Yesterday, between 30 and 40 of us from across the three parishes came together for an open strategy day here in church. The main item up for discussion was the future of the Church of England and our own benefice in particular.
I wonder what you think, particularly those who couldn’t be here yesterday. How do you imagine our benefice and the wider church will look in 5 or 10 or 20 years’ time? How many members will we have? How will we be organised? Will we survive at all in our present form?
These are big questions, and there’s little agreement on the answers. But our local and national leaders are all too aware that the average age of regular churchgoers is rising steadily. In their minds (and the logic is difficult to argue with) if our church doesn’t learn to recruit and retain younger people and families, it could disappear within a generation.
Put in those terms it’s a rather dispiriting picture. But I believe that history and our Bible readings tell a more encouraging story – a story not just of survival but of renewed growth. I want to make three points this morning:
- To express confidence that in God’s good time the Church will return to growth;
- Based on today’s Gospel reading, to explain and justify that confidence.
- And finally, I want to report on an exciting new initiative to promote growth in our church, in our time.
1. I'm confident that the Church will return to growth.
The Christian movement started out pitifully small. Once Jesus had ascended into heaven and the remaining disciples had had a chance to take stock, our reading from Acts tells us that they numbered about 120. On one level, that’s impressive growth – a tenfold increase on the original 12 disciples.
But think of the odds stacked against them: Just 120 people in an isolated backwater of the vast Roman empire, harassed by the Jewish community from which they’d come, and about to be brutally persecuted by the Roman authorities. Yet we know that just a few days later on the Day of Pentecost, the number rose by 3,000. We know that within a generation there were pockets of Christian belief and worship throughout the Roman Empire. And in less than three hundred years, Christianity had become its official religion; so robust that when the Empire finally collapsed the Roman church was left standing – and it’s still there fifteen centuries later. Christianity is the biggest mass movement in human history, with total numbers estimated at close to 3bn - getting on for half the population of the world.
What of more recent times? In the industrialised west, numbers regularly attending church are at their lowest ebb in history. But it is church attendance that is ailing, and enormous numbers still see themselves as Christian. And in other parts of the world, the picture is much more positive. In Africa, the church has grown colossally, to the point where churches are sending out missionaries to Europe and America. In China, Christianity was almost extinguished during the Cultural Revolution, but recently it’s been growing faster than anywhere in the world.
In short, growth is deeply embedded in Christianity’s DNA. And one thing that we can be sure about - sure from history, and sure from God’s promises in Scripture - is that his Church will keep growing. Not necessarily in out time, of course, and not necessarily in our neck of the woods; but then again, perhaps sooner and closer to home than we dare to hope or expect. We live in a time of searching: searching for faith, for hope, for meaning. The church has been slow to adapt to the changing needs of the society in which we live, but as I’ll tell you shortly, there are signs of change.
2. Why am I so confident that the Church will return to growth?
Why should this ancient, sprawling, error-prone organisation, actively disliked as it is by some people, have been able to cheat extinction with such regularity? We see hints of an answer in our reading from John’s gospel, where Jesus prays for the church
I’m sure you didn’t find the passage easy to follow – I certainly didn’t. But it makes one thing very clear: As the church, we are something unique, something different from anything else that has ever been. Jesus prayerfully tells his Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world.” In other words, although we may be fallible human beings and the Church has made some dreadful mistakes, the reality is that God has actually taken us out of the world and given us to Christ. And twice more in this passage, Jesus declares explicitly of us, “They are not of the world any more than I am of this world”.
Going a stage further into Jesus’ prayer, he makes it clear over and over again that his followers have a unique relationship with God:
- ”You gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.”
- Again, “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.”
- “They knew that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”
- And last but not least. “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
That final statement is key. In short, we are here for a purpose. We are no longer OF the world, but we have been sent back into it as an integral part of God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. And whatever ups and downs we may go through, as individuals or collectively, growth is in our DNA.
3. How can we encourage Church growth here and now
The Bible and history give us every reason to hope that the Church will continue to grow. And we’ve spent some time reflecting on why that should be the case. But we know that the church can experience setbacks. We‘ve seen it happening violently in Syria and Lebanon; it has been going on quietly in this country over several decades, to the point where some have questioned whether a large, broad institution like the Church of England can survive for much longer. Is there anything we can do to turn the tide, to restore our church to growth?
The Church of England has been developing a strategy to address precisely that question. Just a few days ago, Bishop M. launched a new diocesan initiative designed to promote church growth, to secure our future in a changing world. And a presentation by Revd P. on that initiative was at the heart of yesterday’s discussions. There isn’t the time right now to discuss the contents in detail, and in any event they will be launched formally in a week’s time at Pentecost. But I can say this much: the new strategic vision will challenge us, it will challenge every parish in the diocese, but it will give us the resources, to do several important things:
- To take stock of all the things we’re good at;
- To use the resources we have more effectively;
- To reflect on how we come across to the wider community; and
- To develop fresh ways of reaching out to them.
The outlook is challenging but exciting. Far from threatening us with unwanted change, the new strategy offers us the tools to do what we already do more effectively, to be more truly ourselves, and to attract new blood. Growth is embedded in the church’s DNA. We are at last taking coordinated steps to reverse the decades-long decline with which we’re all too familiar. Over the coming months, we hope to see that growth potential converted into reality.
Let us pray: Father, as we prepare to embark on this new journey of discovery…