Monday 8 January 2024

Church growth, naturally.

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14 January 2024

Mark 4.1-34

One of the slightly odd things about Mark’s gospel,
            is that Jesus is often described as a teacher,
            but doesn’t actually do much teaching.
Indeed, scholars suggest that this is one of the main motivations
            behind Matthew and Luke’s re-writings of Marks gospel
                        - to add in the missing teaching.
But Mark is not entirely devoid of Jesus’ teaching,
            and in today’s readings we meet some of his most famous parables:
                        the sower, the lamp,
                        the scattered seed, and the mustard seed.
However, we also get the rather strange saying,
            which is actually a quote from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 6.9-10),
where Jesus says that he uses parables
            not in order to explain the kingdom of heaven,
            but to conceal and confuse it.
And this is very interesting,
            because it seems that Jesus didn’t see his use of parables
                        as the answer to the question
                        of how best to communicate his message
Jesus didn’t see parables
            as the solution to the problem
            of a world which doesn’t want to hear his message.
And, contrary to what some of us were told in Sunday School,
            he didn’t use parables as pithy sound-bites,
            cunningly designed to get his point across in thirty seconds or less.
Rather, for Jesus and, we might suspect, for the readers of Mark’s gospel,
            the parables encapsulated the problem of communicating the Gospel
            in a world which can often seem wilfully ignorant or actively hostile
            to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The reality, which I’m sure many of us can relate to,
            is that whilst those who already have a faith-relationship with God
                        will find the faith-world created by parables compelling,
            those who don’t read these stories through the lens of faith
                        remain blind and deaf to their challenge.
There is a strange paradox here,
            which is that the Kingdom of heaven is revealed
            precisely where it is most hidden.
The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham
            captures this enigma in his comment that,
            “The Spirit who inspired the Scripture
                        also inspires its believing readers
            to accept it as God’s message
                        and to understand it.” [1]
Parables, it seems, are not teaching that explains the Kingdom,
            but rather they are stories that embody it,
            and which invite participation rather than understanding.
Anyway, let me tell you a story, or possibly a parable.
Some school children went on a field trip from the city to the country,
            and their teacher was showing them natural environment.
She spotted four plants    - one, a tiny new plant
                                                - two, a shrub about a year old
                                                - three, quite a large bush
                                                - and four, a small tree.
The teacher invited one of the larger boys to try and uproot them
            He succeeded easily on first one,
            the second took more effort,
            the third was really difficult,
            and the fourth could not be moved: it was too deeply rooted
The lesson the teacher was trying to put across
            is that the strength of the tree
            came not from what was going on above ground
                        it’s increased size there actually gave the child more to hold onto
            but rather the strength came
from what was going on below the ground
                                    the growth in the root system
                        was what protected the tree from being uprooted.
The smaller plants were vulnerable to being uprooted
            but given enough time
            they too would have grown to enough of a size
            to withstand the child’s attempts to uproot them
Well, this morning, we’re going to be thinking about growth
            and seeing what truths we can hear
            from Jesus’ story of seeds growing into plants.
The context here is the values, vision, and mission statements,
            that we worked on as a congregation a few years ago;
and the metaphor we worked with as we arrived at these,
            was that of the church as a tree,
                        deeply rooted in its values
                        held strong by its vision,
                        and bearing the active fruit of its mission.
I think that probably most people who come to church
            would be in agreement that church growth
            is, in principle at least, a good thing.
What is not so clear-cut, however,
            is how to go about growing a church.
Mostly, I suspect, we tend to think of church growth
            in terms of numerical growth
            the “bums on seats” type of growth.
Because this is the kind of growth that we can most easily understand,
            and something we can see and measure.
I mean, we know the capacity of our building,
            and we know how many people are here today,
and we can clearly see where there is room for more people to sit.
However, simply linking church growth with numerical growth
            without also emphasising the need for healthy growth
            is a recipe for disaster
Unless there is strong, healthy growth
            which will often be hidden like the roots of the tree
then when the strong winds of adversity come along
            the church is in danger of being uprooted
Simply growing numerically,
            without a corresponding quality of growth below the surface
            is a recipe for a boom-and-bust revivalist approach to church growth.
