To Grow or not to Grow? | To Grow or not to Grow?

John 11:1-45

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I commented on the extraordinary impact that wearing a dog collar has on the way you are perceived by others. Somehow, wearing a dog collar causes people to assume that you are a person of impeccable moral virtue in whose veins there is no red blood to be found. This clearly struck a chord with a number of people, both clergy and those with members of the clergy in their families.

Why is this?  The reasons are too complex to discuss here, but it seems to me that chief among them is the saccharine-coated idea of Jesus that we have inherited from the Victorians.  I have in mind those depictions of him in Victorian bibles – all doe eyes and long, flowing blonde hair. This is “Jesus, Jesus, meek and mild”, except that even a cursory reading of the bible reveals Jesus to be have been anything but meek or mild.

Very soon, we will be reading together the story of Jesus turning the money changers out of the temple in a show of righteous – and quite – violent anger.  So furious was he at the money changers turning his father’s house into a market place, that he formed a whip of chords and set about them, turning over their tables and sending them fleeing.  And remember, in three of the gospels, this is the turning point, the moment when the religious authorities decide they have had enough of this trouble-maker.  From then on, his fate is sealed, and the cross awaits him.

And then, in today’s gospel, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus.  We are told twice that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” at his friend having died.  Without wishing to denigrate the work of the bible translators, the term “greatly disturbed” just doesn’t cut it in describing what Jesus felt.  The word used is from the New Testament Greek word “embrimasthai”, which refers to a sort of gut-wrenching emotion – a real anguish, but also with an element of anger in it.  Jesus was a passionate man alright.  Lazarus was his dear friend, and there is no clearer indication of the depth of his humanity than this gut-felt grief over what has happened to that friend and all the suffering it caused those who loved him.

All this is consistent with the Jesus we meet elsewhere in the gospels.  Jesus was grieved by anything that fell short of God’s good intentions for the world, be it illness, death, cruelty, poverty or injustice.  The whole of his ministry was about putting things right and in so doing – good Jew what he was – restoring the world to God’s original intention.  That intention, of course, had been thwarted – and continues to be thwarted – by nothing other than human sin or, in other words, our individual and collective tendency to mess things up.

In Christian theology there is a clear link between sin and death and decay.  It’s impossible to fathom or fully explain this, but the linkage is clear. As Jesus says at one point to those who are resistant to his message, “God is God of the living, not the dead”.

It would be entirely wrong though, to see the story of Lazarus as simply one of his resuscitation, for life to Jesus wasn’t just about having a pulse, about walking around breathing.  In Jesus’ view you could have those things and still, effectively, be dead.   For life to be really worth living – to live as  God intends us to live – is to live not just a full life, but one of superabundance.  The promise of Jesus to all of us, both now and in the future, is a life lived in joy, of something so magnificent, fulfilling and exciting that it’s beyond our wildest dreams.  With God, there is always more – and better.

And this is where the church comes in.  Rowan Williams once said that the church is “God’s pilot project for the world”.  You will remember that the words “the Kingdom of God” were always on Jesus lips.  Those words are synonymous with the name of Jesus. By way of explaining this, one of my college tutors said that you could no sooner talk about Jesus without talking about the Kingdom of God, than you could talk about Tony Blair without mentioning New Labour.  While I could see what he was getting at, I didn’t find the analogy altogether helpful!

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God he was not just talking about some future state, but about what happens NOW whenever a community of people demonstrate the virtues of truth, justice, mercy and peace.  When that happens then, in Jesus’ words, the Kingdom of God comes into being “among you”. So this is what the church is supposed to be – the Kingdom of God in action.  And in so being, it sets the context for human flourishing – for the abundant life of which Jesus spoke.  To note – human flourishing happens in community. We are not, at heart, atomised individuals, and we live a kind of death if we behave as if we are.  True, abundant life requires us to joyfully accept our independence.

So the church has a mission of huge significance for all mankind.  It is something that we need to take very seriously indeed, and never more so than today when we meet to review the last year and to look forward to the next.  Last year, the PCC decided to track our progress by adopting five measures of our health as a church. They are:

  • Worship attendance
  • The number and health of small groups
  • The extent of volunteering
  • Income
  • The quality and extent of our community outreach

Underlying all this was a belief that there had to be more lay involvement. This was for two reasons.  Firstly, the clergy’s time is limited. Secondly – and much more importantly – the church can only ever be vibrant and successful in so far as all members play their part in it.  After all we are, as the first letter of Peter says, “the priesthood of all believers”.

