I love a good podcast, and many accompany me on trips around the RM network. One of my current favourites is ‘The Rest is Politics’, hosted by Rory Stewart (former Conservative MP and leadership contender) and Alistair Campbell, perhaps known best for his political roles during Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour Party. They recently interviewed Kate Raworth, who wrote a fascinating book called ‘doughnut economics’ (bear with), in which she asks how we can continue to sustain growth when there is often a cost on the world’s resources and those marginalised in society.
I accept that not all the concepts of Raworth’s thesis neatly fit the church, but it did get me thinking; is seeking growth within the church always for Gospel reasons? Church Growth can be one of those divisive issues, often interpreted as “if you’re doing the right things, your church will get bigger – and if it isn’t getting bigger, you must be doing something wrong.” How do those who reside within the rural context meet the growth forecasts and predictions of some of our more enthusiastic leaders and denominations? In terms of percentages, we are invariably doing much better than we think. Still, in terms of ‘bottoms on seats’, the ultimate measure of church growth as popularised by Donald McGavran, we may not fulfil the criteria often sought.
The desire for growth can be a God-given sign of love for the lost and a longing for the Gospel to reach many people in and around our community. Equally, the aspiration to have one’s work and ministry confirmed by numerical growth also speaks volumes about our ego. Church growth can become a sort of justification or a confirmation that we are good, or we are holy, or we are doing things the right way. Similarly, if growth does not occur, we can develop an attitude of despair, despondency, or denial, which is equally as dangerous.
Could it be that in certain situations, the unstated reason we need churches to grow is in order to pay the bills, sustain the institution and keep the show on the road? Returning to the book ‘Doughnut Economics’, Raworth explores whether ‘thriving’ might be a better word than growth. Indeed, on a recent visit to the Derbyshire Rural Chaplains, Alison, one of the Chaplains, used the phrase “thriving and flourishing” – I like that.
I have a number of plants in my garden which are thriving and indeed flourishing, but are they still growing? Yes, in a way, they reproduce life, but they are not all destined to become mighty Californian Redwoods - nor should they. Our language of church seems to be rather binary, growth or decline. I want to encourage a language of thriving, perhaps coupled with fruitfulness. Rather than asking 'What helps churches to grow' perhaps an alternative question is 'What helps churches to thrive within their community and context'. Would thriving and flourishing necessarily mean growth? As a by-product, I think it would, but I am uncomfortable when it is set out as an overt objective or aggressive target. How can churches be regenerative by design without seeking to push the opposition (other churches) out of the way in their quest for growth?
One thing that seems to be absent from the early church as recorded in the New Testament (please correct me if I have this wrong) is you never hear it said, “We have to grow this church.” Instead, time after time, they seem to do what God has called them to, and by the power of the Spirit, in God’s timing, the Spirit rescues people and brings them to faith in Jesus, increasing their number.
So, maybe we should stop obsessing with growth and focus instead on thriving, flourishing and fruitfulness. Remember, Jesus said, “I will build my church”. Our job is to make disciples who make disciples – i.e., the thriving and flourishing bit.
To conclude, I cannot help but wonder if the language of thriving, implicit in Isaiah 35, might be more helpful and speak more prophetically and powerfully into our rural context than many of the frothy growth targets being waved around at this time. After all, Isaiah makes it clear that restoration and thriving are the work of God, whereas fulfilling growth targets could be aping the language of capitalism and control; I am not sure these so neatly fit into the Gospel message.
Simon Mattholie CEO, Rural Ministries