I want to start this morning by telling you a true story that happened to my family and me. Years ago before we moved to Edmonton, while we were still living in northern Alberta, I happened to have a weekend off and we came down to the city with our family. On Sunday morning we went to one of the larger Anglican churches in the city where a friend of mine was rector. During the service, my friend solemnly reminded his congregation of their Christian duty to welcome guests as if they were the guests of Jesus. However, after the service not a single person spoke to us, although they were very warm and friendly to each other.
My friend Harold Percy has often led workshops about church growth and evangelism. I’ve heard him say several times that whenever he asks congregations what their strengths are, they almost always say, “We’re a friendly church”. His reply is, “Who told you so? Because if it’s just someone inside the church saying that, it doesn’t count. If visitors and guests tell you you’re a friendly church, then you’re getting an objective view from outside, so it means a lot more”.
I think a lot of churches think that they’re friendly. A lot of church members think they’re friendly people. They don’t come to church with the express intention of ignoring visitors or being malicious. But they just do what comes naturally; when they see their friends, they talk to them first, and by the time they’re done, visitors have concluded that this is not a welcoming congregation, and they’ve left.
Genuinely friendly churches are rare, and they don’t happen by accident. Our default position is to talk to our friends; we have to make an intentional decision to get out of our comfort zone and talk to newcomers, and this rarely happens unless there’s a culture in the congregation encouraging it. Also, genuinely friendly churches are magnetic. Many people visit a church for the first time because a friend invited them. Most of the ones who come back for a second and third and fourth time do so because they made friends there.
Why am I talking about this today? Well, we’re in the middle of a series of sermons about what all of us can do to help our church grow. We’re talking about what I call church growth with integrity. This includes numerical growth, but it also includes our personal spiritual growth, as we each grow as a disciple of Jesus. It includes our growth as a genuine community of love, caring for each other and serving each other. And it includes our growth in influence on the world around us for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
So what are some things all of us can do to help that happen? I’ve identified five things: we can make a commitment to our own spiritual growth, a commitment to welcome, a commitment to ministry, a commitment to generosity, and a commitment to invitation. Last week we talked about making a commitment to our own spiritual growth, to growing as disciples of Jesus. This week I want to go on to the idea of making a commitment to welcome, to helping our congregation be a genuinely welcoming community.
Are there some principles that we can find in the Bible to encourage us to be a more welcoming community – and to encourage each one of us to get more involved in the welcoming process? Yes, there are.
The first is the principle of hospitality, and this runs through the Bible. In Genesis chapter 18 Abraham is sitting outside his tent in the middle of the day when three strangers appear on the scene. Hospitality being a major cultural value at the time, he immediately jumps up and urges them to stay for a meal. Apparently the visit is prolonged, because he kills a calf to prepare for the meal, and his wife Sarah bakes some fresh bread! Eventually the meal takes place, and then as the story unfolds in the rest of the chapter, it turns out that these aren’t just three ordinary human beings. They’re three angels on a mission from God; in fact, there are hints in the chapter that one of them is God himself.
This story has a strong influence throughout the Bible. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews the author says, ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:1-2). That’s where we get the phrase ‘entertaining angels unawares’ (from the King James Version).
But applying this principle of hospitality to our Sunday church services requires a shift in thinking for most of us. Most of us start coming to church thinking of ourselves as the guests, or even the customers; we’re not coming to do something for others, we’re coming for our own sake. That’s not wrong, but Jesus calls us to go beyond that. He calls us also to start thinking ourselves as the staff, the hosts, the members of God’s hospitality team. The responsibility for making sure that our church is hospitable to guests and first-time visitors belongs to every single one of us, not just the leaders.
The second biblical principle that applies to this issue is the principle of love and care for others, expressed in the second great commandment and the golden rule. Jesus says that the two greatest commandments in the law are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Also, in the Sermon on the Mount he sums up the law with the words: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
So then, if we were strangers visiting a church for the first time, what sort of welcome would we want? We probably wouldn’t want to be overwhelmed – after all, we are shy, introverted Anglicans, or many of us are! But we wouldn’t want to be ignored, either. We’d probably appreciate a kind word, a few people introducing themselves and taking a genuine interest in us. Respect, warmth, a sense that people are glad to see us: there’s nothing complicated about that, and most of us know instinctively how to make it happen. But it does require us to move out of our comfort zone and serve others. Well, that is, after all, a Christian value!