So how are we doing?  The answer is: pretty well, and we have seen some really important progress in key areas over the last year.  In terms of small groups, Faith at Work is now well established and supported, while the Men’s Forum is enjoying a new lease of life under lay leadership with attendance numbers up.  Similarly the Primrose Tea Rooms, a really important gathering for a variety of ages on a Thursday, has also seen numbers rise.  Perhaps the highlight of the year though, is the Bible Challenge. Around 60 people have signed up to read the whole of the bible over the course of a year, and the monthly discussion meetings are well attended, lively affairs.  It’s really important to note that this was not a clergy idea – it came from the Gilmour family, and good for them.  If you have got an idea you’d love to put into practice, please do come forward.

I’ve always said that St. Mary’s seems like a well-oiled machine, and so it is.  This is testament to the extent and the quality of the volunteering that goes on here.  The sacristy, stewarding, the welcome team, reading and intercessions, teas and coffees….I could go on.  Overall, the levels of volunteering are good, but there are two particular areas this year where volunteers have come forward with terrific results.  The newly energised Youthwork Committee have not only done great work in publicising Jason’s great work to all of us, but they have also managed to win large grants to support his work. This has been a major contributor to our greatly improved financial position.  Another highlight has been the relaunch of the Friends of St. Mary’s. The Friends team are showing huge enthusiasm for the work of raising funds to support our work.  The relaunch event in October at which Jesse Norman, MP was guest speaker, was the most complex and sophisticated event I’ve ever seen organised in a church, and it was carried off with great aplomb, all thanks to the committee and their helpers.   And there is lots more planned – just wait until you see the autumn programme of events.

As I said, there is good news on income, where we have – at last – turned a corner.  Ted – and thanks to Ted for a really great job as Treasurer – is now forecasting a surplus for the coming year of £8,000.  But don’t get too excited. That’s just a forecast, remember!  Also, because we have no reserves – which we now badly need to build up – we are almost certainly going to hit cashflow problems over the next year. That said, the situation really is much better.  Aside from the contribution of the Youthwork Committee in winning grant funding, the other reason for the improved situation has been the successful stewardship campaign, so brilliantly run by Christine Brace.  For all that great work, it is a sobering fact that only 75 people out of church membership of 250 plus are involved in Stewardship, which accounts for the lion’s share of our regular income.  More sobering still, just 14 people donate over 40% of all Stewardship money.  We have done well, but we really can – and should – do much better.

In terms of outreach to the local community, there is a great deal going on.  Our Parish Administrator, Celyn, has done a great job opening up the church for use by the wider community, and big events like the lecture series and the designer sale bring large numbers into the building, and some of them now attend services here precisely because it is the kind of open-minded, friendly church that appeals to them.  Jason and the Youthwork team provide a vital social service to underprivileged young people and those at risk, on top of which we can boast the befrienders and the homeless shelter.  These are all things to be immensely proud of. For all the wealth of Primrose Hill, the fact remains that this is a parish in which many struggle.  One in four under 16s, and one in five pensioners live in poverty, according to official figures.  Good as our record is, there is much more that we could do to fulfil our mission of helping people to live the full, abundant lives of which Jesus speaks.  But we need more money – and more people if we are to do that.

This brings me to worship attendance, where the picture is not so rosy.  Our attendance figures have held study over the last two years, with about 140 people attending either this service or the 9.15 informal eucharist, which occurs every other week. This figure contrasts with the 190 people that on average attended this service back in 2007.   There are all sorts of likely reasons for this fall.  Numbers always decline during an interregnum, such as the one between Robert’s departure and Marjorie’s arrival in 2008.  There is a general trend amongst all Anglican churches for even the most committed church-goers to attend less often.   We changed the school admission policy, making it more difficult for those living outside the school catchment area to get a place on account of regular church attendance.  These are all good reasons, but the fact remains that we are treading water, at best.

How comfortable do you feel about this?  While in no way denying our success, I believe we should feel uncomfortable about this record.  If the church is “God’s pilot project for the world”, if its purpose is to model truth, justice, mercy and peace, and in so doing offer service that all might lead abundant lives, then we surely must want to reach as many people as possible?  It should go without saying that had the early Christians decided they were just fine with numbers as they were, we would not be here in church this morning.  Church growth is something, I would suggest to you, that is not an optional extra, but an essential.

I should stress here that while growth is vitally important, we should not aim for growth at any price.  It would be very easy to inflate our numbers.  We could do so overnight, for instance, by relaxing the rules on school admissions, and rebalancing them in favour of church attendance and away from the local catchment area.  But to do so would be very unlikely to have any beneficial impact on our community and its mission.  So yes, it is important for us to grow – but it must be the right kind of growth.

We should be in no doubt that our achievements this year make us poised for growth, if we want it. But there’s the rub. Do we really want to grow?  Are we up for all the hard work that it will entail?  And if we are, what are we going to do about it?