3 before Lent - Growing the Church

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Martin Carr on 16 February 2014

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I’m going to start with a question: what is the most common reason for a person starting to come regularly to church?

The most common reason that a person starts coming to church is because an existing church member has invited them. That’s the main one, though of course there are others. What is quite clear is that people rarely start coming to church without some sort of prompt or way in. Today I want to talk about church growth, and help us ask ourselves how we, as the churches in Holland Park, can grow.
The first question to ask is why think about growth at all. The Church has survived two millennia, surely it will always continue if we are faithful in payer and worship, and in living Christian lives? Historians may point us to times of decline in piety and church attendance, followed by periods of great revival, such as the Victorian era in which hundreds of new churches, including our own, were built. Might it be that we are simply living in a dip period, and in a few years attendance will once again be soaring?

We must I think, guard against such false optimism. Recent research has shown that the Church of England faces a grave crisis which, if not recognised and challenged, could lead to its rapid decline within a generation into a tiny sect rather than a national church.

Here are some worrying statistics: the average Church of England member is in his or her 70s. In the past decade, attendance has declined 9 percent. Whereas over 10 percent of the over 70s attend monthly or more, the proportion among those in their 20s has dwindled to less than 2 percent. Increasingly our society is made up not of people who have stopped coming to church, but who never went in the first place: nominal Anglicans, as measured by studies such as the census, account for about 50 percent of people in England aged 60 or over, but among those in their 30s or younger, that figure declines to less than 20 percent.

And what of those leading the church? Surely there is hope that a new generation of women and men are stepping forward to lead the church back towards a golden age? Unfortunately not. Despite the best efforts of Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course, of the over 7,000 full time clergy in England, only 6, yes that’s right, 6, are under 25, and less than 100 under 30. The average stipendiary priest is in his or her 50s. Today I speak to you as one of only 2 percent of lay ministers who are under 40; the average Reader is in his or her 60s. As delighted as I am that women bishops will soon be a reality in England, it is almost certain that the first women called to that office will be older women, because the crisis in young female vocations is, if anything, even more pronounced than among men. None of this, of course, denies the wisdom and experience that age brings to ministry, and indeed the energy that older people, particularly the newly retired, can bring to local churches. The long term health of the Church, however, requires both a laity and clergy inclusive of all ages, from tiny children to the oldest and wisest, marrying the enthusiasm of youth with the maturity of experience, if we are to thrive.

If we wish to grow the Church, our church, today, then we should look to the Scriptures for guidance. The apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.’ Paul has spent most of his adult life since his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road growing the Church. He has travelled widely across Asia Minor and what is now Greece, planting churches, teaching the first leaders in these communities, and, as today’s reading reminds us, providing further encouragement and instruction via his letters. But, though honoured as the founder of his churches, Paul is adamant that the churches are growing not because of him, nor indeed on account of any other leaders, among whom he names Apollos, but because of God. The human leaders of the Church, Paul states in verse 5 and again in verse 9, are servants, working as labourers in the field to bring the crops to harvest, or on a construction site as craftsmen and builders. The Corinthian church, just like the contemporary church, was riven by factions and division. They are infants, not ready for solid food, Paul tells them, while quarrels remain among them. Growth will come from God through unity, common purpose, as he states in verse 8, and a shared commitment to the gospel of Christ.

Just as Paul’s communities grew through shared labour, so it seems that today’s church also needs that shared goal to achieve growth. We must be intentional, not accidental, if we are to spread the gospel. Growth will come only if we labour for it; so we can’t simply sit back and cruise on autopilot. This year both churches in our benefice will be thinking hard about our Mission Action Plans. Growth should be our aim in these plans, because the church that is not growing will wither and decline. Growth can be numerical, but also we can grow in our personal holiness and our action in the community. If St George’s and St John’s are at the centre of the community in this area, and people are talking about the great things happening here, then we will know we are having an impact and the gospel is being lived out in a community more united, more caring, more outward looking.
To help us think about growth in an intentional way the Church of England has commissioned a major study of the factors helping churches to grow. The report, usefully summarised in this document, From Anecdote to Evidence, findings from the Church Growth Research Programme, identifies many features associated with growing churches, from leadership to a strong emphasis on work among children and young people, to innovation in worship and outreach. The report also contains many useful case studies from growing churches. I’m going to read you a couple, first a local one, St Francis Dalgarno Way.

[From Anecdote to Evidence, findings from the Church Growth Research Programme, p18]

The second by contrast is a little further afield, but nonetheless informative, St Mary’s Yaxley in Suffolk:

[From Anecdote to Evidence, findings from the Church Growth Research Programme, p13]

The Yaxley case study highlights the very first point I made, the importance of personal contact and a personal invitation. Tiffer visits the community, makes links to the school, and the whole church are involved in a new launch on Back to Church Sunday. On Dalgarno Way Azariah and Anna identified the diversity and values of the local community and shaped the church to fit with them rather than the other way round. The church was connected to the community, leaders were encouraged, and opportunities to explore faith were offered.

Both cases highlight the intentionality needed for growth; it would not have happened in either church had the enthusiasm and desire to see the gospel spread been lacking. Neither church saw itself existing only for its members, both made a point of going out, learning about the community, and inviting new members to join.

As we look to the future in this Benefice, how can we do things differently so that our local communities are offered that invitation to engage with the gospel? While there is much to encourage us, such as our vibrant children’s programmes, work with the elderly, new groups using our buildings, not to mention a shiny new roof going onto St John’s, there is much to challenge us and make us think if God is going to use us, like Apollos, to water the seeds which have been planted. Which groups in our community have we not yet invited? How can we nurture future leaders? Are we good news to the people who live near our buildings, and indeed are we good news to the wider world?

Another recent study has shown that Christians are twice as likely to be involved in voluntary activities than others. So our growth does not simply exist to boost our numbers and make us feel like we have more friends – a growing church nurtures people to do the work of the gospel – to visit the sick and housebound, to nurture children, to care for addicts, to counsel the despairing, to speak for justice, to protect our planet, to clothe the homeless and poor and to embody in our world the dignity and value of every human being – the dignity which comes from Jesus himself, who lived and served among those he came to save.

A growing church is good news for the world. So let each of us in the days and weeks ahead ask how we can play our part in that, inviting friends, nurturing others, growing our own potential to minister and serve. If we do, the Scriptures assure us that God will give the growth, to his glory and praise alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice