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What does growth look like?

_86363612_suffragette-1In 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-1Pruning. 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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6 Responses to What does growth look like?

  1. John Pike April 20, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

    A most enjoyable piece. I agree that much of it is in allowing organic growth, but it is not all passive. All the gardening tasks you mentioned involved a lot of hard work. The Great Commission and Acts 1:8 suggest to me that activity, passivity (the work of the Holy Spirit and Jesus is with us until the very end of the age), numbers and healthy obedience are all important. The word “Organic” is interesting in another respect as well….free from artificial fertilisers, pesticides etc. There is also a place for the shrewd businessman (Luke 16:1-9). So if church numbers are falling, we should seriously investigate why that is and try and do something about it, while all the time obeying “everything I have commanded you”.

  2. m April 20, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

    Part of the problem is that we are still locked into an organic system that has all but died. I am referring to the parish system. It is quite clear that this is remnant of previous growth. But now its like a hollowed out piece of dead wood.
    That is not to say that life cannot grow from it. After the devastation of the 1987 hurricane, those places where fallen trees were just left to decay rather than be dragged away by heavy machinery are the places where the woodland has regenerated.
    Is the parish system the fallen tree around or upon which we need to look for new growth, and if it is how do we gently discard that which is now dead wood whilst not killing the new shoots. Or maybe its a case of recognising its deadness allow it to decay where it is and look for the growth and nurture it.

  3. Don Benson April 20, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

    From the congregation’s point of view I know what it is like to witness the sapping of confidence when numbers start to dwindle. Some years ago I tried to write down my thoughts on how such a trend could be reversed – writing it down always seems to be the best way of concentrating the mind. And I must say it became clear that growth is indeed an organic process, and that ‘add-on’ attempts to entice people into a church which isn’t growing naturally in terms of worship, prayer and teaching are doomed to disappointment. If what we do in our church is not already producing spiritual growth among existing members, it can hardly be expected suddenly to do so for new potential members (if they hang around long enough to find out!), so numerical growth, if it happens, may sadly be a temporary blip.

    I expect many people would also observe that much of the benefit of a well organised local church mission comes from the pre preparation of existing church members, enlivening them spiritually, so that, whatever the immediate numerical results or lack of them from the mission, there is a much longer term spiritual benefit for the church itself which may well contribute numerical growth in the future. Of course a thriving and organically growing church may view that kind of mission as more relevant for church planting rather than its own outreach.

    One particular item (rather than a person) in the context of growth which I’ve always thought needs ‘pruning’ is the use of Communion services as the main or only weekly service of family worship within many CofE churches – but perhaps that’s an already well discussed tangent.

    • Ian H April 22, 2016 at 10:29 pm #

      “And I must say it became clear that growth is indeed an organic process, and that ‘add-on’ attempts to entice people into a church which isn’t growing naturally in terms of worship, prayer and teaching are doomed to disappointment.” I think that I would, from experience, endorse this. Congregations , including their leaders (and diocesan initiatives) tend to look for activities to add on to what’s already happening that would give success (as they see it). Where this is a natural outflow of who they are/what they are doing then it’s likely to be of help. If it’s just a disconnected add-on (hopefully you get my meaning) then it’s not likely to achieve anything. Indeed (as someone once put) ‘God doesn’t lay live chicks under dead hens’.

      Another issue is expectation. I fear too many congregations have blinkers put on them (by themselves maybe) that growth is only about more young people/families. They can be made to feel failures by this issue alone. Nods may be given to evangelise the older members of our communities but the holy grail is the young family. Having an ageing country and some very aged communities means that these blinkers must come off. The saving gospel is for all ages.

  4. John Gilmartin April 21, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    Ian,
    Why does the church today think business skills equal dying church rebirth capacity?

    Bankruptcy is an important recurring business event. Businesses go bust frequently. How many large firms survive 100 years? Very few. I have yet to hear a church leader use the term.

    How many churches are living on endowment now? Is it measured or openly discussed?

    Businesses routinely ‘shake up’ management, i.e. Fire the leadership. When did that last happen here?

    Your list of gospel gardening skills left out, cut it down, burning, and reassigning stewardship.

    • gill April 22, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

      Exactly. Thanks.

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