Jesus tells a number of parables which relate to fruitfulness and growth. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – initially the smallest of all seeds, but growing to be the largest of the garden plants, becoming a tree in which the birds can come and find a home (Matthew 13). By contrast, Jesus also tells the parable of the fig tree, which is unfruitful for three years – and is to be dug around and given manure one last time (Luke 13).
What, then, are fruitfulness and growth, flourishing and success, in Kingdom terms? The Contextual Theology Centre is in the middle of a research project on this issue. We have interviewed thirteen church leaders from multi-faith contexts in eastern London – Anglican and Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Baptist – about their understanding of growth.
Our interviews revealed some common themes – and some substantial disagreements. What the church leaders held in common was that ‘growth’ was about far more than numbers. On Tuesday 17 June, we will be presenting the initial findings of our research, and Bishop Stephen Cottrell will be responding to our initial findings as he gives the 2014 Presence and Engagement Lecture, which is entitled “What kind of growth?”
Stephen Cottrell’s commitment to sharing the Gospel makes him an ideal speaker to address this issue, and as Bishop of Chelmsford, he will be responding to testimony from Christian leaders in some of the most deprived and diverse parts of his diocese, and of the dioceses of London and Southwark.
Across denomination and church sizes and traditions, our research is finding a less polarised picture than one might expect. What emerges is a holistic vision of growth; a recognition amongst most interviewees that personal and social transformation does indeed require a focus on making new disciples, as well as supporting and developing existing ones. But almost all of the interviewees also stressed the importance of working with, as well as for people of other faiths and none – the work of London Citizens being the example most frequently given by those we interviewed.
One minister in a church whose attendance has doubled in the last eight years said:
I’d much rather have a church that’s functioning and making a difference, where people are contributing [than one with numerical growth and without these qualities]
Another, with a similar story of numerical growth said
I don’t think the answer is to get more ‘bums on seats,’ and it’s naïve to say that where there is a good vicar there is a good church. Context is important. We must remain faithful to the Gospel; which isn’t trendy! It’s sacrificial, and people don’t like to be sacrificial.
We asked all thirteen ministers to what extent numerical growth was a priority. The majority – across traditions and denominations – thought there was a significant link between numerical growth and kingdom growth. Three reasons were given for this.
One was that it is Biblically mandated. As one interviewee said
In light of the Great Commission – it is! ... There is a theological impetus to build the kingdom of God, which ultimately involves conversion. There are ... very different ways of doing [this]. A lot is about tackling living conditions and social justice, and being explicit for the reasons for doing this! The concept of making people of faith make a tangible difference to their communities is key ... we have to create an environment where growth happens spiritually, numerically and relationally.
Many ministers echoed the quotation above – although one made the point that numbers lead to an increased capacity for faithful action.
A third argument presented for the importance of numerical growth is that people need the Gospel. This was put most compellingly by someone ministering in a context where there has not been dramatic numerical growth:
I feel a certain sadness that the vast majority of people – while claiming to be a spiritual generation – don’t care. They might be spiritual, but have no part in congregational worship. The spiritual life needs input and encouragement. Everyone has the spirit of God in them, but it needs to be grown. If people don’t bother to think about it, it’s empty. Lives could be richer and better and fuller if people thought about it.
This last point is a crucial one. The point is put well by Mark Russell in the Church Army’s excellent new resource Stepping into Evangelism: “If a church doesn't do evangelism, it is effectively saying Jesus changes lives, but this is only for us.” (The same point was made by the church I grew up in, in a small Highland village. Our newsletter, delivered to every home, said “The family of God is not complete without you.”)
Evangelism or inter-faith co-operation? Numerical growth or working with others for the common good. Most of our interviewees seem to be saying it is both/and, not either/or.
Further information and resources
- The 2014 Presence and Engagement Lecture is at 6.30 for 7pm on Tuesday 17 June at St John’s Church, Stratford; a church with excellent transport links, and with its own story of growth and fruitfulness in a multi-faith context!
- CTC’s research project will lead on to a report later in the year, in our Theology for the Local Church series. You can already download the Centre’s well-received reports on Just Church: Local congregations transforming their neighbourhoods and God and the Moneylenders: Faith and the battle against exploitative lending, which tell stories of powerful, effective Christian ministry in multi-faith neighbourhoods.
- You can find out more about the different faiths in your immediate area with the postcode tool on the excellent new national Presence and Engagement website.
Angus has ministered in East London since 1998, and throughout that time has been an active congregational leader in London Citizens.
Angus is Assistant Priest at St Peter’s, Bethnal Green and an Honorary Canon of Worcester Cathedral. He writes and teaches on Christian social action and apologetics. His latest book (with Paul Hackwood) is Just Love: Personal and Social Transformation in Christ.