Towards a Theology of Church Growth

A bit of theology.....

There has been a real emphasis of late on The Green Report in the Church of England. The book Towards the Theology of Church Growth was launched this week by David Goodhew and Graham Tomlin at St Mellitus, London and is an answer, in part. 

It questions whether really a perfecting of technique will help to grow church, it wrestles instead to articulate that church growth is necessarily theological and only theology can help. It purports that a church that neglects theology will shrink. It finds that a theological response is the one required, that only by reawakening a right theology of the Spirit will churches buck decline.  

A Passion for God's Reign Jurgen Moltmann

Graham Tomlin shared his overview of his contribution to the book describing how it addresses the ways we speak, live and preach the gospel in a very different world. The Growth of the church can be seen in a growth in holiness, service to the wider community and in numerical growth. This book does focus on the latter. It doesn't doubt that there is church decline but it believes that better theology is the answer. Graham raised Giles Fraser's recent contribution to the debate where Fraser said that a gospel shaped church is likely to be empty not full (sending its people into the world) and that worries about church growth are worldly.

Guardian 3 April 2015 – the worst of them (churches) judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers...' (Giles Fraser)

Of course, numerically the church is not declining in particular parts of the world. We are also to consider the exponential rise in church attendance at churches like Hillsong and the Kingsway International Centre where congregations can reach 10,000 and HTB which gathers 5000 people into church on a Sunday.

It is evident that churches that are growing are either pentecostal or charismatic. Peter Brierley has analysed age profiles across denominations finding that the average age in a Pentecostal church is 33, far lower than the 50s, 60s age profile of Anglican and Catholic churches. in fact, Pentecostalism is expanding at a rate of 19 million people a year. There is also the massive growth of Christianity in the Global South, which could be described as a new reformation.

Graham Tomlin wants to understand why it is that Pentecostal and Charismatic churches grow. His conclusion is that such growth can only be explained by the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the expectation within these congregations of the Holy Spirit's power. 

How Christians understand the work of the Spirit varies but without the invocation of the Holy Spirit the church really is an empty shell.

Graham then gave a brief synopsis of the Spirit's presence in Scripture and the world explaining how the word 'Mission' is derived from 'apostelo' which means 'to send.' In John's gospel there are three major movings or sendings:
  • the sending of the Son – 1:33 Jesus is the one whom God has sent. 
  • the sending of the Holy Spirit – the advocate whom the Father will send in my (Christ's) name  
  • the sending of the church
The two primary acts of mission are the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit.

Begetting and proceeding and sending are different. The Son and the Spirit do not come into being because the world needs saving, the sending has temporal but moreover eternal dimensions. It is important for us to understand that the sending might be temporal but the begetting is not. The sending is an event of the imminent trinity and not just the economic trinity and this then is why 'sending' is in the very character (ontology), essence of God - God is Mission. The outward centrifugal movement is not the action of an Aristotelian unmoved mover but instead we have a continual sending. The begetting and sending are conceptually different then but are together a part of the centrifugal movement. The procession of the Spirit occurs within the trinitarian life of God even before creation. 

Graham concludes that the logical and theological outcome of this is that we have a doctrine of mission that exists even before the world and human beings are created. In the very heart of God is this eternal movement of God which continues with the sending of the Son and the Spirit into the world. This is not a secondary activity put into place once the world has gone wrong. This is intrinsic to the character of God. Mission is part of God's nature – God is missionary. His activity is his being – there is no split between economy and ontology.

[I think about how if this is so and we are made in the image of God, then surely there is similarly no split between human economy and ontology. This has implications for that more conservative evangelical articulation of the Trinity in which gender relations are thought to find their locus in economic and ontological functioning of the Son to the Father (the female to the male for humans). But after a brief meander back down the avenues of the ESS debate, I am back in the room.]

We move on to what Graham's thesis means for the church. Graham explains the implications: we have to bear witness to such a God. We are to invite the Spirit, to become caught up in this centrifugal movement of God. We are to invoke the Spirit and be caught up in a movement of God into the world. It is in our very nature to come to reflect the missionary God.

The church is to send people into the world – "As the Father has sent me so I am sending you." This sending of the church is not parallel to the other two sendings. The church is sent by Jesus himself. The church does not proceed from the Father. We do not think of the church as part of the trinity. We are sent by Jesus to bring about the healing and transformation of the world and draw the world back to God and his healing and restoring love. We are sent by Jesus but birthed and constituted by the Holy Spirit. 

In Acts the church is born after perhaps its own version of a PCC in which the council (the disciples) were reconstituted by the Holy Spirit. There is then a period of waiting and in Acts 2 the church is born when the Spirit comes upon them. The church announces the 'evangel' as it is sent out. Community forms around those who respond and then they too are sent out in mission.

This centrifugal force of God is communicated by the Spirit. When the Spirit is present he turns people and communities outwards. 

We concentrate for a while on the inward and outward curvings of any community of people, how Martin Luther described sin as that curving in on oneself that can dominate any community, a being overly concerned with 'us' when we are actually sent to serve 'the other.' When the Spirit comes there is a movement outwards. You are turned outwards towards the world with its pain and hunger – you can not help but be engaged with that suffering world. A church turned in upon itself, overly concerns with its own whims and preferences is a church that is lacking in the Spirit and does not grow.

The church is instead to reach out and recruit more and more people to the Kingdom of God. Pentecostal and charismatic churches do this because they invoke the Holy Spirit. They then find themselves becoming caught up in the pain of the world. Sometimes where they are lacking, these churches, is in their having an under-developed theology of the cross. The pain of engaging with the world constitutes the joy and this must be remembered. Also where they can slip into over-emphasising numerical growth which is really only a means to an end. Bishop Paul Bayes says we want a big church so that we can make a big difference; so that we can recruit people to the call of God.

If numerical growth becomes the idol, the manifestations of the Holy Spirit can equally become so. It is not about having a good experience if this does not lead to something concretely Kingdom-building in the world. 

In conclusion we have to ask ourselves that where we have concluded that the procession of the Spirit is for the sending of the church into the world might not then our lack of openness to the Spirit hamper our call into that world. 

For those nervous about the invocation of the Spirit, this movement of the Spirit doesn't have to be expressed in Pentecostal or charismatic form. On the other hand, though, one can not ignore that the Spirit's expression is often characterised by something joyful and expressive and it is such expressions that we often find in more charismatic churches. We are to think through, nevertheless, how Evangelical and Anglo-catholic churches might find their own authentic expressions of the Spirit at work. Jurgen Moltmann is keen to impress upon us that every believer is to continually invoke the Spirit. We have to care about this because as Justin Welby has expressed: Church Growth is as fundamental as worship to every tradition of the church.

A series of questions come from the floor pertaining to the scriptures' emphasis on the departure of the Son and Graham responds with a focus on the universalising of the Son through the Spirit.
Another question seems to pose mission against discipleship but Graham explains how discipleship is often talked about as if it all depends on this – the terms are different in register – mission is the church sent into the world and the church is sent into the world to disciple – part of the mission of the church is to disciple – these are not competing things.

Another participant reminds the room helpfully that our response must therefore be to 'pray more' and Graham responds in agreement that indeed the praying and the doing are not in opposition to one another and how often we are driven back to praying when the failures set in. Renewal of the life of prayer, reconciliation and evangelism are Justin Welby's key foci.

David Goodhew reminds us of this place of the Saints and how Cuthbert is an example of someone profoundly prayerful and profoundly missional. In an ecclesial context that is profoundly unmissional we are to pray. David Goodhew reminds us not to be caught short by concluding that the language of church growth and evangelism is only Evangelical. This is a warped understanding – all flavours are to grapple with this. Evangelism is about Good News – the invitation to 'rest.' It is also about recruiting people for the work of the Mission of God. It is also about our being caught up in areas of the groaning world. A Mission strategy that doesn't ask people in to rest and out in sentness to the world misses something. Theologies of mission must have both these arms.

Steve Clifford from the Evangelical Alliance reminds us that some Pentecostal and charismatic churches can over-enjoy the Spirit. We must always keep the 'evangel' at the very heart of the church to avoid becoming inward looking. The key sign of the Spirit at work is in seeing the world being transformed and joining in with that.

We finish with the helpful reminder that Mission happens through the ordinary local church often in ordinary, local ways and so we earth the theology in praxis in ways that help us leave the room to return to those ordinary and local places energised. All in all a good book launch experience. Do read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cuthbert must have been very special indeed. He is still loved by the people of his region over 1,300 years after he passed away!


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions