Years ago I saw a cartoon in a Christian magazine. It was the inside of one of those huge mega-churches with an auditorium that seated thousands of people. But there weren’t thousands of people in it. There were just a few, a tiny handful, huddled together front and centre, with the pastor standing at the podium preaching the sermon. And the words he was saying were “Jesus wants his church to grow. The bank that owns our mortgage thinks it’s a good idea too!”
Well, we can laugh, but there are times when we wonder why churches want to grow. Is this a competition? Are pastors just indulging their egos, playing a game of one-upmanship against the pastor of the next church down the road? Are we empire-building? What’s wrong with the size the church already is? And anyway, everyone of good taste is already an Anglican, aren’t they? Another one of those cartoons has the old lady at the back of the church shaking hands with the rector and saying “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about evangelism; surely everyone in this town who should be an Anglican already is!”
Is it really all about money? Members are getting older, young families are getting busier, budgets are getting more and more strained. This year at St. Margaret’s we’re certainly experiencing some of that. The question is no longer ‘Will we have a deficit at the end of the year’, but ‘How big will the deficit be?’ So is that our motivation for wanting to grow: paying the bills? Is it true what they say, ‘those churches are just after your money?’
I hope not. I hope we’re motivated by the love of Christ, as St. Paul was when he travelled all over the Mediterranean world and endured unbelievable sufferings and hardships because he believed the gospel message and he believed that God wanted everyone to hear it. I hope that we have a vision for growth with integrity, growth as followers of Jesus, growth in community, growth in our influence for good in the world around us, as well as numerical growth as more people become disciples through our witness. This morning I want to set out that vision for you, and then in the next few weeks I want to explore things each of us can do to help our church to grow.
So this morning I want to share with you four different ways churches can grow. Numerical growth is not possible for all churches. For example, some churches are situated in dying communities; it’s not likely that they’re going to see substantial growth. But all churches can grow in other ways, and hopefully many of them can grow numerically as well. So let me share with you these four ways of growth: numerical growth, growth as disciples of Jesus, growth in community, and growth in our influence in the world around us, near and far.
First, numerical growth. This isn’t hard to figure out – or is it? You might think it was a matter of simple math. What was the average attendance last year? What’s the average attendance this year? Has it gone down or up? That’s how we know whether we’ve grown or shrunk.
Well, maybe not. There are different reasons average attendance can go down. Some older folk go through periods of illness, they’re in hospital for long periods of time, or maybe they move into long term care and can’t get out any more. But they still consider this their church, and we still think of them as members of our congregation. Also, for better or for worse, younger people don’t come to church as often now as they did when I was young. When I was a teenager, regular attendance meant probably three times a month, and some people came more than once on a Sunday. Nowadays, not so. I’m not saying this is a good thing; I’m saying it’s the way things are. So average attendance can go down without us actually having lost any people.
But why are we trying to reach more people anyway? Our epistle for today gives us the answer. St. Paul is encouraging us to pray for our leaders so that we can enjoy peace and safety; he then goes on to say,
‘This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:3-6a).
There it is. God wants all people to be saved from evil and sin, from the things that chain us and keep us from living the fully human life we were created to live. In order for that to happen, he has come among us as one of us in Jesus. Jesus has given himself to ransom us – to set us free – and he is the means by which our eyes can be opened to the truth about God. God is real, God is love, and God is like Jesus. And God wants everyone to know that, to experience it for themselves.
That’s why we want the church to grow numerically. It’s not to win attendance competitions. It’s not to pay the bills. It’s because each person is important to God, and God wants each person to come to know and love him. That’s what the church is here for: to help people learn to love God and follow Jesus.
Note carefully what I just said: the church is here to help people love God and follow Jesus. So our job is not done when they become regular church attenders. That’s a start, but it’s only a start. That’s why the people who complain about our fixation with numbers have a point. What good is a church full of people, if the people in it aren’t learning to pray, never read the Bible for themselves, don’t try to put the way of Jesus into practice in their daily lives, and don’t help Jesus share the love of God with the whole world? If church is just an hour on Sundays and nothing else, what good is that doing?
That’s where the second kind of growth comes in. Churches can grow in numbers, but we can also grow as disciples, as followers of Jesus.
Honestly, a lot of people don’t even know this kind of growth is on the table. They say “I don’t really know the Bible very well, and I don’t understand it when I try to read it”, but then they make no effort to grow in their understanding. Or they say, “I know I’m supposed to forgive my enemies, but I can never forgive her for what she did to me” – and then they leave it at that, as if Jesus’ command to forgive is something we can just take a pass on, rather than asking for help so that we can begin to learn a different way. Or they say, “I really don’t know how to pray”, and then make no attempt to learn.
This Christian life is meant to be something you grow in. At the end of his second letter in the New Testament, St. Peter says, ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. St. Paul talks about growing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). He calls these things ‘fruit’, and fruit doesn’t grow instantly. You provide it with water and food and sunlight, and there’s a process the plants go through. The same is true for us as Christian disciples.
How have you grown as a disciple since this time last year? How is your understanding of the Bible better than it was a year ago? How are your prayers more meaningful to you? How are you growing in patience, in unselfishness, in your ability to go through hardship without getting upset and irritable? How are you growing in your ability to share your Christian faith with friends – to explain it to them in a way that helps them rather than turning them off?
