This is, famously, an age of anxiety. That anxiety is certainly shared by the church. For the last four or five years as well as retreats and pilgrimages and other teaching and preaching. I have been delivering sessions to parishes which I have been calling “Growing the Church”. Some of these have been weekends, others days or part days, yet others multiple sessions of 90 minutes or so. At the start I generally ask people to write up what they hope to get out of the sessions. It’s a good reality check for me, particularly when I review them at the end. Anxiety is very strong in those hopes expressed at the start for: more children, more people …
These Growing the Church sessions are not intended to replace any of the well developed schemes for church growth and renewal. In many ways I would see the work I do as preparing the way for them. I will almost always mention the New Wine network, Leading Your Church Into Growth, Alpha and more recently tried to plant seeds about starting new worshipping communities outside the church building at times other than a Sunday morning. A way of working that is proving highly successful in the diocese of Liverpool, especially when using our school buildings.
One of the things that strikes me is that in parishes people are very eager to get to the vision writing/mission action planning stage very quickly. In schools a new Head might take two or three terms to work on, and that is seeing each other five days a week for the whole of the working day.
I try on these days to establish some basics – Why do I go to church? Who is Jesus to me? etc before moving any further. I have also begun using Psalm 44 to do some real lamenting about the difference between our ‘memory’ of church as a sort of ideal period we would like to return to, but which in reality can never exist again. I think if we don’t do that we are just frozen in grief or yearning for a mythical past in which there were dozens of children in the Sunday school and crowds at the daily Mass.
Other elements I include are my thoughts on Education and how they relate to our work with children and young people: the need to raise the standard of our education material and make it knowledge-based not simply experiential; and give young people real, substantive leadership. I always include some Mindfulness material. Bookshops, attendance at Mindfulness events etc are evidence that there is a real hunger for stillness, silence and meditation in our wider society. A hunger that we are failing to address in our Sunday worship. This is an open door for Christian mission which we are almost totally neglecting. There is very little opportunity for silence in most Sunday worship. Generally, when anyone leading worship says that ‘now we will keep a few moments of silence’ I barely have time for one breath, I have never, anywhere, had time for more than three. At Taizé they manage 10 – 15 minutes of silence in their worship three times a day. And this is always the thing that children and young people find most intriguing and good.
Finally, I always include an informal celebration of the Eucharist as part of the day. Ideally about half way through. This can bring together elements of Mindfulness, as well as a good chance to re-iterate the overriding importance of memory both as learning and in establishing shared memory as who we are, in Jesus’ words to ‘do this in memory of him’.
Preaching on the second day is a good chance to pick up on themes that strike me from the initial session. Almost always this is the same: the need to root our mission, our desire to grow the church, in substantive Christian faith. I come more and more to see the Apostles’ Creed as useful here. The reasons people give for Jesus being important to them, or what they like about Jesus, are generally either emotional (although there’s often not much of that) or Jesus as an example of living a good life. A living relationship with Jesus is, of course, essential to Christian faith and I often use the icon of friendship (Jesus with his arm affectionately around his friends’s shoulder). However, no one ever mentions the acts of salvation history. So what we have to tell people becomes very weak indeed.
I also stress the cross as an image of us needing grow the church horizontally – to draw more people to Jesus – and vertically – our relationship as individuals and as a community, with God. Interestingly this is the work that people seem to neglect most, or perhaps take for granted.
Unless it is a whole weekend we don’t spend any time writing a Mission Action Plan. That can be done by a small group separately. That is not because I don’t think it is important. On the contrary, being ‘intentional’ about mission is only going to happen if we have a plan and hold ourselves to account for it.
These events are really helpful for me and I learn a great deal from them. I change the material I use every time because I am always learning as well as because contexts are different. The work we have done in Liverpool on new worshipping communities in schools (mainly in the Wigan area) has really helped me to see that developing new congregations can be useful in relieving the anxiety of existing, ‘inherited church’ congregations. So often much of the anxiety comes from expecting that a new priest will suggest yet another set of changes to the worship, or moving of furniture. Sometimes it can be best to leave all that as it is and put our energy into new manifestations of the church. It also helps us to face up to the fact that those of us who love church can find it hard to understand the resistance of people who have no church experience to traditional church.
More children, more people is the constant hope of parishes and congregations. That horizontal growth will only come, in my view, when there is more faith, more experience of Jesus, more faithful living, more deep conversion to the gospel. That is the challenge to every Christian. Why is my life not sufficiently converted that my living alone brings people to Jesus?
The constant mantra in my teaching is a quite simple:
– Jesus centred
– Spirit filled
– Bible based
The anxiety is real. But we should not be controlled by it. In particular we need to be faithful to the New Testament vision of prayer as releasing the gifts of the Spirit. God expects every Christian to experience and share in these gifts. To believe that prayer is somehow difficult or fruitless is to collude with the anxiety.
An age of anxiety, yes. But also an age of liminality, provisionality and that provisionality can contain much energy and the seemed of renewal. Growing the Church never leaves me feeling depressed or anxious for the church. I find these events stimulating and energising. I hope some of those who participate in them do too.