The problem is that the only substantial growth I'm generally coming across is in people who are looking to examine and produce academic papers on the subject. I have over the past few weeks met a handful for folk, all of whom were 'church growth experts'. This was a claim they substantiated by their post graduate qualifications in the subject and the academic papers they had presented!
Now don't get me wrong, I love academic study, but in conversation this morning I have come to realise a few interesting, and quite challenging (well they were for me but I'm pretty thick!) things too. So let us stop and take stock of things for a moment (before you reach for the sticks, stones and house bricks):
If you were to read a certain book on church growth by some who was doing it you will find people reconciled to God through Jesus (the Christ) enjoying being the people of God and celebrating that reality in the company of those who were both 'near and far off'. It was just like looking at the Church that Acts describes; unity in the Church and enjoying the favour of those who were not followers of 'The Way'.
Interestingly the same person who was running this expression of Church has now moved up the ladder a bit and the same freedoms that saw them establish successful and authentic Church is now replaced by structures, strategies, administrative block(age)s and all the stuff that makes running a number of which bodies manageable. It makes sense that different levels of Church need differing parameters and areas of control - but formalising the informal is sometimes the way to impede or constrict it!
This is perhaps a problem with the planned management training of potential bishops and other senior church staff as found in the Green report. We might have a bunch of people who have all the management tools that the world uses but without that spark that gives life to the dust and makes it live, without the breath of God, the reach, which causes us to soar like an eagle.
Everywhere I look I find Church Growth strategies and yet as one of my heroes, Stanley Hauerwas, says:
Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way!It is underpinned by prayer and enabled and given life by the Holy Spirit.
But, of course, Church growth is big business and the dual truths that are to be found in the expressions that:
In the the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king!
Hungry men will follow the least likely of people in the hope that bread is to be found in them!
I hear of missional communities and of groups of people who are doing church in a fresh and engaged manner and yet, when I get to meet the people billed as the leaders of these happenings find something small and sometimes very much less that the PR might suggest.
Again, please don't think I'm knocking these - because I am most definitely not - but understand that as wonderful as this glowing embers are, replicating them in every aspect is (I am beginning to think) sheer folly. I have recently read a great piece of academic writing and within it find something successful grasped at, dissected and placed under the rigours of academic investigation and then the component parts are listed. But sadly, just like a flower or animal we have dissected, examined, understood the physiology and then itemised - the reality is that when we come to replicate or re-assemble the blessed thing all we have is something that is dead. We might understand the component parts and the processes but regardless of whatever it is that we have found, the reconstructed entity is dead.
We can scan a living hand and make a 3-D print of it and even though we might work hard to make it look like it is alive, it will never have the life of the original!
We talk of 'Best Practice' and we grasp at 'effective models of Church' and yet in doing so rationalise and construct some sort of Frankenstein-like monster which has the attributes of life but is not only pretty scary but pretty ugly too - and I see the Bride of Christ as something beautiful.
It is a body who are of one heart and mind, united in their hunger for the word and the love of those around them (close, near and far off) and this makes the what we now call 'missional'.
It is a bunch of people who support each other spiritually and, when the need arises, financially too; a people who pick up the fallen; heal the broken; correct those in error.
Authentic Church contains all of the above (and I'm sure you can all add to the list which is why we are all doing so well). It draws on the opportunities to put tools in the box so that we can build church (Tools like Mission Shaped Introduction and Mission Shaped Ministry and LYCIG* and more besides).
Desperation calls for desperate measures - but we aren't desperate, were assured and rather than worrying about numbers we are concerned with reconciling people to God through the Cross of the Christ and the fulfilment of the calling we have as the people of God.
we are, aren't we?
*LYCIG Leading Your Church into Growth