My puzzlement, of course, implies scepticism and I have to admit to feeling sceptical about this. Trying to grow the Church doesn’t seem natural to me.
I suspect my scepticism has two main causes:
- my experience and research lead to me to believe that growth is more something that happens than something that is achieved;
- I am totally unconvinced that a bigger church is “better” than a smaller church (although it is probably true that growing churches are in general “better” than shrinking churches.
Growth is something that happens to us, not something we do
To take the first point first most of my church life has been within a single consistently growing congregation. As I went through my education for ministry and had the opportunity to observe a fair number of other churches (only one of which was experiencing growth) I came to the conclusion that the two examples of growth I saw had little or nothing to do with anyone deciding or acting to promote growth.
My home congregation had just got on with being the particular kind of church it was as best it could at a time and in a place where a lot of people were looking for a church of that kind. Over the years a steady trickle of people walked through our doors in search of something we were equipped to give or to be. We didn’t go looking for them, they came looking for us. This led to a gradual expansion and transformation of our congregation. Of course there were pitfalls to avoid and opportunities to seize along the way and it would be possible to rationalise that in retrospect as a plan but actually we just happened to be in the right place and time (this derived of course from the history of the church and from the minister we had but the point stands).
Similarly the church in which I undertook a training placement which grew did so not because of any plan or effort it made. It was simply the right church in the right place at a moment when a highly unusual circumstance led a group including a number of energetic and talented individuals to decide they needed a new ecclesial home. This sudden and unpredictable influx breathed new life into the congregation at precisely the moment when a new and singularly appropriate minister arrived. None of this could have been planned and worked for.
Then I read what I regard as the very important book Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the present edited by David Goodhew. In it is demonstrated fairly satisfactorily, I think, that not only is the Church not declining in numbers globally it is not declining in numbers in Britain. The shrinking of the historic denominations is being balanced by growth in new forms of Church, primarily independent or in new denominations and concentrated in big cities, above all in London, and among migrants (including internal migrants).
The reason this is relevant is that the growth is overwhelmingly in urban areas experiencing inflows of population and is of churches with a set of common characteristics. In other words, like my home church, most growing churches are churches of the right kind in the right place and time.
Like living organisms churches grow when it is their time to grow and the conditions to support that growth is present, on the whole. Of course there will be exceptions but it remains the case that for a church to attract new members there have to be people who want or need what it has to offer, and it seems to me that if it has what those people want then they are likely to find it.
(All this amounts to something like the traditional Calvinist doctrine of election. If you’re meant to be in the Church God will put you there.)
Does size matter?
Going back to Calvin it is clear that he (like Luther and anyone who accepts the idea of predestination) would be deeply uneasy about efforts to bring more people into the Church. Either they are elect (in which case God will guide them) or not (in which case their presence will be a corruption of the Church). This difficulty is expressed in the somewhat awkward distinction between the visible and the invisible Church.
What this invites us to reflect upon is what the implicit view of the Church’s purpose might be that would lead one to make its growth a primary objective of its communal activity. Some options include:
- the salvation of individual souls through the inculcation of faith or belief in Christ
- the transformation of the world towards God’s intended state through social action
- the preservation of the institution itself as a vital part of God’s providential work in the world
I confess myself unconvinced that any of these provide a justification for prioritising growth.
Individual salvation as the result of evangelistic activity
Many will see this, I’m sure, as obviously correct and immediately justifying an emphasis on growth, and I can certainly see their point. I am not, nonetheless convinced. This for two reasons:
- I do not believe that the salvation of individuals is actually the heart of the gospel
- If it were then those individuals, not the Church as an institution, would have to be at the heart of what we do – Church growth, if it happened, would surely be a by-product of the work of evangelism rather than its core
When Jesus began his ministry it was with the proclamation of the Kingdom, not with an appeal for individual belief. That the Kingdom was at hand was the primary news and the response of individuals to it was to follow. Among the New Testament writers we find an urgent drive to bring new people into the community only really in Paul, and even there it seems to be extension into new areas that he cares about rather than expansion where the Church already exists. All the epistles are concerned primarily with the quality of Church life, not the quantity of people included.
God’s plan of salvation in the NT is focused on the whole of creation, not on individual human beings, although the individuals have the responsibility to respond and to position themselves with regard to it. The work is not yet complete, the full realisation of the Kingdom is yet to come, but it will come. The world will be made anew and all will be changed utterly.
Too often the Christian message of resurrection into a cosmos made new becomes one of escape from this world into another existing alongside it. The idea that this world is static and unchanging, a vale of tears from which we are released into an eternal heavenly domain is not one that finds support in the Scriptures. We are to expect and anticipate the remaking of this world, a remaking that will touch and transform all parts of it.
At that time the Church, as a separate and distinct institution, will cease to exist as all comes under the direct rule of God. The Church does not save, only God in Christ does.
The social Gospel
Should we, then, see the growth of the Church as instrumental in this universal plan of salvation? I think not. Going back to the New Testament again I see no support for the idea of the Church as a centre of social change. The care that is urged on Christians is always care for one another, in the epistles, The Church is a community called out of the world and into Christ, a community bound together by bonds of love that do not extent beyond its boundaries.
I do not advocate a strict return to this idea of the relationship between Church and world (particularly stark and shocking in John’s letters which I have been reading with one of my Bible study groups) but we do need to recover a stronger sense of our separateness, so powerful a part of the URC’s Congregational history but now largely lost as we’ve forgotten our real differences with the established churches.
Our long history of political engagement, originally driven specifically by our own interests as a church body, has swamped our trust in God’s providential care. The salvation of the world is not a human and definitely not an ecclesial task, It is God’s and God’s alone.
The preservation of the institution
This would probably be the strongest argument to prioritise growth, if it were needed, but it’s not. The Church catholic is actually in rude health. It continues to grow strongly in the world as a whole, despite the decline of some old denominations. If the URC were to cease to exist this would not be a material blow to the overall strength of the Church. This does not mean that I don’t care about the future of my denomination, just that its preservation should not be the sole or main concern of anybody.
For each of us who has been called into the Church God has a purpose and a will. Each of us and each of our communities needs to work at discerning that will. For some it will be evangelisation, the proclamation of the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it. For others it will be study, for others again the expression of God’s love for the world in acts of care and compassion, or the building up of those in the Church by the explanation and exploration of what it means to be a disciple. There will be as many vocations as there are Christians. I am unconvinced, though, that growing the Church will be essential for any,