Church Growth: what does it mean in multi-faith London?

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

3 thoughts on “Church Growth: what does it mean in multi-faith London?”

  1. I wonder often about church growth. 
    About 3 years ago, the group that met at our house started an 11am family service. We all had slightly different opinions on what it was for, but in time it has become the main 9.30 service once a month and the one that new members come to. I think it is more accessible than HC as there is no standard liturgy for people to be unfamiliar with and perhaps therefore easier for people to feel they belong. 
    I think that for people to want to join the church, they have to see something that appeals to them. It could be something superficial that appeals to the more superficial elements of the psyche, or it could be something more profound that appeals more to the deeper parts of the soul. Perhaps a bit of both is not so bad. 

    • The church has two kinds of service. There are events such as Christmas and Easter which are used as opportunities for outreach. Then there are regular services which are aimed at the existing congregation. Family services are roughly on the border between the two. Family service to me means all age and non liturgical. As a monthly event they are different from every Sunday. Preference for style of worship is partially a matter of theology and partially personality. Traditional evangelicals like simple liturgy and sound sermons. Charismatics like long worship sessions with the latest music. The Celtic fringe meditate on patterns and nature. The Orthodox and Catholic love the liturgy and sacraments.

      The church need to watch the back door as well as the front. You need to be aware of who is leaving as well as the new members.

      Holy Communion as the only form of worship instituted by Jesus is a special case. It is interesting how this has been recognised by different groups you may expect to disagree. In the Catholic tradition this is the main form of worship. Other liturgies are subordinate and grew in and out of monastic practice. The Brethren regard it as the way to worship, practised every Sunday. Methodists originally reserved for the high point of special meetings. Strict Baptists reserve it for an expression of fellowship between members. The point of liturgy is that it has content. This applies especially to communion. It is an expression of belonging through sharing the elements and the peace.

  2. Before Pentecost Jesus told the disciples to wait until the power from on high would come on them. There are always crowds of people around and about, but not necessarily for the right reason. Consider how large the crowd was that crucified Jesus! A crowd’s mind is always on what they have gathered for. When The Spirit moves it bewilders people, they are drawn into voices that speak their tongue (Acts 2:6)

    The preceding time to Pentecost was one of utter obedience, during a time of loss. and confusion

    …………………. Jesus says WAIT in Jerusalem, because that’s where God fearing people congregate, He does the rest, He’s a God of surprises.

    What did Peter and the 11 do then?…………………………. They stood unified in one body and Peter evangelised. This was the ‘God sent’, ‘optimal moment’ when their love for God and the desire to see His kingdom realised overshadowed all things …(Acts 14:41 ) Peter recognised the moment and stood, he was setting into motion an act that would change lives and the pattern in which believers lived their lives.

    God’s kingdom can be intellectualised until the cows come home, but without the passion during the optimum moment to drive the love forward, it’s nothing. There must be a true love and passion for God, there is no other way.

    Do you love Me?

    Do you love Me?

    Do you love Me?

    You can fool the people some of the time, but you can’t fool God any of the time. It’s a soul affair!

    Peter could have shouted the crowd over and they probably would have come, but without soul food they wouldn’t have stayed long. So, it’s not about bums on seats, it’s about putting your house in order. Being obedient, waiting, hoping, praying, loving…… unity with others.

    “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:13)

    Who makes fun of who today?

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