Matthew 2:1-12


One of the major concerns in the church today is one of survival.

In many places, the congregations are getting older, there is a lack of younger people coming along, and young couples with children are conspicuous by their absence.

In many churches, church attendance has been dwindling for some time. So much so, that many churches have closed, and many that are left are struggling to survive—having trouble just making ends meet.

Having said that, it’s not all bad news. The church worldwide is actually growing. And the church in Africa and places like China are growing at a rate of knots. And even in our own country some of the city churches, no longer bound by tradition, are strong, and vibrant, and thriving too.

So, the question is, ‘What can we do to make our church grow? What can we do to make our church strong and vibrant? Just how do we do that?’

Well, I’m going to suggest that we look at the bible for some clues.


1. Old Testament Idea:
And our first port of call is the Old Testament.

Now in the Old Testament the belief was that the people of God were to attract others like a magnet. The people’s beliefs, their relationship with their creator, and their lifestyle was intended to attract others to them, without anyone actually needing to go out and share their faith with others. As a consequence, with the exception of the odd story like that of Jonah, the expectation was that people would come to them. And, indeed, that their worship would always be full of people because of the attractiveness of what they believed and how they behaved.

Indeed, Moses often appealed to the unique calling of Israel as a people. (Deuteronomy 4:6). God had chosen them as ‘a kingdom of priests’ and ‘a treasured possession’. And the idea was that if they kept God’s laws, their distinctiveness and their purity would serve as an example to the nations around them. And, in this way, others would thus be attracted to the true God.

In practical terms, while all the other nations served more than one god, Israel had only one. While other nations made human sacrifices to their gods, the Israelites did not. While other nations ate anything they liked, the Jews kept to their special diet. While the surrounding nations had kings, Israel depended upon God to see them through. And to distinguish themselves further, the Hebrews practiced circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. A practice that was not used by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, or the Philistines.

The Jewish faith was supposed to be unique. Generally, there was no need of people to go out as missionaries. With their distinctive faith, and lifestyle—with their relationship to their creator—people were expected to come to them.

And if the Hebrews had kept their part of the bargain, they would have. Yes, there were many successes—people who were attracted because of their faith and distinctiveness—but over the years, bit by bit, they lost much of what was unique. They adopted a king, the same as everyone else. They adopted other gods from time to time. They paid less and less regard to their unique relationship with their creator. And they abandoned all the rules had been given to them for their own physical, mental, and spiritual protection.

2. The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:13-23)
Despite that, one shining example of how it was supposed to work, is illustrated in the visit of the Magi after the birth of Jesus. Now contrary to common belief, we don’t know how many there were—we only know that they brought three gifts. But what we do know is that they knew enough about the Jewish faith to know that they weren’t just looking for someone special at the end of their journey, but they were looking for ‘The King of the Jews’.

And, indeed, he wasn’t just an ordinary king. If he was that, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to follow the star. No! What they had come to find was a king—and a king they could bow down and worship.

So, you see, in a sense, the Magi were attracted in some way to the Jewish nation, in the same way that all people were supposed to be attracted (because of their unique relationship with their creator). Unfortunately, in the history of Israel, this was an only too rare example of how things should have worked.

But then, by New Testament times, Israel had lost much of its distinctiveness. Indeed, in many ways, the people were indistinguishable from all the surrounding nations. And that was exasperated by the fact that in an increasingly multicultural world, the language of the day was Greek, the occupation was Roman, and Israel was no longer the distinctly Jewish world it was intended to be.

Indeed, the Samaritans had long ago compromised their faith. And even if some Israelites were keen to showing their continuing uniqueness, they really weren’t very good at it at all.

3. New Testament Idea:
It is not surprising then, that in the New Testament, the expectations of the people took a dramatic change. No longer was it expected for people to come to them. But rather the expectation was it was that the faithful that would have to go to others.

And as a consequence, Jesus told his disciples to be much more proactive—to actually go out and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).

The problem is that the New Testament church really struggled with this idea. The began to physically go out, but they tended to take a lot of the baggage of the past with them as well. They effectively tied the people they wanted to reach up in knots. As a consequence, it was time to think again. And the result of that rethink was that they decided to dispense with much of the baggage. They abolished all the man-made interpretations of God’s rules. And they abolished all the food restrictions (Acts 10:14) and the need for circumcision (Acts 15:1).

One concern, however, was paramount—and that was that in their liberation from the past, there was a need not to be a stumbling block to other people having faith (1 Corinthians 8:9). As a consequence, there’s quite a sharp distinction between the attitudes of the faithful between the Old Testament and the New.

