Over the last few years the Church of England has become acutely aware of the decline in numbers of church attendance, especially amongst the young. In response there is a renewed focus on mission and numerical growth with a variety of strategies to address this.
The emphasis on growth raises questions. Is this a ‘dash for growth’? How healthy is exponential growth? What does the urge for growth say about our understanding of the Missio Dei? What account do we give of how disciples, new and old, find their place in the Body of Christ? What are the dangers in looking at the metrics?
I want to contend that the growth of the Church is good and important but it cannot be undertaken uncritically, especially in relation to the current rhetoric of the Church of England through reports such as From Anecdote to Evidence. I propose a fresh way of looking at growth through a reading of the Parable of the Sower which does not simply focus on results but on an organic approach learning the lessons of the Green Revolution in agriculture.
Growth is Good & of God
The Gospel of Jesus Christ assumes growth: growth into the image and likeness of God, growing into the full maturity of being sons and daughters of the Most High (cf 1 Peter 2.2); growing in the way the corporate life of the church is modelled (cf Ephesians 4.15); growing in our personal way of life as disciples (cf Colossians 1.10) and growing in knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf 2 Peter 3.18); growing and building up in love (Ephesians 4.16); even pruning brings growth (cf John 15).
|The pruning of a vine for growth|
Growth is good. But growth is multi-faceted and not just about the numbers, although numbers are clearly a part of it, as in Acts of the Apostles extraordinary numerical growth is reported (cf Acts 1.15; 2.41; 2.47). What is absolutely clear in the New Testament is that growth is from God (1 Corinthians 3.6., 7; Colossians 2.19)
It is growth in numbers that has taken the priority in the strategic planning and overviews of many dioceses and parishes. It is important then to reflect on what growth is and what some of the challenges and costs of that growth might be, as well as the benefits.
The Rhetoric of Growth: Anecdote and Evidence
The Church of England report From Anecdote to Evidence is a key marker on the journey of reflection on growth, a journey begun by the Mission-shaped Church report in 2003. It forms part of the Church’s current rhetoric of growth.
Anecdote to Evidence gives pointers to the ways in which growth is achieved. Yet the title suggests that anecdote is a suspect way of reporting growth. The implication is that a quantitative way to understand growth is the only one that tells an empirically credible story. The implication is that anecdote is unreliable and not credible.
The Acts of the Apostles combines anecdote and evidence in testifying to the mighty acts of God in Christ and the numerical growth of the Christian community. Quantitatively we read, ‘that day about three thousand persons were added’ (Acts 41.b); qualitatively we read:
They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2.42-47)’.
St Luke tells the ‘anecdotes’ of the first Christians’ quality of life. That tells us that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Church which is what attracts people and grows the Church. Many parish clergy tell of growth in their churches. What are they talking about? Often that testimony is dismissed by the suggestion that the growth they detect is not real growth or that it is not sufficient to merit appreciation.
The currency of the Church is anecdote. Telling the story is integral to living the Christian life. Stories are compelling and shape the reality we want to see. Christians read the scriptures to discover and be reminded of the action of God in history. Christians celebrate the Eucharist to be rooted and anchored in the Gospel. Mission itself involves bearing witness to the telling of God’s story and its possibilities in individual lives and in the world.
A Cost to Growth?
Dashes for economic growth and exponential growth often have a habit of ending badly. Relentless emphasis on numerical growth can have adverse side effects when applied to the Church:
- · It plays to a wider societal and media narrative that numbers are the only thing that counts in the life of the Church;
- · It is anxiety driven. In the face of anxiety Jesus asks us to consider the lilies of the field – which neither toil nor spin - and yet they grow and, indeed, multiply (Matthew 6.28). In the face of anxiety the response is often to (clerical) control and lack of diversity of theology and style;
- · It means we are deaf to the stories of the Spirit’s action in the lives of those who appear not to count in the eyes of the world – for example, children and the poor - but who are the first in the Kingdom of God. These are the quiet actions of the church in people’s lives exercised in daily pastoral ministry but that are never counted;
- · The call to holiness, respect for faithfulness and patience can be diminished in a rampant rhetoric of growth.
The priestly task is to elicit the stories, to offer the vocabulary around which disciples, new and old, can frame and to hold the whole story, the anecdote, of the Gospel before the Christian community.
Harvest Focused Sowing
The ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture, and the associated development of new varieties of crop, was all about maximising growth. But it has had unintended consequences. The pesticides needed to support the new varieties had a devastating impact on insect life and other plants that feed birds. Farmers became dependent on global conglomerations who supply the specialist materials and are held in economic fetters. Furthermore, as can be seen in nature, a monoculture leaves the species at risk of extinction.
