical gospel, he would probably lose a great number of his people. Osteen’s messages are motivational speeches, not biblical sermons. So, yes, if Osteen were to begin preaching about sin, grace, and redemption, the people who flock to hear him week to week would probably go somewhere else.
But we should not take Horton’s remarks as referring to any mega-church.
It would be a shame for us to grow suspicious of any ministry that sees a measure of numerical success. We could easily adopt a mindset that says, If a mega-church pastor is seeing numerical growth, he must be doing something wrong. He must be watering down the gospel. He must be giving them entertainment over substance. Otherwise why would he have so many people?
History should correct our suspicions.
- Charles Spurgeon filled the Metropolitan Tabernacle for many years and was a faithful preacher of the gospel.
- D. Martyn Lloyd Jones saw numerical success and was one of the greatest preachers of the last century.
- Tim Keller today reaches many people in New York and preaches the gospel faithfully.
- Mark Driscoll in Seattle does not hold back from confronting lost people with the truth claims of the Christian gospel and he has seen great numbers fill his church.
- John Piper in Minnesota preaches expositional sermons to a full sanctuary every week.
Numbers can be deceiving. We should not equate big numbers with God’s blessing. Neither should we equate low numbers with God’s blessing.
God forbid we criticize mega-churches and then begin to take pride in dwindling numbers just as some pastors take pride in swelling numbers. Both mentalities are centered on numbers. If we begin patting ourselves on the back because our churches are shrinking, we are just as prideful as those who pat themselves on the back because their churches are growing.
Numbers do not tell the story.
Emptying your church does not mean you are faithfully preaching the gospel. You might just be boring.
Filling your church does not mean you are faithfully preaching the gospel. You might just be a good entertainer.
Numbers should never have the last word. We must commit to faithfully preach the gospel in season and out of season. And let us never succumb to the temptation to see success or failure solely in terms of numbers.