HOW CHURCHES GROW
Every year round harvest time, surveys are released showing how little some children know about fruit and veg, and where it comes from. It may be harsh on deprived children living in urban areas to expect them to name every vegetable and how they grow, but the surveys show a startling disconnect from the land in the modern world. A fracture that goes some way to explaining why rural and urban areas often do not understand each other and how their ways of thinking are separating, like trains at a junction.
The striking thing is how relevant this disconnect is to understanding the growth of Christian fruit. These characteristics are named by St Paul as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. No honest person will say they have perfected their faith. We remain a frustrating work in progress, less Pilgrim’s Progress and more Snakes and Ladders. We each have aspects of our character that are less formed in Christ than they should be; some old habits simply die harder. Those who feel frustrated by the utterly predictable responses they sometimes make: losing their temper, being mean-spirited, lacking patience with slower people – you’ll know what yours is - should take heart from one thing. They remain frustrated, and therefore aware of what still needs to change.
The problem is when people see no connection between Christian faith and Christian fruit. Like children marvelling at a coconut and wondering how it got there, they don’t see the life cycle involved in the creation of Christian fruit. Some seem to think all that matters is that you have faith in God. That he is a lifeline rather than a way of life. If other people seem to have a more rounded character, that’s just how they are – maybe a product of a good upbringing or good genes – and not an example I need to follow because, well, I’m just like this.
Two trends today are making this harvest a lot harder. Neither are wrong in and of themselves, it’s the use they are being put to that inhibits growth in the church. The first is the emphasis placed on accepting who you are and not feeling bad about yourself. This is a necessary reaction to a culture that tells people they can be whatever they want to be and which makes many people feel unhappy with their lives because they can’t change them the way the self-help YouTube content tells them to. Giving people false hope and then blaming them if they can’t deliver on it is insidious. It allows the winners in this world to say they wanted it more and therefore deserved it more, and so the losers simply don’t merit success.
No wonder people react against this with a philosophy that you are what you are and should be proud of this. And this has good grounding in the faith, because God has made each of us uniquely and treasures every life. But acceptance by God is a prelude to transformation. He can never leave us as we are because something profound has happened within us that simply has to burst out as fruit. What we were and what was wrong with us has died and a new creation is emerging, of which Christian fruit is the sign.
The other trend that makes the harvest harder is the way personality counts for much more than character today. To make an impact on others in an attention-deficit culture, we are expected to be big, loud and funny, able to impose ourselves on others and control conversations. There are plenty of other personality types, but these are less celebrated than larger than life people in a culture where you have to stand out to be properly valued. Please resist anyone who tells you that certain personality types are more like Jesus, because I’ve come across them.
Personality is pretty much a given in life – anyone who tries to act out another personality eventually exhausts themselves and reverts to type. But character is different. With the deep, internal assistance of the Holy Spirit, we really can become more like Christ.
As decades pass in the life of the Church in the UK, fewer people attend church or profess Christian faith. We all know this and it doesn’t need rehearsing. Anglicans are especially aware of this because the media has a story about decline that will take longer to reverse than decline itself. We can become preoccupied with numbers that haunt us and make us restless, like the big spider on the ceiling above our bed as we go to sleep. Trust me, I am all for numerical growth in the Church. I believe that churches which establish clear visions, construct strategies and channel their budgets accordingly are much more likely to see numerical growth than those which don’t. Haphazard or careless approaches are of little use in reaching out to complicated, fluid local communities which may have no understanding of why we’re here or interest in joining us. But all I’ve just said could be delivered in a Harvard Business School lecture. There has to be – there is – something more to us.
In Philippians 1:9, Paul says: this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more. All growth in church starts with prayer. The problem is, that’s often where it ends, too. We must never be embarrassed by prayer, grow tired of it or box it up in a corner. Like a stick of Blackpool rock, it is written from beginning to end through the life of a growing church. Intercessory prayer is mysterious. We believe it works, but we don’t really know how. Churches that begin to stagnate become incurious about prayer. It becomes just another agenda item where we find the right words to say before moving on to the real business. Those who keep a lively interest in the outcome of their prayers are more likely to persist. And if there’s one thing we’re told by Jesus to be, it’s tenacious, irritatingly dogged in asking God for stuff.
Here’s the thing, though. Paul does not say ‘my prayer is that the church should grow in numbers’, though I’m sure he would pray this. Instead he says, that ‘your love may overflow more and more’. In other words, love - the first fruit of the Spirit on which all the others are built – is the growth he is looking for. And this love is found by spending as much conscious time as possible in the presence of Jesus himself. The temptation is to run off and do things, because doing things changes the world. Hyperactivity is a cultural virtue; standing still really isn’t. But God is wanting us to spend time in a loving relationship with Christ, to know him more deeply, to care about the things he does and to show his character because, as we all know, you grow to be like the one you love. Eventually, this love spills over like a full jug of water poured into a tumbler. That’s when we make the difference, when the wider community sees something odd and compelling – water poured out way beyond the point at which it should stop.
There are many ways to show this love locally, but I want to focus on two. The first is the duty to listen. Cultural commentators are waking up to this. The disharmony we feel in the UK, in fact across the world, is partly a function of people feeling they are not being heard. They simply don’t have people to listen to them. Social media, supposedly there to connect us, actually divides, because everyone is shouting at the same time, like in a deafening nightclub where you give up trying to listen to someone and end up guessing what they may have said. And there is that other cultural bias, hinted at earlier, that we value people who do the talking rather than the listening.
It is a strange truth, but just to share your problems with another person, to feel you have genuinely been listened to, changes your experience of those struggles. People say it’s like having a burden lifted, and in a surprisingly physical way, it is. As has been said, to be listened to by someone is so close to being loved by them as to be indistinguishable from it. Love is very practical, and when listening, it asks us to empty our minds of the thing we are planning to say next and to listen intently to what the other person is saying and take our cue from that. Too much conversation is a succession of comments being made that bear no relevance to what the other person just said. Careful attention, not just to what is being said, but how it is being said, can reap a harvest.
The first duty of evangelism is to listen. Unless we have given others the opportunity to share their thoughts and aspirations, we come across like an epic mansplainer who has all the answers to questions you’re not asking. By listening, we can interpret how God is already at work in someone’s life and help them to make sense of it. I don’t want to romanticise it, listening is really tiring work precisely because it is work. But it is pre-eminently how we show love.
The other way to show love in life is to demonstrate care for human bodies. Words come cheaply now. People are attracted to those who do practical things to bless the bodies of others. The attention given to frontline workers during the pandemic showed a renewed appreciation of those who look after the needs of our bodies, whether in hospitals, care homes, supermarkets or food banks. And the needs of our bodies are going to grow as the effects of the pandemic deepen. I know each church will want to witness to God’s goodness and meet the needs of others, as it always has. As your church develops its plans in the wake of 2020/21, remember that calling to bless the bodies of others.
We may get distracted reading the account of the early Church, with the wonders being performed, but these miracles achieved two things. They showed that a new creation was breaking into the world in the here and now, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus. And they authenticated the message, distinguishing it from others. People saw that their bodies mattered to these people who followed Jesus, and they responded.
We should pray without giving up for the growth of our church, but our first call is to stay close to Jesus, be changed into his likeness, and to share the harvest that follows with a world that is not being listened to and remains unhealed.
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