What are the parallels for the Church? The Church must be wary of finding a formula akin to the Green Revolution that makes us think there is a single resilient, genuine, variety of Christian. Monoculture in church life kills off those who are attracted to the faith yet do not find themselves at the centre, but ‘touch the fringe of the cloak’ (Matthew 9.20) and still know the healing power of Christ. To retain the purity of a single variety in a species means the loss of others. This can lead to the crowding out and choking of intergenerational contributions from the very young and the old and also different theological voices.
The challenge for the Green Revolution and Church growth is, how we nurture and feed the greatest number of people that preserves the ecology of the creation and human ways of relating to Jesus Christ, that are not imposed or controlled.
|Christ the Sower|
The Parable of the Sower
The parable of the sower opens up our wondering about proper sowing (Matthew 13.1-9; 18-23). This should be the dominant text for growth. It tells us that:
· Growth is possible in all sorts of soils. However that growth will not be long lived unless the soil is well prepared and suitable for the seed to take root and establish its growth;
· Growth happens at all stages but doesn’t guarantee fruitfulness. The seed that is eaten by the birds has no growth of its own but sustains another species. The other seeds in the parable all grow, but either not very much or they get choked: but growth had happened in them. At which stage do we count growth as meaningful: adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s…80s, children?
· Growth to fruition varies in ‘productivity’. The yield of the seed that fell on good ground is not uniform: ‘in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty’ (v. 23). Even numerical growth cannot be final arbiter of growth. What is successful growth in a church: 100 people attending worship; 500? 1,000? 10,000? 2 or 3? (cf Matthew 18.20);
· Growth is not just for its own sake. The wheat of the ear enables the plant to sustain itself in the future by the emergence of new seedlings. It also gives it fruit to others, that are not itself, to sustain them: birds and mice eat the wheat; human beings harvest the grain systematically in order to make bread and other staples; and the Biblical vision of gleaning enables the poor to be served too.
There is no one indicator of ‘real’ growth.
The value of abundant, surplus growth is seen throughout the biblical tradition: storing up for times of famine (Genesis 41.35-36); the tradition of gleaning (Ruth 2.17-23) Jesus and his disciples plucking of grain to eat (Luke 6.1). The wheat is abundant in its provision and not consumed by itself.
The Proper Sowing: Countering a ‘Harvest Mission Model’
All growth demands patience: be that the grain of wheat, the gestating child or in a congregation.
‘Take no thought of the harvest, but only of the proper sowing’
(T.S. Eliot in Choruses from The Rock)
|'The Corn Harvest' - Peter Breugel the Elder|
In human society the classic measure of success is the harvest, the end of the production line. It defines the outcome and measurement of our labours. In the contemporary Church of England parish churches invest a great deal of time and energy in celebrating the Harvest Festival. Harvest Festival rightly is a time of thanksgiving and, if celebrated well, has a global justice imperative. Harvest is comforting because it is about tangible results and measurement. In that way it plays to our sense of security evidenced by metrics.
It is as if the Church of England, fed by media obsession with church decline, has a ‘Harvest Mission Model’.
In the Church Year there is another agrarian based festival that is now seen as something of an antique piece in the way harvest is not. That is Rogation. Rogation (from the Latin rogare ‘to ask’) is about asking God to bless our endeavours, most obviously in the sowing of the seed on the land.
Rogation is not about measurement, but about trust and prayer. Once the seed is in the ground, out of our sight and our control, we do not know what will come of it: we trust that it will take root; we trust that it will grow; we trust that it will be fruitful. But we cannot control that growth.
What if we focused more on Rogation? What would that do to our mission paradigm? A ‘Rogation Mission Model’ could move us from desperate responses to the decline of an institution to a faithful, trusting response to the God who gives life and growth.
After all, St Paul writes that, ‘God gives the growth’ regardless of who sowed or watered (cf 1 Corinthians 3.6). Jesus says that the harvest is God’s; it is not our possession. Labourers are to be sent out into the Lord’s harvest: this is a proper understanding of the missio Dei.
Wanting to grow is a response to the environment that the Church finds herself in in Western Europe at present. That environment is felt to be hostile, antagonistic and repulsed by the whole notion of religious faith and belief. It is also part of the imperative to grow as seen in the Acts of the Apostles and Matthew 28.19.
I have argued that, biblically, growth is measured by fruitfulness and that the Church of England must not be driven by anxiety or desperation when it speaks of growth but remains faithful to the promises of God, who gives the growth.
The 'tool' the Church already has to respond to and to shape this approach is through the Eucharist, about which I have written elsewhere. The Eucharist holds the story of salvation, receives the fruits of the harvest so that the believer is fruitful and grows into the full stature of Christ to be and live out God's mission in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the Kingdom.
The task of leadership in the current climate is to ensure that the Church as a whole, and individuals Christians, do not become gospel amnesiacs. It is to help both those new to the Church and those already within it to find their place in the story (anecdote) of God’s action within the world and coming Kingdom. Growth is downwards, outwards and upwards: personal growth leads to ecclesial growth, rooted in the Gospel and fruitful.
© Andrew Bishop, 2016