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Should I Be Worried About Growth?

By Kim Hitch.

Take a look at the adverts in the Church Times. Everybody’s doing it! “Doing what?” you say. Growing! That’s what. There’s the Missionary Diocese of… and the Growing Archdeaconry of somewhere else. Frankly, I’m exhausted just looking at it all. I need to lie down in a darkened room for a while. The Church can’t be in decline; it simply hasn’t got the time!

It has to be said that it’s better than when the Church (or at least the Church of England) was complacent, sleepy, and happy on the Titanic’s deckchairs, but – and I never thought I’d ever hear myself say this – I sometimes remember fondly those days when people went around saying, “It’s all about being, not doing.”  I don’t want us to return to the days of Kilvert’s Diary and Jane Austen’s “Mr Collins,” but is all the apparently frantic activity we have today as good as some might have us believe? Is it really evidence that the Church finally is being “mission-minded”, or rather does it derive from a deep anxiety. Are we worried about Growth?

Arguably, Mission-Shaped Church, published in 2004, contributed to the making of this climate. Its great gift was in affirming and, in so doing, releasing the energies of those who wanted to put Mission first and foremost in the Church’s life. This was wonderful because no longer were initiatives such as Café Church, etc., seen as suspect, even dangerous, certainly not quite the done thing Suddenly they had the stamp of approval -  no longer were they abnormal – rather they should be normal. We have a lot for which to be grateful from Mission-Shaped Church. However, as was commented at the time, the report was far from perfect.

Most obviously, arguably, it tended to confuse Church with Kingdom, and God’s Mission with Christian activity. Gospel parables about the growth of the Kingdom were applied to the Church. We were told that growth is of the essence of the Church, which in turn led, despite quite some talk about Missio Deo, to an emphasis on Church activity. Coupled with a certain lack of confidence, and anxiety about many churches working very hard to stand still, this has offered a licence to those who like programs and techniques and initiatives and targets. In my neck of woods, we’ve just been introduced to Mission Action Plans (MAPs) (perhaps you’ve been using these for years), and already the official line has progressed from, “This is a good idea,” to “We think this might help you if you’re not growing,” to “You are all required to do one.” I think MAPs have a lot to commend them, but it’s the emphasis on doing one that concerns me. Does growing a church simply boil down to MAP-making? I don’t think so. Doesn’t this really come from being worried?

Okay, right now you might be forgiven for thinking, “This guy is having a bit of a rant,” and for asking yourself, “So what? Does this really matter? Haven’t we bigger fish to fry, and if it empowers Mission why should we moan about it?” Well, I think this does matter, not least because it has pastoral consequences.

I remember a young man who was gifted and had been trained well, and had a burning desire to minister with people on the margins. When I say he had been well trained, he had been taught to expect growth, and trained in a variety of related skills: he knew how to press and pull the right buttons and levers. After his ordination he worked hard in his new ministry, and he pressed the buttons and pulled the levers beautifully, but growth did not come and, at a deep level, he couldn’t comprehend this, and this damaged him. I have seen other young ministers who go quiet in conversations among clergy about growth and about initiatives, about lots of activity, clearly feeling intimidated by not being able to match this, feeling themselves to be failures because their churches are struggling and not growing, or growing just enough to stand still, despite the best efforts of a small band of people led by their minister.

The emphasis on Growth and being mission-minded is well-intentioned – it’s trying to change an old ‘maintenance’ and ‘status quo’ mind set – but might it fall short of training people for the realities of ministry and in so doing, be putting them at risk? What has happened to those stories about missionaries who had given lifetimes in service and witness to various communities and yet had seen just one person become a disciple of Jesus, if any at all? What about Ezekiel, who was told by God that he could have called him to be a prophet to a nation other than his own and he would have been a success, but in fact he was being called to be a prophet to his own people and he would be a failure (Ezekiel 3.4-7)? What about Jesus himself who let rich young rulers wander off, and provoked people to leave him by using wild, unsettling language? Growth is important, but should it take the central place?

Might worry about Growth affecting our strategic and theological thinking too? Recently I was part of the interviewing team for the appointment of a vicar. Following the interviews, one of the interviewers criticised one candidate because he might not have been the person who produced the results in various situations in his history. “He might have been there, but was he the one who did this?” I wanted to say, “Where is your understanding of the Spirit’s gifts and the Spirit’s fruit?” We are each a different gift of the Spirit, participating in different ways as we work with the Spirit to produce His fruit. Growth is organic, not mechanical, and the growth of the Kingdom is produced by God’s Spirit, not by techniques and skills. “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3.6). We all know this, but worry about Growth distracts us, and yet we have no business worrying about Growth because Growth is not our concern: Growth is God’s concern.

I bumped into a retired bishop the other day and, in the course of chatting, he lamented the strategy of one of his successors. The gist of his complaint was that his successor is “all about management,” and the personal was missing. Management is important, of course, and, when done well, is a great pastoral tool. However, when focussed on technique rather than people, when trying to achieve Growth rather than facilitate ministry it can, I suggest, go awry.

I’m all for Mission, and I pray for Growth. However, I believe I should not be worried about Growth: it is not my concern; it is God’s. It is good to learn new skills and techniques, and not be stuck in a rut. However, it is a mistake to try to find security in new things, or in old ways, for that matter; we find security in God, and we address our worries by taking them to Him. The Acts of the Apostles mentions Growth, yet it came clearly from the Lord, not because of strategies and techniques. Indeed, the Spirit more than once upturns plans.

Jesus’ call to us is to listen, to obey, and follow, grasping opportunities with boldness, but whether this produces Growth is up to him. When I was a young man, I was frequently reminded of the saying, “What God requires is not success, but faithfulness.” These days I hear the saying hardly at all, and that’s a shame because faithfulness is something we really could do with worrying about.

Ministry Today

You are reading Should I Be Worried About Growth? by Kim Hitch, part of Issue 61 of Ministry Today, published in August 2014.

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