Right sort of growth
Posted: 23 Jan 2015 @ 00:13 – Church Times – Editorial
This said, there is an attractive buoyancy about the new proposals. They need to be winnowed in the General Synod, but refinements must not cause the energy to dissipate. If the laity are given their proper place in future plans, we might see the reforms becoming more radical, not less. The commitment to maintaining the present level of clergy is commendable; but the extra expenditure being called for makes it even more imperative to know what the clergy are for. We suggest that the task of theological education continue to be a priority, passing on the fruit of academic study and learned experience to a laity that is best placed to produce the numerical growth being called for and, with training, can provide a perfect seedbed for the next generation of clergy. It is possible that, in future, new, direct, and effective methods will be developed to raise theological awareness across the board. Until then, the proposed changes to selection and training must not be allowed to diminish the clergy’s theological capabilities. Management, of buildings and projects, can be left to others.
The debate about these reforms must not stall over two different models of ministry and discipleship, one seeking to broaden the Church, the other looking for greater depth. These are not in opposition to each other. It is as important to welcome people into Christian fellowship as it is to attend to what they are being offered, which is Christ himself, and the best and most honest representation of him that churches can manage. When the details of all these reports are being discussed, we trust that all will hold in mind the dual definition of growth behind these models. The Church needs to grow spiritually as well as numerically. Many will argue that the latter cannot happen without the former.
Advocates of ‘Church Growth’ seem, most often, to be speaking of the extension of the Institution – rather than the growth in spiritual terms, of both the Institution and of the individual members of the Body of Christ at already contains.
In spiritual terms, the Church as Institution is only as useful as its capability to nurture its members in the life of the Christ it purports to embrace. If the Church is merely an organisation that seeks to perpetuate a credal definition of an invisible God, while yet neglecting to teach and exemplify the values of the historical Jesus Christ, the Son of God Incarnate, then it may cease to attract new devotees to the cause for which it exists.
Christianity is not a club, existing solely for the nurture and benefit of its membership. Nor is its growth simply a matter of securing new members. Width has never been a substitute for depth in matters of faith communities. If the depth of soil where seed is planted is not sufficient for nurture, then no amount of ‘ground covered’ will suffice in bringing the sort of harvest of souls that the ‘Lord of the Harvest’ desires.
At the heart of Christian discipleship is the sacramental grace that can only be obtained by means of the spiritual life of Christ. This is derived from Baptism – and the growth in understanding of that particular charism; and a properly informed participation in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood – as bequeathed to the Church by Christ himself in the celebration and sharing of The Eucharist.
These are the two distinctives required as the basis of Christian discipleship. If these are not carefully and openly celebrated and nurtured by the Church, all other activities – no matter how energetically pursued – may never bear the fruit of true discipleship of Christ, which should be the end result of the existence of the Church as the Body of Christ.
New methods of growing congregations – whether based on social works, entertainment initiatives or youth-club-style activities – will only succeed in temporary membership, based on the cyclical needs of the community. This is one reason for the recurrent failure of some of the larger Pentecostal-style communities – not enough depth of teaching and sacramental grace. What is needed is worship that engages both the mind and the heart – based on the scriptural understanding of the teachings of Jesus that have been borne out in the experience of succeeding generations of people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with the living God in their daily lives.
A lively faith in a living God is able to attract those amongst whom it lived and breathed. The power to grow the Church comes from the Spirit of God, through the lives and testimony of those whom God has called and equipped, by grace, to serve – first God, in worship, and then one’s neighbour, whom God enables us to recognise as potential heirs of the Kingdom Christ calls us to proclaim: “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord”.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand : Feast of the Conversion of Saul