In the face of decline in church attendance, there is regular talk of the importance of growth—though that is accompanied by an insistence that concern for growth is not a reaction to decline, but a rediscovery that God wants to give growth, that healthy things grow naturally, and that growth is good for the church and good for the world—numbers matter because people matter.
Yet whenever this is mentioned in the context of Christian leaders meeting together, I sense an ambivalence. Some are excited about it, since it affirms their adventurous and entrepreneurial instincts, and allows them to take the bold risks they love, with approval from a senior leadership which has too long in the past looked conservative and risk averse. For others, it weighs heavy, and the pressure to see growth feels like the heavy hand of institutional management. I wonder whether both of these reactions arise from our embracing the wrong kind of model when we use the language of ‘growth’.
I spent some time yesterday with a fascinating new friend whom I am getting to know through our shared membership of Archbishops’ Council. This person has a wide range of experience in investment banking, business management, entrepreneurship and Christian aid and development. What has been the lesson from this diverse career path? That, too often, (secular) businesses act as though they are mechanical, when in fact they are organic organisations. Too much of the language of business is a hangover from the industrial revolution, where the complex machine offers us the metaphor for business organisation. Yet people are organic realities, and people together function much more like complex organisms which need to be managed as such. To illustrate how different these metaphors are, consider this. If I have a jug of water, and I pour water from the jug into the glass, then I have less water in the jug than I had before—simple mechanics. But if I have a fruiting plant, and I harvest some of that fruit, then (in the right conditions and done in the right way) I will actually end up with more fruit in the end, not less—relatively simple organics. The two models give exactly opposite insights into the nature of reality.
I can’t help feeling that both the reactions of Christian leaders to the language of growth betrays an understanding rooted in the mechanical outlook. Those who love the mechanisms will cheerfully grab hold of the oars and start pulling harder; those already exhausted by ministry will slump over their oar, and their movement back and forward is in response to the movement of the boat, and not their own effort.
Although there are economic metaphors for the kingdom in the teaching of Jesus (such as the parable of the talentae, which is about the kingdom and not about making the most of our abilities), most of the metaphors are organic—sowing seeds, planting and watering, growth coming ‘all by itself’ (Mark 4.28), the mustard seed, the wheat and the tares, the workers in the harvest, the grapevine—and so on. I can’t believe that this is simply because Jesus lived in an agrarian society, and was reflecting his culture; it is surely because the kingdom is about living things, and so organic metaphors are the ones that are most true to the way God works with people. When you think about it, ‘growth’ it itself a metaphor, and an organic one at that, and the very word doesn’t sit well with a more mechanistic outlook.
So, thinking about church growth, what might it look like if we were to move away from a merely mechanic examination of numbers alone? It has been a busy few weeks in the garden, as the sun has come out and the soil has been warmed, providing along with the April showers the conditions for things to start growing again. As I look around my garden, I can see that growth comes in all sorts of different ways.
Planting. I have just sown some onions sets and some seed potatoes (Arran Pilot as my first earlies in case you are interested), and this has involved some hard work digging the ground over, before investing something quite deep in the soil, of which there will be no sign for a couple of weeks.
Scattering. Parallel to this, though in a rather different form, I often scatter seeds, usually of annual wild flowers. Whereas the planting has been a deliberate, planned, deep investment in the soil, this is much more casual and carefree. I am not sure what will come up and when—but you never know.
Potting. I have inherited some seedlings from another gardener, and earlier this week I separated these and put them in small pots in the greenhouse. These are fragile, but they hold great promise—some of them will, I hope, grow into tasty leeks. But at the moment they need the artificial protection and warmth of the greenhouse before they are strong enough to be planted out.
Weeding. Weeding is vitally important at this time of year. Over the winter I did not pay too much attention to the garden, and various unwanted things established themselves in the spaces between the plants I do want. Now is the time to uproot them, before they start to become too established, and take up the space and nutrients that rightly should go to the plants that belong.
Pruning. Although this might feel similar to weeding (and also produce lots of material to dispose of) it is almost exactly the opposite. Weeding is removing things you don’t want to make space for things you do. Pruning is cutting back the plants you do want so that they will grow more strongly. It is an art all of itself. If you do not prune back last year’s growth, you will not make space for this year’s. When I walk Barney up and down the streets around us, my most consistent observation is that all the gardens would look better if only people had the courage to prune their plants back. They would see stronger growth, and their plants would be in better shape.
Grafting. Some plants grow not by getting bigger in themselves, but by sending out runners which root and grow, and at the right time can be separate as plants in themselves. It means the parent plant investing its energy in something other than its own welfare, but it is the way to a greater crop.
There are other aspects to growth, but I mention these just to illustrate the diversity of things which are core to creating a climate of growth. You do not make plants bigger by measuring them—even though measuring them might be a vital check as to whether they are healthy and growing or not. I wonder if we focussed more on the organic realities of growth and what that involves, we might feel less threatened by the language of growth, and even more confident that, as we either plant, or water, or prune, or weed…that God will in fact give the growth (1 Cor 3.6).
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