So there’s the principle of hospitality, and the principle of love and care for others. A third biblical principle is the principle of the value of each individual. God doesn’t just see us as a herd or a flock or a conglomerate; Jesus says the good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’ (John 10:3). Jesus also tells the story of the shepherd who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them; he ‘leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the one that is lost until he finds it’ (Luke 15:4).
The idea of calling people by their name is particularly important. I’m not especially good at remembering names; I’ve tried to come up with all sorts of little memory devices to help me, but still I struggle sometimes. But I keep trying because I think it’s really important. I’m reminded of the reason we have name tags in this congregation; Dave Fost asked us to do it! Dave was a member of this parish for several years, and he had Alzheimer’s. One Sunday he said to us, “I’d like to call you all by your names, but I can’t remember your names from week to week; can we please have name tags?” We’d been humming and hah-ing about it for months, but that settled it!
There’s a power in learning people’s names and using them; it tells them that they are important to us as individuals, not just as a statistic. We do it because we’re conscious that every person who comes to our church for the first time comes as a guest of Jesus. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus are called to welcome his guests in his name and treat them as he would treat them. I’m called to do that. You’re called to do that too – each one of you.
So we’ve identified three biblical principles or values that bear on this subject of welcome: the value of hospitality, the value of love and care for one’s neighbour and treating them as we would wish them to treat us, and the value of recognizing that each individual is significant to God. Now, what are some things we can do to apply these values and make our church a more welcoming place?
Some of you will know that in recent months I’ve been learning a lot from the writings of Karl Vaters, a small church pastor from the Silicon Valley in California. His small church practices what they call the ‘GIFT’ principle. Each week he asks his church leaders and members, ‘Who did you gift this week?’ The word ‘GIFT’ is an acronym they use to remember four important guidelines for welcoming people.
G stands for ‘Greet’. Greet someone you’ve never met before, at the beginning of the service, or afterwards, or during the sharing of the peace. We all like to greet our friends, but what if we made a decision that before we do that, we’ll intentionally look for someone we don’t know, or whose name we don’t know?
Some people are afraid to do that. They’ve said to me, “But what if I go up to someone and ask them if they’re new, and they say, “No, I’ve been coming here for a few weeks or months now”. Well, I’m sorry, but if we’re going to learn hospitality we’re going to have to get over our fear of being embarrassed! I’m sure there are many of you here who have heard me say, “I have a terrible memory for names: have we met before?” That’s a phrase we can all use – it can even inject a bit of welcome humour into the situation. So greet someone you don’t know, learn their name, discover something about them. If they’re alone, you might even ask them if they’d like you to sit with them through the service.
I stands for ‘Introduce’. Introduce people to each other. After meeting them and learning something about them, ask yourself “Is there someone else here today who they might be interested to meet? Someone with a similar life situation or set of interests to them? Some friends of mine that I’d like them to meet?” Of course this would require that we get to know some of the current church members in a more than superficial way, but that’s not a bad thing, is it?
By the way, another thing my friend Harold Percy used to say is that one difference between a growing church and a shrinking church is this: in a shrinking church, the pastor introduces newcomers to some of the long time church members. In a growing church, some of the long time church members introduce the newcomers to the pastor!
So ‘G’ stands for ‘Greet’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Introduce’, and ‘F’ stands for ‘Follow up’. Follow up on that person you met recently. Find the person you met a week or two ago. Say hi to them again. Call them by name, or apologize for forgetting it and ask them to repeat it for you! Then engage them in further conversation. Ask them if they’re feeling at home in the church, and if there are any questions they need help with. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to those questions; that would be your perfect opportunity to introduce them to a warden or vestry member, or the priest, who might know the answer! Maybe you can take time and invite them out for a coffee after the service.
Here’s the thing: when people try out a new church, they tend to stay if they make friends. And everyone in the church is called by Jesus to help make this happen. It’s not just my responsibility as the pastor, or the wardens or other church leaders. All of us are followers of Jesus; all of us are called to help make people welcome.
