Sunday, 15 September 2013

How to grow a Church?

I think it is something peculiarly human so see a problem and to come up with a (man-made) solution. But that is to suppose that the problem is either something that we completely understand or something which we can humanly solve. I mention this because at the present time the Church in Wales is seeing its membership drop year on year and, naturally, everyone concerned is doing their utmost to discover a 'solution' to the problem. But there are several questions we need to ask as we consider this:

1. Is there a 'problem' as such? I mean is the decline a sign that something is necessarily wrong? If it was then it is natural and right that we should be doing all we can to find the solution. And that is definitely the case at the moment with seeker-friendly churches, meetings and committees, reports and reorganization, back to church Sundays and a plethora of different courses and schemes designed to communicate the faith in user-friendly, pressure-free environments. There is a problem, say the churches, and they are doing all they can trying to find a solution and, in some notable cases, appearing to find an answer. However in typically human fashion, as soon as one 'solution' is found it is bottled and sold on in the hope that others can benefit form the miracle cure. If only it were that simple. But that is to reduce such things to the level of the mechanical and I am not convinced that it actually works that way.

2. If there is not a problem, what alternative is there for what we are currently going through? A few thoughts:
i. In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-11) Jesus talks about four different types of ground onto which the seed is sown. Only one of them, however, brings a harvest. Is that why some churches 'take off' while others flounder or decline? Of course the discovery of such good ground is purely random as the sower seems unable to discern which ground is the best for his seed. Instead he throws the seed everywhere and it is by pure 'chance' that some of it finds the right soil. So it seems to be purely the luck of the draw which leads to good seed finding good ground, leading to growth.
ii. The other option to consider is that behind all this there are good reasons - or better, 'God' reasons - why things are not progressing despite all the hard work. We can of course only guess what these are. Here are a few possibilities:

Timing. As Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and a season for every activity under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1) And just as there is a "time to be born and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3:2) so there is a time for growth and a time for decay or rest. This is borne out by Paul's advice to his young protege Timothy to preach the word "in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul's advice then is based on the idea that there are seasons when things do not or will not happen in terms of spiritual response or growth. He gives no explanation as to why this should be so but instead gives Timothy this charge "in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: to preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching." So whatever happens, bearing in mind that we are answerable to God who is present, keep preaching whatever happens - or doesn't happen and stick at it. Or in the words of the Message "Challenge,warn, and urge your people. Don't quit..." 

The following verses - 3 to 5 - continue on this theme: "You're going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food - catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They'll turn their backs on truth and chase mirage. But you - keep your eye on what you're doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God's servant."

So clearly Paul, probably from his own personal experience, knows that preaching the Gospel and planting churches is not all plain sailing and sometimes the work of the Kingdom is just about pain and perseverance.

Soil. Coming back to the above point about the 'soil' of the heart. Some hearts are good but some aren't and you have to factor that into your thinking when you consider about growing a church. What makes a heart good? The same as what makes soil good. It needs air, water and nutrition. In case of hardness it needs breaking up. In case of weeds it needs clearing. And in case of stones, they need to be removed. But who does these things? Ultimately God, but he uses circumstances, people and all sorts of things over time to get things ready to receive the seed of the Word. Until the soil is ready all we can do is keep sowing.

Mystery. We just don't know, and perhaps will never know, this side of heaven. For now we "see in a mirror dimly." 1 Corinthians 13:12. In fact it was this whole idea of mystery that started me off writing this blog. I was stimulated into thinking by a passage from a book by Irma Zaleski an Orthodox Christian writer. In Chapter 3 of her book "Who is God?" titled "The Meaning of Mystery" she writes:

"Sometimes we shy away from the word "mystery".... (it) comes from the Greek word mysterion.... the etymology of the word is significant, for the Greek verb from which it was derived, originally meant "to close eyes or lips." Thus it implies that those who wish to find true wisdom - those who want to find and possess the Truth - must close their physical senses, must go beyond knowledge based on their rational, "thinking" minds, and open the eyes of their hearts, their inner understanding or insight..... "

She goes on to point out that "Our culture considers rational knowledge the highest, the most legitimate and, often, the only way to truth. It tends to reduce all existential or metaphysical questions into mere problems to be examined by the mind and, eventually, to be solved by science or technology, by some super-computer, perhaps." (She could also add by rational or logical deduction).

The point I concluded from the above is this. There are some things we are not going to know. And even if we did know them they would do us no good at all. For example what good would it do us if we knew the secret of growing a church? Wouldn't that encourage us to think of the whole thing mechanically rather than relationally? Wouldn't it reduce the whole exercise to a book or a soulless model or method? Wouldn't God be pushed out of the picture while we just got on with the process of working through the numbers? Mystery rescues us from objectifying God and preserves the all important relational aspect of what we are about where we rely on and interact with God. It means that we have to walk by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) and makes us lean all the more heavily on prayer and therefore God.

The upshot of the above is basically down to this. There are no quick solutions or short cuts that will bring us out of this. So what do we do? We wait and pray and preach and work and trust in God. We do the best we can. And we leave the rest to Him.

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