My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again.
With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.
One of the hazards of ministry is the risk of being misunderstood. Ask any preacher. There are of course things one can do to reduce the risk. But sometimes you just have to go for it. So here goes.
The main secret of church growth is to want to grow and then to do something about it. I prescribe a good, old fashioned dose of evangelical activism.
Of course it’s not quite that simple. If it were I’d be out of a job. I spend a lot of time and energy helping students to identify cultural trends and to consider how to respond. We look at a whole range of approaches to evangelism and church growth from missionary congregations to personal faith sharing; from fresh expressions to healthy church growth thinking. We ask all kinds of important theological questions about such things as the relationship between our mission and God’s mission or the place of evangelism in our pursuit of the kingdom.
It’s encouraging that reflection on evangelism and other forms of mission is becoming more nuanced, theologically more robust. But it remains true that the three most important steps for those who would like to see growth are to want to grow, to plan to grow and then to do something about it.
Not that these things alone are enough. Church growth theory has always stressed that there are factors way beyond how a local congregation goes about things which have a huge influence on how likely they are to see an increase in numbers. It could well be, for instance, that the arrest of numerical decline detected in both the 2005 English Churches Census and the recent figures published by TEAR Fund is largely down to the culture-wide resurgence of interest in spirituality and the re-entry of religion onto the public stage since 9/11 and 7/7. Not a lot your local church can do about such things.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a census or a survey to tell you that churches that try to grow tend grow faster than those who aren’t interested in growth or won’t work at it. We need to be intentional and active.
Activism however has recently fallen out of favour. You must know the old joke about the patron saint of evangelicals being St. Vitus. Much of the criticism is indeed neccessary. Mere busyness is soul destroying. Prayerless reliance on human effort is faithless. We ought not to live as if we believe in justification by results. On the other hand it would be a gross denial of our evangelical heritage and a huge loss to the Church universal if we were to swap activism for quietism.
I wouldn’t want to go as far as the remark attributed to 19C evangelist Dwight Moody who respond to a critic by telling her that he preferred his method of doing evangelism to her method of not doing it. I am not commending mere activism or heedless hard work. What’s called for is faithful, imaginative engagement.
Nor do I want to simplify to the point simplicity. “For every problem there is a solution that is simple, straightforward …. and wrong!” Amen. But neither do I want to see the church paralysed by complexity or bewildered into impotence.
We might only understand in part but that doesn’t mean we know nothing. We might not have it within our power to transform our own fortunes but that doesn’t mean we can do nothing. So let’s hear it for activism. Gospel faithful activism? Theologically savvy activism? Prayerfully reflective activism? Spirit inspired activism? Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! But for all that, still activism.