As March turns into April, we have not long passed the half-way point of Lent; depending on what you’ve given up, it may or may not be all downhill from here, but certainly the end is in sight! The resurrection is coming! Yes, we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death” in Holy Week. But, come the Morning, we will proclaim to all that Christ is risen! Christ says: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: when its branch is yet tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.” Perhaps in Wales, we see the signs when the daffodils bloom, but the principle stands. The bleak mid-winter nears its end, and all is life once more. Lent does not come without Easter. Lent is always heading somewhere very deliberate: Christ’s resurrection, and God’s redemption of the people and the world he has made.
Owing to a moment of inspiration that I had at Lent’s outset — I’ll credit it far more to God’s Spirit than to anything from my own paltry depths — I have been pondering and preaching lately about Church growth. This is, of course, the perennial task that priests and bishops and synods have been putting before us for decades — arguably the perennial albatross they hang around our necks. For as long as I have been ordained — in fact, for as long as I’ve been an Anglican churchman — I have seen diocesan plans come and go, with bishops, clergy, and laity tying themselves up in knots seeking that next big thing that will make the Church “happen again.” And I long ago concluded that most of these bright ideas were gimmicks invented by mere human beings to fight the tide of an increasingly individualistic society where people aren’t just failing to join Church, but not really joining much of anything: the Mother’s Union, the WI, the political parties, trade unions, charitable organisations, and so on. (As an aside, that last point is actually worth noting; it’s not entirely our fault, and we are not alone.)
Yet God also promised Peter so long ago that “upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The point is: God’s Spirit hasn’t gone anywhere; he is waiting to be tapped. Lent, to repeat, does not happen without Easter. We were promised a resurrection. So the biggest question for me has become — and here was the inspiration that I received from an organisation called Leading Your Church into Growth — do we actually want to grow?! Not just spiritually; but bums on pews, as well. It could be that, for all the warmth we share, that we don’t. We are comfortable with the people around us; comfortable with our established place in this little corner of the world; we know where we’re at with our community, more or less; we know what to expect and they know what they can expect from us.
But as I pondered that question, when laid out before me so baldly, I realised that, yes, I do want our Church to grow. I want us to be a praying people, with spiritual depth; and I want us to be a welcoming people who put bums on pews and keep them there. Thus I have preached all through Lent: the resurrection isn’t buried in the past, nor floating just out of reach in an unknown future: it is here to be grabbed. Our resurrection can be now. But we have to want it. We have to call upon God to do his work here and now. Gimmicks, “Fresh Expressions of Church” (at 15 years plus, a decidedly un-fresh term!), and Diocesan Plans perhaps they have their role. As St. Paul attests, growth can’t mean sitting back and letting God do it all.
But the first step is to pray, to want growth, to ask God to give us growth, and to mean it when we ask. This I have preached in Lent. Come Eastertide, I ask you to join in the prayers I’ve been making; I’ll find or write us a prayer for growth to be used in public worship and, I hope, in our private devotions. The work will need to come soon enough. But, for now, building a culture of prayer and hope for growth is the cornerstone. Without that, we do it all in our own strength; but with our prayerful openness, we give God Spirit room to do his work.
Every blessing for a joyous season of hope,