Thursday, February 12, 2009

Church growth . . . not

     Why are we not growing? We feed people? We clothe people? We throw parties and invite people? So where is the growth? If I have been asked these questions once in the past couple of months, I have been asked a hundred times. To be sure, some are scared to death that we might actually grow, but, by and large, most people want to know why people are not flocking to our church. We have been featured on national radio, we have been written up in local newspapers, and many of us feel that we have begun to incarnate for the people of Davenport what a holy, Christ-filled life is truly like. So why are people not fighting over the pews for a place to sit?

     One of my favorite characteristics of Angel Food Ministries is that it gives me an opportunity to find out what people think of us. So often, Vestries and clergies are convinced about what people think of them, but they are seldom ever able to confirm those suspicions empirically. So, churches go about their business in a vacuum, never reaching nor hearing from the people for whom they are called to serve. To be sure, few know what I am doing as I engage them in conversation on the way to their car. But I love to be able (in non-priestly attire!) to hear what visitors are saying about us. I particularly love to hear what visitors to our worship have to say about us. A pattern, though, has certainly emerged. While it is true that a number of families cannot begin to thank us enough for the food that we provide, and while it is true that our visitors find us friendly enough, we seem to want to grow our church on our own terms rather than God's.

     It sounds like a harsh judgment, but think of your own attitudes toward growth. Admittedly, we all fear growth to some extent. Growth necessitates change. What might you have to give up were St. Alban's to begin bursting at the seams? To be sure, we are proud of our Episcopal/Anglican heritage, so most of us would be unwilling to give up the BCP services each and every week (nor do I think we should), but what do you fear the most about losing in the face of growth? Loss of power? Often when new families begin to join, the more "established families" do their best to maintain, if not wrest, control over particular ministries. Loss of intimacy? There is a real sense of family at St. Alban's, and it is no small wonder that people worry whether growth in numbers will lead to a loss of intimacy in our relationships. Loss of music? What if new people come and want us to change our music? Time with the priest? Let's face it, the more people there are the less time the priest will have. Loss of identity? Like Norm at Cheers, we all want to go to places where everybody knows our name. Were we to grow, would you or I become a bit more diminished in our own eyes? What do we fear that we will lose were St. Alban's to grow?

     When I first arrived at St. Alban's, I had to do a great deal of listening. Everyone was willing to volunteer to me what St. Alban's purpose was, what St. Alban's message should be. But the listening at the church also got me in the habit of listening to those away from the church. As I visited people at home or in the hospitals, I began to hear a story of how we had acted in our past to exclude people who did not measure up to our understandings of what it means to be a Christian. Over the years, we have driven entire families away by our behavior. I have sat at the bedside of the terminally ill to hear the pains that had been inflicted by us. Some were, no doubt, unintentional. Others were quite intentional. We have had adults bite children (hey, if we cannot get the parents to leave of their own accord, maybe we can make their kids unhappy.) We have had people shouted down in ministries with the ever-loving "we don't do that sort of ministry here" or "go do that at another church." And worst of all, we have gone to people to explain to them how they wee supposed to behave now that they were part of us, as if we were some completed work in Christ that needed to be emulated. Many times, I have found myself apologizing for the behaviors of some at the church. Truthfully, I do not know if those for whom I have a apologized are still members, but I see the stumbling block that our actions have become for some who used to be in our midst, and I know that our Father in heaven is grieved. And we have driven away many of those whom He called us to serve.

     Yes, many of us have had some major screw-ups in church. Yes, many of us have driven others away when we are explicitly called to draw others to His saving embrace of the cross. For that we must repent and ask God for the grace to do His will. But our letter Paul to the church at Corinth also should speak to us about how churches ought to be growing. Churches ought to be whatever the unchurched need them to be. In our passage from this weekend, Paul reminds his readers and us that he gave up everything to try and win some to the Gospel. To the Jews, he played up His Jewish roots. For the Gentiles, he gave up his Jewish heritage. For the weak, he discussed openly his own weaknesses; for the strong, he displayed great strength. Paul did his best, for the sake of the Gospel, to become all things for all people so that he might save some. Paul gave up his own identity to serve Christ and to save some. The greatest evangelist the Church has ever known hoped to save some for the sake of the Gospel. He did not expect to save all, and he certainly knew that he would lose many. But Paul tried hard to meet them where they were, to minister to them in their needs. And so he reminded the church at Corinth and the church at Davenport two important characteristics of church growth.

     First, we must become what the unchurched need us to become to hear His song of salvation in our midst? We should always be evaluating our ministries in light of that understanding. Is this a need that God has called us to meet? Is this a ministry He has placed upon our hearts? Is this a ministry He has placed upon my heart? How can this ministry be used for the glory of God? If we seek His honor and His glory, those issues of power, those issues of ownership fall by the wayside in our lives. We begin to realize that we do this all for Him and not for ourselves.

     Second, no matter how hard we try, no matter how gifted we are, no matter our resources, no matter of willingness to lay down our lives for those around us, we will only ever attract some. Even acting at its faithful best, St. Alban's will never convince all to join the church. Some will reject the Gospel. Some will refuse God's offer of salvation to follow their own idols. And while such rejections are to be lamented and mourned, they should be expected. If Paul could not win them all for God, what chance do you or I possess?

     As a final outgrowth of this understanding, and perhaps most importantly, maybe you have seen your actions in the accounts above. Perhaps you have reflected that you helped to drive others away, that you belittled the ministries of others. What can you do? Repent. Ask the injured person and God for forgiveness. He is so quick to forgive us our sins, why would you not take it to Him in prayer? And, in a world which sees far too much hypocrasy and self-interest on the part of everyone else, imagine the power of the apology and repentance. Who knows? With a hand out and a heartfelt apology, your repentance for past behavior may be that bit of light which leads others back to Him.


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