4. The Early Church
And what was the New Testament church like? Well, using the seven churches described in Revelation as examples (and these are far from perfect examples), we get a good picture of what the Christian Church was like.

The church at Ephesus (2:1-7) was noted for its hard work. It persevered under great hardships. Not least of all, because they were inundated with false prophets. As a consequence, they were noted for testing all that they were told.

The church at Smyrna (2:8-11) struggled financially. But they stood fast against open hostility from those outside the church.

The church at Pergamum (2:12-17) was noted for remaining steadfast in the faith.

The church at Thyatira (2:18-29) was known for its deeds. They were actively involved in doing many good works.

The church at Sardis (3:1-6) was kept afloat by a very small group of faithful people. But really weren’t good at finishing what they’d started.

The church at Philadelphia (3:7-13) was noted for being faithful to God and the scriptures.

And there was only one church that nothing good could be said about at all. And that was the church at Laodicea (3:14-21). And the reason for that was that they were just lukewarm Christians—neither hot not cold.

But while some very positive things were able to be said about most of the churches, there was one thing that was common to most. They had taken their liberation too far. Their faith had been compromised; the gospel had been watered down.

Roman authorities had begun to enforce the cult of emperor worship, and as Christians were facing increasing hostility, some within the churches had advocated a policy of compromise. It was a policy which John, the writer of Revelation, realised needed to be corrected, and it needed to be corrected before its influence could undermine the whole of the Christian faith.


So, the Old Testament approach was to be a beacon of light—to be a godly people and to attract people to the faith. And because that didn’t work, by New Testament times, the approach was to send people out to be witnesses to the faith. And in some sense that didn’t work either because the two methods became terrible confused.

So how does this help us today? How does it help us with our closing churches, and our dwindling numbers?

Well, let’s pull a few things together.

Because firstly, the Old Testament example of being a distinctive and faithful people of God, who wait for people to come to them, is not relevant to our current situation. Yes, we should be a distinctive and faithful people, but if that approached was superseded in New Testament times, then we can hardly expect today to simply wait for people to come to us.

We do not have the distinctive nature that the early Jews were supposed to have. And we live in a far more multicultural society, today, than the early church found itself in, even in New Testament times.

Secondly, the New Testament model of going out to people, is not only culturally more relevant, but it is what Jesus instructed his disciples to do. We therefore need to embrace evangelism, not just on an overseas missionary level, but on a local church level as well. We need to include reaching out to the local community as part of our expression of faith, both as a congregation and as individuals.

Thirdly, just as the New Testament churches removed the non-essential features of religion, so we should be prepared to change some of our customs and traditions too. The example of the early church is that they did not want stumbling blocks of tradition, custom, or even internal rules to get in the way of faith. Indeed, the Council of Jerusalem quite clearly came to the conclusion that it’s what is in the heart that matters, not outward observances (Acts 15:1-11). And that’s something we need to take seriously too.

Fourthly, the cameos of the seven churches highlight some very positive features: hard work, perseverance, testing all teaching, being faithful, and being noted for love and faith. And even though not one church demonstrated them all, they are things we would do well to embrace.

And fifthly, and most importantly, that in all of this, our faith should not be watered down. Liberation of the rules is one thing, losing our faith is another. And, like the church in Roman times, we do face the constant pressure to compromise our faith.

Indeed, there are pressures to compromise our faith in the common belief that there are many ways to get to God and that Christianity. There are pressures to teach a gospel of good deeds, rather than a gospel of faith. There are pressures to equate western culture with Christian beliefs. There are pressures to embrace new age thinking, particularly where the emphasis is on what we can do for ourselves, rather than relying on God. And there are pressures to adopt some Eastern practices, when they are heavily influenced and inseparably tied to Eastern religions.

And, if we give in to pressure, as a consequence, we will lose our faith in the one true God, and we will lose Jesus as the one and only way for salvation.

And in those circumstances, dying church or not, we might just as well close our churches ourselves, because there will be no longer any point in keeping them open.


Throughout church history, there have been periods of decline and growth. Currently in Australia, and here in Tasmania, many churches are struggling to survive. Obviously, we can’t do anything about it without God’s help. But equally, the bible teaches, sitting back and doing nothing is not an option either.

In the bible there are some very clear guidelines of what church should look like. It should be outward looking; it should be able to compromise on the non-essentials of tradition and culture. But on the other hand, it should be uncompromising in regard to the basics of the faith.

Principals, which if kept, would not equate with a congregation in decline, but ones which would bode well for a good and bright future.

But now it’s up to us. The question is, ‘Which way do we want to go? How serious are we about our faith? And how serious are we about growing this congregation to which we belong?’

Posted: 16th February 2022
© 2022, Brian A Curtis