So ‘G’ stands for ‘Greet’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Introduce’, ‘F’ stands for ‘Follow-up’, and ‘T’ stands for ‘Thank’. Thank someone in the church who did something you appreciate. Every church has volunteers who work very hard to make things happen week by week. Often it’s a small group; in fact, research has shown that the larger a church gets, the smaller percentage of the members are actually involved in any active volunteer ministry in the church! Volunteers often feel tired and underappreciated, and a little kindness can go a long way toward addressing that issue. The lay administrants who serve us communion each week. The altar guild members who set up for the service. The greeters who get here early to make sure there’s a warm welcome for all who come. The Sunday School teachers, the musicians, the readers and intercessors, the building and grounds maintenance people – they are all volunteers. They don’t have to be here doing these things. They do them because they care. Do you care enough to thank them for that?
So we’ve got the word ‘GIFT’ – Greet someone, Introduce someone, Follow-up with someone, Thank someone. What do you think? Is that something you can start to be more intentional about? As you listen today, do you find yourself thinking, “Well, it will require me to get out of my comfort zone, but I can see that it’s important, so I’m going to do it”? I hope so.
Before I conclude, let me mention one more practical thing. If you’re coming to a church for the first time, the last thing you want to find is that all the seats at the back are full, and you have to march down in front of everyone else and sit close to the front, where everyone can see that you don’t know when to stand up, sit down and so on. So it’s good for us regular members to leave the back rows empty, on both sides. We’re not going to put a sign up on them, but I want there to be a sign in your mind: the back couple of rows on both sides are left empty, so that first time visitors can sit there if they want to. Once again, this requires us to think of other people’s comfort before our own, but it’s important.
Let me conclude by saying this. No one shows up in church these days by accident. Everyone has a story that’s brought them here. They might think it’s a boring story, but God doesn’t write boring stories. God is interested in their story. Are you?
You see, many first-time visitors to a church haven’t found a personal connection with God yet. Some have, but many haven’t. So they don’t know how to experience that truth for themselves – the truth that God cares about their stories. But they are the guests of Jesus, and you and I are called by the name of Jesus: we are Christians, Christ-followers. So how are we going to communicate to Jesus’ guests that they matter to us? That their stories are important to us? How are we going to treat them, so that they get the message that the good shepherd is absolutely over the moon about the fact that they came to his sheepfold this morning?
Over to you.
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.
I liked this article by Jason D. Bradley – and not just because I work for the church, either. Here’s my favourite part.
5. Church is a spiritual discipline.
I have no doubt that I could abandon the local church and cherry pick some friends to meet with regularly who would make spirituality and theological discussions deep, challenging and fun.
But when I’m honest with myself, most of my growth has come from interacting with people I wouldn’t choose. By handpicking my social circle instead of submitting to a local community of believers, I’ll generally choose people who fall within my comfort zone.
I’ve grown in my ability to love by getting close to people with opinions I disagree with, different lifestyles, disabilities and all sorts of issues I had not been previously been exposed to.
I need a multi-generational, ethnically and financially diverse community of people to mentor me and broaden my perspectives. I need people close to me who I can disagree with and challenge in a healthy way—while still loving and wanting what’s best for them.
There’s no question that every church has significant problems, and I’ve often daydreamed about quitting. But I truly believe we need each other.
Read the whole thing. and if you’ve been abused by the church, especially read his caveat at the end.
Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good at doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).
I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!
Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.
The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.
This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?
I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.
That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.
This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.
When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.
The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.
Come, Holy Spirit.
I think there has been an unhealthy influx of competitiveness into church life today. It seems that many Christians (and many pastors and priests) are obsessed with better statistics and better performance.
One area in which it appears is church size. There’s an assumption that a bigger church is a better church – whether the big church is an evangelical megachurch with a ‘campus’, multiple worship bands, big screens and a Starbucks in the foyer, or a gothic cathedral with glorious stained glass, a full-time choir producing world class cathedral music, and multitudes of visitors coming in during the week.
These organizations have their strengths, of course, but one weakness they have in common is that it’s easier for people to slip in and out anonymously. And of course, some people like to do that. The problem is, that’s not New Testament Christianity, and people whose entry point takes the form of anonymity will tend to assume something about Christianity that is not, in fact, true to the vision of Jesus and his apostles.
Read the things that Jesus and Paul say about relationships within the Body of Christ – especially Paul’s many ‘one another’ sayings (‘bear with one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘admonish one another’ etc.). They all assume that the members of a Christian church will know each other well, and in order for that to happen, a local church can’t be big. The early Christians never thought they needed to grow huge churches to be successful (although they were glad when lots of people came to faith in Christ). Rather, they assumed that the fundamental unit of church life would be a small group (useful when you don’t have any buildings!).
The other thing we see is a desire to have a crowded calendar and lots of programs, especially programs that are helpful and useful to the world around. ‘Being missional’ is what it’s called, and so churches get busy serving the poor and needy, advocating for justice, working to save the environment, and a host of other worthy activities. I mean that in all sincerity; I believe in most of those causes, and our church is involved in them.
It’s a little disconcerting, though, that the New Testament makes it clear that the central activity of Christian mission is evangelism and disciple-making. The world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah; it’s important that people know about it, and that they hear his summons to faith and discipleship. The church is commissioned (note the word ‘mission’ there) to carry out this task. Our central calling is to share the gospel, make new disciples for Jesus, and help form them into the likeness of Christ. Everything else is meant to be built around this.
These days it’s assumed that Sunday worship is the main business of the Church. We spend millions of dollars on facilities for it, on equipment for it, on liturgical texts and robes and the various accoutrements of a worship gathering. It’s interesting, then, that the Book of Acts rarely gives any attention to worship at all (although it assumes that Christians will do it). The preoccupation of the author of Acts is entirely with the spread of the Gospel and the making of new disciples – in other words, with evangelism. To him, this is the central task of the Church.
Small and flexible, outward looking and evangelistic – that’s the New Testament vision of a local Christian community. Every week, every day, of the many possible goals we can focus on, we get to choose the ones we think are most important. It’s probably wise to make sure we choose the right ones, and to make sure those choices are rooted in the New Testament vision of what a local church is all about.
In a recent interview in ‘Christianity Today’ magazine, Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the USA, talks about a conversation he had with a Chinese Pentecostal pastor who, at the age of 75, had restarted a church after four decades of communist opposition and persecution.
He told me that when the church re-started 5 years earlier, he had 30 mostly elderly people. But, in answer to my question, he handed me a book with the names of the adult baptized members of the church hand-written on its pages. As I turned page after page, I learned that Pastor Mung’s church now numbered over 1,500 people. I was astonished at this and asked, “How did this happen?” He smiled and I surmised he thought I had asked a typical American question. After all, we Americans are interested in the techniques of church growth: what books did you read, what conferences did you go to, what strategies did you employ? I’ll never forget his answer: “Well,” he said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And we pray a lot.” Then he went on to describe what the Lord had done in that town, including some remarkable healings.
The entire interview is worth reading. In my earlier years as a Christian I was very much influenced by Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity (Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning was the ‘burning bush’ that God first used to get my attention as a young teenager). I’m not so interested in it any more, but I resonated deeply with George Wood’s emphasis on Jesus and prayer.
A few years ago a survey taken among people who had recently started going to church revealed an interesting fact: overall, the new churchgoers were surprised about how hesitant long-time church people were to talk about God. The new churchgoers had assumed that church was all about God; why wouldn’t lifelong church members want to talk about him? And I think this applies all the more to Jesus. We want to talk about service opportunities, action plans, growth statistics, social justice, climate change, pastoral care – all good things, to be sure, and I’ve done more than my share of talking about them. But if the risen Jesus isn’t a living reality to us, how are we any different from social service agencies (apart from being less well-funded?).
No – we have to emphasize what is central to us – Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, and his living presence among us by the power of the Holy Spirit (and if that’s not real to us, then we have some pretty basic problems). And prayer – the way we connect with God, individually and corporately – should surely be our greatest joy, and also our first resort when we’re facing challenges and problems, successes and failures, opportunities and setbacks.
Deep down inside, this is the church growth strategy I really believe in: put Jesus at the centre of our life and message, pray a lot, and teach people to pray. Everything else follows on from that.