A shortened version of the Vicar’s Report at the JPC AGM 2013. Part II of “Changing Britain” is due for May 2013
At the recent January Anniversary Service I spoke on Hebrews 12.1-2:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
And I concluded with these words about “the race set before us” here at JPC: “I believe, under God, that over the next 5 years we can move to 2000 from the 1000 where we are now. And this particular race and course is set before us, not because we need it or would choose it, but because this city needs it and God, I believe, is guiding. But it will be costly and it will mean changes.”
Re-cap on Psalm 127
I explained some of the reasons for that conviction in the February Coloured Supplement on Church Growth and Looking to the Future. Let me highlight some of what I wrote then, but now adding more.
First, Psalm 127 makes it clear that all genuine church growth is God’s growth and work. Nevertheless the mystery of Divine Sovereignty does not excuse Christian believers from initiative and action. The Psalmist says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (Ps127.1).
The divine master builder does not expect the labourers to take a holiday! Rather, when God is building, they should work to his plan and with his guidance and wisdom. On the basis of that, we all need to echo the words of a song we sing: “All I have and all I am is yours; there’s nothing that I have on earth that doesn’t come from you; I lay aside my pride and worldly worth: to serve you is the greatest thing that I could ever do; …
… for unless you build this house,
I am building it in vain.
Unless the work is yours,
There is nothing to be gained.
I want something that will stand
When your holy fire comes;
Something that will last,
And to hear you say ‘well done’
Giving glory to you Lord.”
Nathan & Lou Fellingham and Mike Busbee © 2005 Thankyou Music/The Livingstone Collective CCL 2054
So what is needed to get growing to 2000?
Changing and not changing
We need to change and not to change. Let me explain. According to our foundation (which I have to ensure we keep to), we have “to maintain and promulgate sound scriptural and evangelical truth”. But “maintaining” requires effort not to change; “promulgating”, however, requires effort to change.
On the one hand we must never change our basic foundation which is Jesus Christ and God’s word; and maintaining biblical faithfulness is never easy. Sadly, with the degeneracy of our current society we may expect more of a drift within the church as well as outside; and there will be conflict – witness the proposals for Gay Marriage. So such not-changing will be hard.
But we also have to promulgate the faith and that is where we need change. For we have to be responsive to the changes in the culture. The problem here comes from a reluctance to face the costs of change. So I now want to mention four costs (and it needs to be said at the start, money is the least of the costs).
The first cost - not financial but spiritual
The first cost is quite simply one of prayer, faith and obedience. You may think that is too facile. It isn’t. For unless there is believing persistent prayer, there may be growth but valueless growth - the sort that doesn’t survive the holy fire when it comes (as the song puts it, with an allusion to 1 Corinthians 3).
There are so many biblical promises that not-praying is really inexcusable. For example, they are there in Luke 11.1-12. So keeping those verses in mind is helpful as you pray along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer and in the spirit of the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. That is praying, one, with a sense of desperate need, such as having “nothing to set before” a friend who arrives “at midnight”; and, two, persisting in prayer. Jesus’ promise then is…
“and I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
But what is the evidence for the prayer Jesus is talking about and the requirement for it? Answer “faith”. If you move on to Luke 18.1-8 and the Parable of the Persistent Widow, a parable that people “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (and so a parable for today when so many faithful Christians are losing heart and growing spiritually weary), the conclusion of the parable is this: “nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find [not prayer on earth but] faith on earth.”
It is as though the opposite of prayer is not an absence of prayer but an absence of faith!
You may think that it is impossible to grow a church of 1000 to 2000 in five years. But that is why it is possible. Because, if it seems possible, it is hard to give God the glory. Because it seems impossible, genuine prayer can only be in faith if you are serious about things. That is to say, you will pray with a big vision of God and in the spirit of Ephesians 3.20, praying to one …
“… who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.”
Obedience the test of faith
And the test, or evidence, for the genuineness of such faith is obedience. At the end of John 3, that great chapter of belief and regeneration by faith, you read these words of Jesus (in verse 36):
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
The alternative to believing in a good and gracious Saviour, therefore, is not being unbelieving but being disobedient! The first cost, then, of getting to 2000 from 1000 in five years is persistent prayer, faith in a good and great God and simple obedience to him.
Who will, therefore, join me now in having a rule to pray, at least once a week, that by the end of 2018 we grow to 2000, and to pray keeping Ephesians 3.20 in mind and then praying for the strength of the Holy Spirit to do what Christ commands?
The second cost - overcoming complacencyThis is a high cost when you are a church of 1000-1200. For that number generates the most difficult of ceilings to penetrate or plateaus to get off. But why?