For a long time now,
            the Western world we live in has thought
                        predominantly in mechanical and scientific terms,
            influenced by the enlightenment and the industrial revolution.
And the church in our country
            has been greatly affected by this kind of mechanical
                        and scientific thinking,
            applying the rational reasoning of cause and effect,
                        to issues such as church growth.
An example of this mechanical way of thinking
            is found in our approach to methods of evangelism.
We hear about a church which has been claiming amazing successes
            with a particular method of evangelism
            which they have discovered and developed
We then hear that a few more churches have tried it
            and they are claiming it has worked very well for them
So we conclude that this programme must therefore work
            in every church
            and that every church should put it into practise
The problem of course,
            is that what is right in one type of church
            might be completely wrong in another.
But when we try something new
            and it doesn’t work as well as we had hoped it would
we can get very disillusioned
            and convince ourselves that the fault must be ours
Much of the time, the way churches plan for church growth
            is a bit like making a toy robot
Think about it for a moment
            all the pieces arrive together on the conveyor belt
            and are all assembled according to a fixed plan
All the end products, the toy robots, are identical
            and all of them work in the same way
            doing what they are programmed to do.
And this is just fine – if we are making toy robots
            Factories are great for making things to design.
But this is not a model we can transfer successfully
            to the growth of a church.
            If we try, we will fail
Churches cannot be made on a production line
            where you pop in the right ingredients
                        sing the right songs
                        run the right courses
                        do this, do that, do the other
            and hey presto you’ve got a growing church
Things are more complicated than this.
Consider a different picture…
When a child is conceived
            the beginning is a single cell which begins to divide
The one cell becomes two, then four, then eight…
            and at this stage the end result could be anything
            because this process of cellular division
                        takes place for every living thing.
However, as the embryo develops
            the different cells take on different functions
            and it becomes clear
that this is a new human being in development.
The result is an extremely complex living organism,
            and no two human beings are the same…
            with even identical twins
                        who come from the same initial cell
            developing differently after the point of conception
The result of this process of division is growth
            natural growth, which takes place all by itself.
It happens first in the womb, and then, after the birth
            it continues through childhood and into maturity.
Things grow by very different mechanisms
            to the way things are made.
And churches are grown, not manufactured.
            They are grown by God
            not made by humans.
The church is not the end result of a human production line
            where we bolt the right bits together to make a church.
It is not a franchise, with a common logo and brand loyalty.
Rather it is grown by God,
            and as the parable of nature tells us,
            each created being grows differently.
Like the infinite uniqueness of snowflakes,
            so with people, plants, and churches.
Our modern western culture
            has largely become divorced from the world of agriculture
And for those of us who live in cities
            food comes from the supermarket
            not from the field or the cow.
The way we think is so informed
by the industrial and scientific revolution
that our thought process are not tuned into thinking
            about the natural process of growth
            which Jesus uses as a parable for the kingdom.
When Jesus spoke and taught about growth
            he used simple, natural terms
            which were familiar to his audience
Think of the parable of the seeds from our reading earlier (4:26-29)
In this story, Jesus compares the kingdom of God
            with a farmer scattering seed on the ground
Once the seed was sown, what happened next, the growth,
            took place all by itself until the harvest arrived.
Of course, the farmer had done all he could do in the preparation of the soil
            and in the careful sowing of the seed,
But the growth came from God.
The farmer could not bring about growth
            all he could do was to remove as many obstacles
            to growth as possible
There is a partnership between farmer and soil,
            where the harvest is the result of God-given growth,
            and the farmer’s careful preparation.
And church growth is always also going to be a partnership
            as we become co-workers with God.
Yet so often we still try and understand church growth
            as if it was a production line.
Christians persist in trying to take mechanical or scientific models
            and apply them to the church
            as if the church were a machine not an organism.
But Jesus’ way of describing growth
            encourages us to think in terms of seed, fruit, harvest,
            and God-given growth.
Such growth will take place most effectively
            when we play our part in preparation
            and in the removal of the obstacles to growth,
whilst allowing God to play his part
            in bringing growth, health, fruit, and harvest
The farmer of Jesus’ story has to work in partnership with God
            and we in the church must work in the same sort of partnership:
            we are God’s co-workers.
