I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Church growth recently. A lot of the impetus for this has come from a combination of this being a topic receiving a lot of attention within my denomination and my congregations and a reluctance on my part to believe that any single aspect of church life (in this case evangelism broadly understood) should be assumed to be always and everywhere the proper focus of discipleship,
I think that each Christian, each community of Christians and every association of Christians and communities of Christians has the responsibility of working to discern what God wants them to do, In every case this is, must be, unique and individual as well as sharing common characteristics. Thus we will all be commanded to love God and neighbour but the concrete outworking of that will differ. For some it may be primarily prayer, for others mostly service to the afflicted. Both of these, along with participation in the eucharist, study of the Bible, and evangelism, are indispensable parts of our following of Jesus but not in the same balance or in the same ways for each of us, individually or communally.
Hence where “growth” or “evangelism” are promoted as the central question I get uneasy. It seems to me quite possible that this could distract some individuals or fellowships from what they are really called to, or prevent them getting the support they need to live out their vocations. We should strive to see the Church as a whole, insofar as we can, and to recognise that what some churches do for and in that Church catholic, is quite different from what others do.
In regard to growth it is essential that the gospel is proclaimed to new people who have not yet heard or understood it and it is clear that some parts of the Church are called to that and do it very effectively. In particular the church planting networks, inside or more often outside the old denominations, are almost certainly the best at it. If a denomination like the URC feels called to grow the numbers of Christians as part of its response to God’s vocation then it should be paying attention to church planting (I’ve seen this work well for us, particularly in the thriving new ecumenical Church on Fairford Leys).
In regard to growth it is vital, too, that we strive to discern what kind of church we are called to grow and why. Too often, in the context of declining churches, the discussion of growth is framed by the needs of the institution seeking to grow. The logic of this can be: we are the church; it is important that the church exists to witness to Jesus; therefore it is important that we continue to exist.
This argument is flawed because its first premise is untrue. No fellowship or denomination IS the church. It is not in fact important that any particular part of the Church continues to exist unless there is something unique that it does for God. If there is not keeping it going may well be a waste of effort and contrary to God’s will. Before seeking to grow a part of the church we need to identify what about it makes it worth the effort of expanding.
This question will have a wide variety of kinds of answer. The church may serve a particular group of individuals who would otherwise be lost, out of touch with Christ. It might be geographical. Maybe it uphold and preserves a way of relating to God (theological or liturgical maybe) that would otherwise not be available to the Church. Perhaps it does work of service that is valuable, or maintains a building of real worth to the kingdom. Any of these and more are possible but there has to be answer otherwise the growth looked for may not be relevant to the Kingdom, may be a merely human idolatry of an institution.
What the answer to the question of “why grow this?” turns out to be will be likely to guide one in looking for how to grow as well. If we are saying that the unique vocation of our fellowship or denomination is a particular thing then we are looking for people who will be excited by and contribute to that thing. If it is expressing the faith and developing the discipleship of a particular kind of person we are looking for that kind of person. In any case we have a message we can communicate about why we love what we’re inviting people to join and work within, we know what our particular message is (although this will serve the universal message about God’s saving work in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom).
I’m seeking to discern what the vocations of the two congregations within which I serve are. I’m sure they are different and am making quicker progress (I think) in that process in one place than the other. However I am convinced that both have work to do for Jesus if we can listen hard enough to find what that is. What I would not want to do is to try to grow the churches simply so that they can continue to exist without working out why it’s a good thing for them to continue. If a church answers by saying that it needs to exist in order to meet the spiritual needs of the people currently in it then in all honesty it will struggle to find people who will want to join it.
The same thing is true of the URC as a whole. I have yet to see anyone offer anything like a compelling argument for why the Church needs the URC (although I do believe such an argument could be made). Until we do find such an answer and come to a widespread consensus on it the denomination will live a kind of shadow existence and any growth that we do enjoy will be about local fellowships finding their own path without much reference to the denomination.