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Moving the needle

In God’s kingdom, nothing happens without the Word.

Automobile purists insist that the only way to drive a car is by manual transmission. There’s nothing like the exhilaration of driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible, revving the engine, moving the needle into the red, and peeling down the road.

The phrase “moving the needle” has long been a metaphor for forward movement or progress. “We repurchased millions of shares, but that hasn’t moved the needle.” “I serenaded her on her birthday and left rose petals outside her window. That really moved the needle!”

What moves the needle in a congregation? It seems silly to imagine redlining a Viper if your congregation feels more like an Escort that blew a cylinder. Many congregations are thrilled when one-third of their members worship. Congregations continue to see many of their kids drift away despite operating a prolific preschool and elementary school system. Offerings are flat, people are immobilized, and we’re short on workers. If your parish is spinning its wheels or stuck in neutral, how do you get it moving again?

red arrowsThe kingdom is God’s

All talk about moving the needle must first yield to the truth that the kingdom is God’s, not ours. When Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to say, “Our Father in heaven, . . . your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9,10, emphasis added). God’s kingdom is invisible. “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20,21). God’s kingdom is not a geographical location with borders but the faith-filled influence of God ruling within our souls.

The devil will always try to thwart God’s kingdom and Jesus’ disciple-making mission. We thwart it ourselves when we get caught up in thinking that we exist to protect and preserve our institutions rather than to make disciples. Look at how things can go wrong. We’re happy to take the tuition of a student who enrolls in school just because it helps pay salaries and keep the doors open. Evangelism efforts become more urgent when we need money to pay the mortgage. Congregations are typically self-congratulatory when they upgrade their technology, pass an active-shooter policy, contract with a cell tower company, or install solar panels.

To be sure, those all support the visible institution. But are we more interested in preserving our own institutions than winning souls for eternity? The kingdom is God’s, not ours.

red arrows

The power is God’s

I learned this from Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Moving the needle in a congregation has little to do with 21st-century advancements or creature comforts. Jesus somehow managed to move the needle without ever owning an iPhone or teaching on a smartboard. Without the aid of a remodeled sanctuary or a high school gym, Jesus made God’s kingdom come. How? Jesus saw everyone he met as a soul loved by his Father, and he just taught them the Word.

Is God’s Word the main thing in our congregational ministry and lives? Maybe the real reason we’re stuck in neutral is that the power of the Word holds far too little sway. Have we become so worldly that our lives are indistinguishable from the godless world we’re trying to convert? Have we been so enveloped by technology that the notion of carrying out personal, relational, face-to-face ministry is antithetical to our thinking? Have we become so desensitized by the tolerant “live and let live” agenda that we hesitate to use the binding key in our homes and churches? How will we stand up to the devil and the world if the sword of the Spirit remains sheathed?

In God’s kingdom, nothing happens without the Word. Paul said, “[The gospel] is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). The Word of God alone brings us to faith (James 1:18), forgives and purifies us (Ephesians 5:26), sanctifies us (John 17:17), and preserves us to the end (1 Corinthians 1:8). No wonder Jesus chided the devil by saying that man lives on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4) and Paul encouraged the Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (Colossians 3:16). The Word is the engine, so put the pedal to the metal! The power is God’s, not ours.

red arrows

The glory is God’s

The church is unlike any other organization on earth. God established it in Eden with a promise. It still stands by the same promise. The Lord cleansed her by the washing with water through the Word and then granted her victory over her adversaries through Christ’s death and resurrection. Throughout the ages, the church’s mission expansion has been carried out by people whose qualifications are a zealous heart of faith and a passionate desire to talk about the gospel.

That is God’s doing too. “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). In everything that the church is or has or does, the glory is God’s. There are those Bible characters whose names rise to the forefront: Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Peter, and Paul. Every now and then those men got a little big for their britches and thought that the glory was theirs, not God’s. Similarly, people today with titles and offices in churches can be tempted to think that their charisma, their intelligence or experience, or their sublime ideas or methodologies are responsible for moving the needle. Just as God had to teach ancient Bible characters, so also he needs to teach his people today that they are clay in the hands of the potter. The glory is always God’s.

Moving the needle in a congregation has little to do with 21st-century advancements or creature comforts.

In order to show that the glory is his, God always has used ordinary people to move the needle. He used a prostitute in Jericho to spare his spies (Joshua 2). He used an unnamed servant girl to influence Naaman (2 Kings 5). He used a young virgin to be the mother of God and uneducated fishermen to build his kingdom. Their hearts beat with faith; their lives were shaped by the work of God’s Spirit. Ordinary people today also are extraordinary tools in the hands of God. The influence of the kingdom in the heart of the widow who is raising her grandchildren, the power of the Word in the life of the meth-headed millennial, and the godly life and glorious witness of the grade school dropout all move the needle in the same way.

God can use us all to move the needle, but the kingdom, the power, and the glory are his, now and forever.

Author: Adam R. Mueller
Volume 110, Number 3
Issue: March 2023

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This entry is part 9 of 16 in the series lutheran leadership

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