This last week I’ve mostly been at the clergy summer gathering – it was a little different to usual. Rather than a theme and different presentations within that, this year it was delivered by a team of external people, part of a course called leading your church in to growth.
This is kind of the follow up to the preparing the ground for growth sessions that we went to last summer. They told us that where vicars had been on this course and taken home and put in to practice ideas from it they were beginning to see some growth.
Growth is a funny word. It can be taken to mean and can be meant as one or more of a range of things. We’ve told you before that we often pray in chapel in the mornings for growth, in faith and hope and love, in generosity and in numbers.
Growth doesn’t just mean bums on seats or pews. It doesn’t just mean a healthier-looking bank balance. It is also about individual and corporate discipleship, seeking and achieving a closer walk with God, a deeper relationship with our saviour Jesus Christ. It is also about how we mature as a family, how we extend a warm and unconditional welcome to those who would like to join the family.
Growth is about us all growing, living, learning, learning more about ourselves, about each other and about God, and about all of those in the light of the other. It might be a bit scary, but it is in the direction of God. It is our natural trajectory – or it should be. Growth should be heard as a positive word.
But it isn’t always received as a positive thing. Growth can – perhaps often does – mean change. Change is often perceived to be negative. But growth – our natural trajectory toward God, individually and collectively, yes, probably means change.
Perhaps small subtle things, sometimes perhaps bigger or more substantial things. Sometimes we need to lay things aside to rejuvenate – caterpillars, for example. Sometimes it takes something to die in order to be resurrected – that is indeed at the heart of our Christian faith, is it not? It’s the theme of the readings I heard on Thursday, as I attended the funeral of a friend killed in a car crash – that seeds must die to enable growth. Our perishable bodies are laid aside in death for us to put on the imperishable clothing of eternal life. So yes, sometimes growth, renewal means the end of some things and the enabling thereby of the growth of something new.
At the close of the conference there was a sense that growth (in all the senses we pray for it) is acheivable and within our reach as parishes, if we want it to be. And that growth can come, in a small scale at least, from easily-achieved small changes. Changes we shouldn’t be frightened of or object to.
Some colleagues however, were a little sceptical about the effort required of us all to grow. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ said the speaker, but the first stone was certainly laid. The vineyard didn’t flourish in a day, but the first seeds were definitely sown…
As with preparing the ground for growth, which after all, was called preparing the ground for growth – the emphasis of LyCig was about making it a priority to sow some seeds, so it made me smile to see that this week’s lectionary reading was the parable of the sower.
Reading the parable again made me think about the sowing of the fields done at the summer gathering, how the seeds sown by the course leaders seemed to have been received, and I thought I would share some of those thoughts with you this morning.
Firstly, there were the people who went to the clergy gathering because they go to the clergy gathering, to gather with fellow clergy, not necessarily to pay attention to particular topics which don’t really interest them. I say this with the utmost respect for my fellows, because I’ve seen it here and I’ve seen it very often in my old life, and I think there’s a place for turning up and hanging out with friends without necessarily worrying about having to concentrate on something else – though in this case I think that would be a loss. These were the people who didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, the places where the seed fell on the path and was instantly gobbled up by the birds.
It benefitted the birds, and perhaps the gathering benefits the parishes of those clergy who come back a little renewed from a few days away, but the message of the growth imperative was lost.
Secondly, there were those who received the word and were very interested, who go away really enthusiastically to set up or set in motion quite a few of the ideas they’ve heard about. These colleagues could really see the benefits to the parish and could believe that it’s all such common sense that pretty instant results should be easily achievable.
Unfortunately for these keen folks, over-keen folks, they’re actually really quite busy when they get back into the parish and they struggle to keep the necessary momentum to implement the change and growth when day-to-day things inevitably take over. Here the seed fell onto shallow soil among the rocks, sprung up but could not be sustained and withered.
Thirdly, there were those who could see the potential and were encouraged to go home and try some things, but those things will not be received with enthusiasm my their churches, by congregations or committees who do not want to change at all or even, seemingly, to grow.
Problems or apathy contribute to choking ideas and hope in these places and, like thorns, prevent growth in an unattractive and painful way. To spend what time and effort and resource is available just on cutting away the weeds hinders healthy or effective growth.
Finally, there were the colleagues who went away inspired, the seeds sown by the LyCiG team taking good root and who will be received with joy on their return, by communities with excitement and expectation, communities who reflect on who they are and how they could be the body of Christ to, and share the gospel truth and freedom with, more people.
These are the communities which hear the word and understand it, the communities who will bear fruit and yield, perhaps thirty, perhaps sixty, perhaps a hundredfold.
Would we like to be that last kind of community? (That is, to a greater rather than lesser extent, a hypothetical question – to survive we must grow, else we shall, naturally, over time, die. Let anyone with ears, listen). So let’s perhaps assume we would.
Church growth research last year revealed that the churches which are intentional about growth, about developing the body of Christ in all its richness and diversity, in its depth and its understanding; these are the churches which flourish and which grow.
The LyCiG team at the clergy conference told us similarly. So rather than just the Vicar and me praying for growth, in hope and faith and love, in generosity and in numbers, could we pray today and regularly to be one of those last communities?
One of those communities where the seeds fall on fertile ground. Where inspiration and ideas meet prayer and prepared ground, and grow; where this means that the community, our community, God’s kingdom flourishes.
Let us pray:
God of Mission,
who alone brings growth to your Church,
send your Holy Spirit to give
vision to our planning,
wisdom to our actions,
and power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
in spiritual commitment to you,
and in service to our local community,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,