Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
As we emerge from COVID there are many things the nation has learned. One is that health policy is best dictated by the science. It now seems clear that we’ve been tardy in responding to the twists and turns of the pandemic. We were too late with the first lockdown, and probably too late recently with the closing of travel to India. I don’t envy those having to make these decisions, as in the moment there are always conflicting voices. At the start it was the needs of the economy. Over flights recently, it was probably not wanting to jeopardise prospective trade deals.
There are parallels here when we think about our diocesan strategy to foster the best conditions possible for the growth and flourishing the church. There are actually some well-trodden, well researched paths to help churches grow. They may not show causality, but the correlations are very strong indeed. Work done by Robert Warren, which led to the Growing Healthy Churches initiative, Christian Shwartz’s work on natural Church development, and more recent the Anecdote to Evidence research all speak with one fairly clear voice. Churches that are driven by faith and a desire to seek God’s will rather than their own preferences, who prioritise the spiritual development of their members and are active in evangelism as well as social action tend to grow. This is invariably fostered by a shared leadership of clergy and lay people operating with a clear vision of what they are aiming at. Those that don’t do these things tend to decline. Of course, there are nuances around these core things, but basically church growth isn’t rocket science. In my work as a mission advisor, churches that audited themselves honestly around these sorts of criteria, and resolved to act on what they found often found things begin to turn around.
So, if the programme is there, why is it that we find ourselves on the wrong side of statistics? One of our clergy told me the other day that 10% of his Electoral Roll had died over the course of the last 15 months! It is a common human problem that we know what we should do, but find it very hard to do it. I know when my alarm goes off in the morning that I ought to do some exercise. The evidence is overwhelming that regular exercise will help me to live a longer, healthier life, but sometimes the temptations of that comfy bed are too much to resist. In the life of the church it manifests itself in the parish profiles I read. Without fail, they cite the need for a new vicar who will help them attract families and young children. Since every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results its currently achieving, this presupposes the system isn’t working to achieve that goal. The implication is something needs to change, and the new vicar needs to lead it. Sadly, its not uncommon for such changes to be mooted, and for it to unleash a storm of resistance. Intellectually, people might know things have to change, but that’s not the same as being prepared to pay the emotional cost, or for the rational desire to translate into a preparedness to submit our own preferences for the greater good.
Make no mistake, if the statistics I quoted earlier are typical, we don’t have the luxury of staying the same, nor of making our own preference the yardstick of the changes we might be prepared to tolerate. Is such change possible? The message of Pentecost we celebrate this weekend answers a resounding yes! Consider Peter. In one chapter at the beginning of Acts he moves from being clueless and fearful to courageously clear. In Acts Ch. 1 he shows he hasn’t really understood Jesus’ message and he certainly wasn’t equipped to speak it. In Acts Chapter 2 we have his first sermon, clearly linking the work of Jesus to the prophesies of the Old Testament and powerfully, unequivocally and fearlessly inviting people to radical commitment to Jesus Christ. 3000 people are recorded as making the choice to follow.
The transformation was the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift, given to all who confess Christ as Lord confirms that our faith is a supernatural one. Indeed, it seems clear that even being an eyewitness to the resurrection wasn’t in itself sufficient to energise and launch the Church as a missionary movement. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit, coming into their hearts that gave them the power, insight and courage to continue the work Jesus had begun. Charismatic shouldn’t be a word that describes a particular church sub-culture, characterised by exuberance, an openness to particular spiritual gifts and a love of longer times of sung worship. It should be a word to characterise all of us. The church is a supernatural community, full of a power beyond itself, or its a very pale imitation of the community Jesus envisaged.
Paul, reflecting on these things in his letter to the Philippians 2: 13 says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” I think we are at a stage in our corporate life where we need to turn that into a prayer with some earnestness. Gracious Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, renew us in heart and mind that we may will what you will and have the courage to do it.