These are all things that are meant to be on the agenda for us as disciples of Jesus. Of course we can’t do them all at once. Marathoners don’t start by running marathons. They start with shorter distances, and as they get stronger, they lengthen their training runs. It’s the same with discipleship. When it comes to forgiving your enemies, don’t start with ISIS terrorists; start with the person at work who knows exactly how to annoy you and does it on a regular basis! Or if you’re learning to pray, don’t start with half an hour a day; start with five minutes, and lengthen it as you get more comfortable in it. But let’s never, ever, ever be satisfied with where we are as disciples of Jesus! This Christian living is meant to be a journey; you don’t stand still till you’re dead!
So churches can grow numerically, and they can grow as their members grow as followers of Jesus. Thirdly, churches can grow in community.
It’s interesting to read the New Testament and notice how many times the words ‘one another’ appear. Love one another. Forgive one another. Bear with one another in love. Encourage one another. Admonish one another. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. The list goes on and on.
Is the New Testament vision of church a loosely-connected group of individuals who meet on Sundays once or twice a month and go their own way the rest of the time? Not at all. Let’s remember that most of those early Christian congregations probably met in houses. Everything essential to church is doable in a living room! And the New Testament writers obviously assumed that Christians would know each other, offend each other, ask for help from each other, notice each other’s weaknesses and so on.
Let me tell you a story that used to happen to me in my first few years here at St. Margaret’s; it hasn’t happened for a while, but it was fairly common in my early years. Someone would come up to me after church, someone who had attended St. Margaret’s for longer than me. They would then point subtly toward someone else on the other side of the room – someone who had also been at St. Margaret’s for longer than me. And they would ask me “Who is that? What’s her name?”
Do you think there’s room for us to grow in community? I think there’s lots of room! The New Testament vision for Christian community is that of a family of love, where we can comfort and encourage each other, pray for each other and support each other in hard times. But nowadays in churches, people often refuse to even let their fellow Christians know that they’re going through hard times. How can we help each other if we refuse to admit to each other that we need help?
This is seriously damaging our missional credibility in the world. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). He obviously wasn’t talking about feelings; there’s no way the world around us can know what we feel about other people. He’s obviously talking about observable actions: supporting poorer members, visiting the sick, caring for the needy and so on. A community of people who love each other in these visible ways is tremendously attractive. If we don’t do it, we’re weakening our case before the watching world. So this is not an optional extra for those who have time for that sort of thing. This is a biblical essential of church life. And there’s not a church on the planet that doesn’t have room to grow in this kind of community.
So we can grow numerically, we can grow individually as disciples, as followers of Jesus, and we can grow as a genuine community of love. The fourth way we can grow is in our influence on the world around us.
In the eighteenth century John Wesley rode the length and breadth of England on horseback, preaching the gospel in the open air. Sometimes he preached several times a day to crowds of many thousands of people. It’s no exaggeration to say that in his lifetime hundreds of thousands probably heard the gospel message from him, and many people’s faith came alive in a new and fresh way. People were set free from addictions and given new hope. They were brought together into little discipleship classes where they were accountable to one another for their Christian growth. This was the beginning of what soon came to be called the Methodist movement. A highly influential British historian once said that the reason England didn’t descend into violent revolution was because of the work of John Wesley. He had a tremendous influence on the world around him.
But not only Wesley, of course. He was the leader, but many thousands followed his lead. He told them this: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can, as long as ever you can”. And they did. They spread the gospel and led others to Christ, but they also cared for the poor and needy and worked to make their communities better places to live.
Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). Salt in those days was used to preserve meat and keep it from going bad. Obviously it had to be different from the meat, but it also had to be in contact with it. Keeping the salt in the saltshaker wouldn’t do any good! It had to be sprinkled on the meat so it could have an influence.
In the same way, we’re called to have an influence on the world around us. We’re called to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and then we’re called to be part of the answer to that prayer, doing what we can to spread the values of the kingdom of God by working for compassion and justice and peace, and working to spread the gospel of Jesus.
Please note: we don’t have to be in charge of the world for this to happen. Throughout history a lot of Christians have made this mistake; they’ve thought that influencing the world means taking over the government so we can change its laws. But the early Christians were in no position to do that, and neither was John Wesley in the eighteenth century. They didn’t work from the top down; they worked from the bottom up, among the poor and the marginalized. And the result was transformation.
This is what we mean by church growth with integrity. It’s not just about bums on pews and money in the collection plate. It’s about human beings who matter to God, and about them coming to know Christ and follow him as part of the Christian community. It’s about you and me growing daily as followers of Jesus, so that we’re further along in our Christian life today than we were this time last year. It’s about our church growing as a genuine community of love, so that we aren’t strangers to each other, but brothers and sisters who know each other and support each other. And it’s about us acting like the salt of the earth, having an influence on the world around us for the Kingdom of God.
Does this excite you? I hope it does. And every one of us has a part to play in this. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring with you the different ways each of us can help this to happen. Each week I’ll be preaching a sermon on the theme, and after church I’ll be making myself available for a question and discussion time for any who want to explore it further. And I’ll also be posting the sermon online and inviting questions and comments. Next week, our theme will be ‘Helping our church to grow by growing ourselves as followers of Jesus’. I hope you’ll be able to participate in that conversation!
I would like to acknowledge the help and influence of my friend Harold Percy on the ideas presented in this sermon.