3rd Sunday before Lent.1 Corinthians 3:6
'I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth.'
It was a relief this morning to find a perfect excuse not to preach from the gospel , but go for the Epistle instead. I left Jesus' teaching on adultery and divorce for another, less contentious day, to embrace the somewhat easier (though only by a slim margin) topic of church growth.
This was in the light of reading the Church Growth research project, From Anecdote to Evidence, just published, which looked at factors which affect growth in church congregations.
For visual learners, I added in a chance to compare two leeks - one grown in optimum conditions on our local, GM free, organic estate (the fat, juicy one) and the other grown in our back garden (the thin weedy one).
The main verse from the Epistle was even written on the front cover of the report, so I knew I was onto something during my sermon preparation (some weeks I'm just so grateful for divine inspiration, as the time left to write these things often has a habit of trickling away to nothing).
I mainly have a love/hate relationship with findings on church growth, I think, because,
a) I'm worried that people in a large 'successful' churches with massive paid staff teams will tell me the perfect way to grow the church, which will of course not work in this situation, and then I will feel inadequate.
b) I nonetheless remain hopeful that they'll come up with some unique finding such as, 'if you're nice to people and smile a lot, your church will grow', and then I'll think, 'great, how hard is that going to be?'
Is growth only about numbers?
The report, quite rightly, says numbers aren't the whole story, but researching growth in numbers is obviously a lot easier than researching growth in, say, holiness or prayerfulness, or generosity of heart. The paradox in church growth is surely the same in all Christian endeavour, even something as basic as prayer: what is the relationship between our effort and God's activity?
St Paul was quick to point out that although he might sow, and someone else water the seed, it is God who gives the growth, yet this apostle was hardly one to sit back and do nothing. When it comes to growth it would seem that we are to labour as though it all depended upon us, and trust for 'results' as though it all depended on God.
Finally, returning to leeks fat and thin - the report found 7 main factors positively correlated with church growth:
2. A clear mission and purpose
3. Willingness to self-reflect, to change and adapt according to context
4. Involvement of lay members
5. Being intentional in prioritising growth
6. Being intentional in chosen style of worship
7. Being intentional in nurturing disciples
Recalling the verse above, then, like a good gardener, it looks like we have to be intentional if we want to grow, while leaving the actual mystery of growth to God.