The answer is because “so much is good as it is. So why change?” As church analysts tell us, for many “the status quo has more appeal than growth” and “taking care of today’s members is a higher priority than reaching people beyond the fellowship.” The change required of overcoming such complacency is too costly. It requires usually “a radical redefinition of role, responsibilities, and relationships of the senior pastor, the staff, and the volunteer leaders. That is both difficult and rare.”
It is obvious, of course why that is needed. We are talking of a church where there are 70 staff and not 35 and a budget of £2,000,000 and not £1,000,000. It is like building the staircase to the South Gallery years ago at JPC before we grew to need it. So we must begin to reshape for that new scenario now. As vicar I will need to be more a chairman with certain legal responsibilities, with a mentoring and advisory role and involved in more writing and wider affairs. Jonathan Pryke needs to be more the Senior Minister and treated like a new vicar who is in for the long-haul, with hands on leadership and with people aware of that. But the responsibilities and relationships of the other staff and volunteer leaders will also need to be reviewed.
And can I say two things: one, that a new system must be in place by this time next year and working. I am then due for a sabbatical; and, two, I am hoping that on this structural side most will be clear by the October 2013 leaders’ meeting? But with our current systems we must be praying and working for growth as of now! So there is the cost to overcoming the complacency of staying at 1000.
Authority in the larger church
A third cost we have already paid, but some people may still need to face up to it. This is the cost relating to authority in the larger church. I will read to you from the very last two pages of Lyle Schaller’s book 44 Steps Off the Plateau. This will make things clear. Schaller (the doyen of church analysts) writes:
“growth in numbers often is accompanied by a shift in authority patterns. The basic generalization is the smaller the size of the congregation, the more likely most of the authority will be vested in volunteers. By contrast, in large … churches, most of the real power rests with the senior pastor and the staff.
… The central part of the explanation for this difference is not doctrine or polity. It is knowledge. In Western society knowledge is the chief source of power. In the tradition-bound and past-oriented small congregation, knowledge about the past and local traditions plus long tenure as a volunteer plus a role in the local grapevine as both a sender and a recipient of oral messages plus crucial friendship and kinship ties plus an investment of four or five or six hours of time a week can make one a powerful leader.
In the large … church knowledge about contemporary reality, an understanding of the goals for the next few years, competence in gathering crucial data from printed sources, and the investment of fifty or sixty hours of time every week are the best sources of knowledge … [and that is what the staff have].
The second factor
A second source of this conflict may lie in the distinction between authority and power. The polity of that religious tradition and/or the constitution of that parish may assign a large quantity of authority to the volunteer leaders.
The size, complexity, and rapid growth of that parish, however, mean most of the knowledge about contemporary reality is in the heads of staff, even though their legitimate authority is severely limited. The natural and predictable result is frequent clashes between volunteer leaders, who declare they have great authority, and the staff, who derive their power from a huge investment of time, skill, and energy that makes them highly knowledgeable leaders. Sometimes this conflict is resolved by the stormy departure of a couple of volunteer leaders … More often, a compromise is worked out that immobilizes all decision makers, and a high degree of passivity is followed by a decline in numbers.
The product of these generalizations is that implementation of a strategy to move up off a plateau in size usually is accompanied by a shift in power from volunteer leaders to paid staff. This is less of a problem in Roman Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal or Anglican traditions than in Reformed churches and Baptist churches and similar traditions that grant great authority to lay elders.”
Quality, productivity and responsiveness
So as the church gets larger people have to face the reality of authority in the church changing. That is the reason why communication is so important, and quality in communication. Indeed, one of the costs of growing is communication. But to do that well takes time and time equals money because it cannot be done by volunteers who are only working 6 hours a week for the church and not 60 hours by staff who know what is going on.
That brings me to the fourth cost I want to mention – namely the need for quality (in everything), productivity (in work) and responsiveness (to needs).
Jesus we are told (Mark 7.37) “has done all things well”. We will need to follow that lead with a high commitment to quality. Growth is often more by addition than subtraction – such as more services, more sites, more groups and more activities in response to needs. But as more people are involved and committed to quality, we need more productivity out of the hours people have to spend on tasks – that is true for staff and volunteers. And, to repeat, the activities need to be responses to needs. There are so many of these with, of course, a major one, as we know, relating to education and schooling. Also we need strategies to help rebuild a (Christian) marriage and family culture, along with help for broken families (such as Safe Families for Children).
I must conclude. God’s grace (or giving) is free. But it needs to be believed in, prayed for and then to lead us, in grateful, humble and sensible response, to obey his word and his will. With such faithfulness, we should expect greater effectiveness in Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain.
And as a post script: remember this and last year’s Giving Review themes: “Expect great things from God: attempt great things for God,” William Carey.