Church Growth – surely, given I’m a leader of a Christian church, it’s beyond obvious that I’m in favour of church growth? So how is it that whenever I hear the phrase, I am filled with a sense of dread and start looking for the exits.
I am passionately in favour of people knowing Jesus. I want his followers to learn to follow him more closely, and I want to see new people start on that journey. I became a Vicar because the privilege of helping people in that process matters more to me than most other things I can think of.
It’s not that I don’t want churches to flourish and grow. But there is something about the way the subject gets treated right now that troubles me more and more.
When the talk turns to Church Growth, I start to feel guilty and inadequate. The whole topic seems closely associated with an expectation that I will Do More, Work Harder, Lead Better. I am feeling daunted and overwhelmed with what I have to do already. I don’t need more expectations placed upon me. If we hope to save the church by making our clergy put more and more effort and creativity in, when they are already feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, we are doing it wrong.
Seminars and books and courses on Church Growth acknowledge this. They say, “You don’t need to do more….just stop doing some of the stuff you are already doing”. Not easy, when we are often being asked to do more and more in other areas too – many of them important and worthwhile in their own right, some of them necessary for pressing practical or legal reasons.
Some of us feel like the Hebrew slaves, in Egypt – required to make more and more bricks for Pharaoh, but without being given the straw we need to do it. It’s a biblical image, for sure, but not the one I thought I was signing up for, when I became a priest.
When I chat to other clergy, I often hear frustration about their congregations. There are many people who, for whatever reason, value what already exists and don’t want change. Sometimes the people seem too few, or too old, too traditional or too awkward. So clergy complain about their people. “I could do wonderful things, if only I had a different group of people to work with, if only my folk were more welcoming, or would put their energy into something new.”
Yet, these folk who can frustrate clergy so much are precious to God. They are a small part of his flock, entrusted to our care. How dare we complain about them? How can we say to God, “I would do all sorts of grand things for you, if only you’d given me better/more/younger/cooler people to work with” These are the ones he has given us.
If we end up saying, “Well, if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here” we are doing it wrong, because here is the only place we have to start from. If the push for Church Growth makes us resent our people, rather than cherish them, we are talking about it in the wrong way.
When we talk about Church Growth the focus seems to be on all the wrong things. On a recent course, (by a well respected national organisation) we were encouraged to start small, and find achievable changes we could make, to get us heading in the right direction. I’m in favour of starting with the small and achievable, so I was encouraged. Then I saw the list.
“Install Dimmer Switches” was the most memorable item.
There were other suggestions too. Serve better coffee, was another, and pay attention to the quality of your church notice board. They would all make the church a more attractive physical environment. But honestly, it felt more like advice from The Hotel Inspector than how to grow God’s people.
Did people follow Jesus because he had such a nice building? Or any sort of building at all? Because the loaves and the fishes were particularly good, organic loaves and fishes, from Waitrose rather than Cost-cutter?
Because his sermons were 10 minutes, rather than 12?
Because when they came to hear Jesus preach, they were welcomed by those with name badges and good small talk?
Because there was a special meeting, targeted precisely at just their demographic?
Have we lost confidence in what really matters? Like David as a boy, are we putting on all the armour of King Saul, trusting that it will help us to fight Goliath. Trying to wield a sword that is bigger than we are, and stand up in armour that is just wrong, we are trying to grow the church by all the wrong methods, but unlike David, we do not yet realise where our true hope lies – what it is we have of value, that can be found no-where else.
How do we start with the very ordinary, nervous, private, traditional, older Christians that many of our churches are full of? How do we help them to connect more deeply with God? How do we help them in their discipleship? And how do we help them to share that journey with those around them? These are the questions that we need to be addressing, if we long to see our churches grow.
Improving our coffee and our buildings, and heaping more pressure on the clergy to save the day is not the answer.