This way of thinking about church growth
            as a natural process in which God does the growing
can be really useful to us
            as we understand the things we do and are when we are together
So I’d like to draw out four principles from this,
            as we consider our church, here at Bloomsbury.
1. We are dependent on each other
The church of Jesus Christ is a complex organism
            with its many parts interrelating with each other.
Where Jesus uses the parable of a plant,
            Paul uses the comparable analogy of the human body,
noting that it is made up from many different parts
            each of which has an essential role to play
            in the healthy functioning of the whole.
So with us: each of us is dependent on the others
            and when one of us suffers, we all suffer;
            when one of us is honoured, we are all honoured.
If we have weak roots, the plant will be easily uprooted,
            if neglect the leaves, the plant will die.
However, a positive outcome of the dependency we have on one another
            is that the sum of the parts
            is greater than the individual parts on their own.
The person who thinks they don’t need the rest of the church
            is sadly mistaken.
And the church that thinks it can do without certain members,
            is similarly misguided.
We all need one another
            and it is only together than we make up the living organism
            that is the church of Jesus Christ.
So we must invest in forming meaningful relationships with each other,
            getting to know each other,
            forging friendships across the boundaries that might divide us.
We will be coming back to this conversation
            about relationship building for growth and strength,
            at our church meeting this afternoon.
2. Multiplication is Normal natural process
If we are thinking naturally about our church
            we must recognise that an unlimited increase in size
                        is just not normal.
Every form of organic life
            has an ideal size,
and at some point,
            reaches its natural limit.
No plant or animal increases in size indefinitely.
In the plant world, some trees live for centuries
            while other plants last only a few days,
Some grow to be huge,
            whilst others stay small.
But always, eventually, the cycle reaches its end;
and everything eventually dies
However, plants do so much more than just live and die:
            they produce many more of their species along the way.
A plant’s mission is not to permanently increase in size,
            it is to create new plants before it dies.
Sometimes the lifespan can be very long,
            at others very short,
            but the cycle is always the same.
In the animal world the same principle is at work
            a maximum size is reached, and then reproduction begins.
In humans we grow healthily up
            until we reach a height limit during our teenage years,
And then for some of us, less healthy growth continues
– it just becomes outwards rather than upwards!
But the injunction from God to Adam and Eve
            was to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 9.7),
            in accordance with the natural way of things.
And Jesus applies the same approach to his kingdom:
            multiplication is built into its natural life.
Continual unchecked numerical growth of a single congregation
            should not be expected.
Unconstrained cell division is not growth,
            it is cancer.
Which leads me to observe that
            death, as a normal part of life, is to be expected
            Some aspects of the ministry of a church will come to an end
            and their completion should be celebrated.
            There will be things that were great in their time
                        but whose time has ended.
            Sometimes a church itself will die
                        and this is to be expected
                        it is a normal part of life
Also, it is not enough to continually increase in size
            A tree is not designed to get bigger indefinitely
                        it is designed to produce more trees
                        which in turn will produce even more.
            It is impossible to predict the life cycle of an individual church
                        Bloomsbury will be 176 years old this year, and is still going.
            But there is a life-cycle
And I would also observe that
            the ultimate fruit of an apple tree is not an apple!
It is the new tree that grows from the apple seed
            The apple is an important stage in the process
                        but it is not the end.
            Similarly in church life, the ultimate fruit is not a large church,
                        it is the growth of the kingdom of God in the world,
                        beyond the border and boundary of any individual congregation.
And so, different ministries within a church work in just the same way
            The true fruit of a leader is not a follower
            but another leader.
And the true fruit of a disciple is not a convert,
            but another disciple.
3. All Energy Should be Transformed
There are two distinct ways to deal with the forces of nature
The first is to be like a boxer
            who uses all his strength to combat his foe
            strength against strength
                        with the strongest winning
The alternative is used in Judo
            where someone who is much weaker physically
            brings down the strong man
                        by using the strong man’s own strength against him.
The difference in these two is that
instead of seeking to destroy the natural forces
at work in our church
by using a counter-force,
we can learn to harness what is already there
and turn it into something different.
This is the principle of levers
            where a small force is able to prise something much greater
            because a lever is used.
The crew of a yacht can use the force of the wind
            to go wherever they want
                        even into the wind by tacking backwards and forwards
The wind can be very destructive
            but the sail of the yacht takes that force
            and turns it into forward motion
Too often church life has been governed
            by the boxer mentality
when problems arise,
            force is used to overcome them
            and great energy is expended in the process.
There has to be a better way,
            and natural thinking enables us to discover
            that every form of energy can be productive
It may take some inventive ways of thinking,
            and much prayer,
but God causes all things to work together for good.
I have a deep conviction God is at work even through the worst of times,
            to bring new good fruit into being in the world.
God never gives up on us,
            and is always loving us back to life.
So we must always remind ourselves of the need
            to use the energy of the environment around us,
            rather than fighting against it.
Storms will come, threats will arise,
            and our task, like the crew of the yacht,
            is to discern the winds of change, and harness them
            to keep us moving towards our goal.
Sometimes we might get to a point
            where the people who are involved are tired
            and there just don’t seem to be enough workers to go around.
And one answer to this may be that sometimes we need to do less,
            to allow a particular aspect of the church’s ministry to die well,
            and celebrate its passing with thanksgiving.
But it also raises the question for us
            of whether we are using the wrong people in the wrong roles.
Sometimes, people take on a job in church life,
            and then they get stuck in it
            for years after they would rather have moved
onto something else
And in the meantime, they are blocking others
            who would like to get involved
            but don’t realise there’s a need
This is why we need to be continually investing in relationships,
            working hard to ensure that everyone is included,
            whether first-time in the building, or part of the furniture!
We need to ensure that we use our energies wisely
            doing things that we are gifted in doing and called to do,
            rather than forcing ourselves into doing things
                        that are completely outside our vocation.
If we can ensure that we are using our strengths wisely
            then the church will be like the judo expert
            who uses the strengths around them to their advantage
Rather than like the boxer
            who makes heavy work out of every battle.
4. God made us to be fruitful
In the natural world
            nothing is an end in itself:
everything always has a specific function
God has created all living things to bear fruit
            and where there is no fruit, something is decidedly wrong
            because fruit is essential to preserve the species.
Fruit is also clearly visible:
            The reason apple taste so nice
                        is so they will attract those animals that will take the seeds
                        and spread them so that another tree will grow.
If all natural life is characterised
            by its ability to bear fruit
the church must be seen in the same way
So the quality of a congregation
            can be checked by looking for the fruit,
            not simply the number of people attending.
The difficulty in churches
            is that when activities are begun
            they have an important function,
            which is why they were started!
But as time passes and matters change
            that function is not always updated
The result is that, unless the purpose of the activity itself
            is regularly updated
            it can become no longer relevant to the present day church.
Similarly, some things in the church
            have never fulfilled their true function
            because they were never designed to be fruitful.
It’s all too easy for us to envisage our activities and programmes
            by criteria other than the principle of fruitfulness.
Tradition and fear of change are two important factors
            in holding us back from making
            what might be necessary decisions.
Much of what the church does today is based on tradition
            even a so-called ‘free church’ like ours!
And it may be that for some of what we do
            the reason is no longer there for doing it
but we carry on doing it anyway
            because that is the way it has always been done
But hear this, tradition is not inherently wrong:
            there is great wisdom in learning from the past.
But what is wrong
            is hanging on to it, when the need has changed.
The pandemic brought about many changes in our church life,
            some projects died, and others have begun.
The opportunities for growth opened by the basement redevelopment,
            after three years of lying fallow
            are lying before us.
And as we anticipate this future, we need to remember
            that the most important aspect of being fruitful
            is the producing of fruit
In individuals this will be the fruit of the Spirit
            while in churches and church activities
            it will be corresponding spiritual growth
We need to be constantly asking ourselves
            whether the things we invest our time and energy in
            are going to be fruitful,
                        or whether they are never going to be fruitful,
where fruitfulness is measured not primarily by numbers,
            but by love, joy, peace,
                        patience, kindness, generosity,
            faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5.22-23)

[1] Bauckham, ‘Scripture and Authority’, Transformation, 15/2 (1998): 6.

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