Category Archives: Growing in … Sermons

Sermon – Growing in Christlikeness

2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Matthew 4:18-22

Today we start a series of services and sermons trying to express a vision – the vision of the Archbishop of York and his staff – for the Diocese of York in particular, but a vision that ought to be one that all churches – all Christians – should share.  A vision of being a growing church – growing in five specific areas – it’s definitely not just about getting more bums on pews, though one would hope that would be the end result.  Something that is not growing is, pretty much by definition, either dying, or not alive in the first place, and the same could be said of a church.

The Diocese of York is calling this vision, “Generous Churches Making and Nurturing Disciples” – which sounds a bit of a mouthful, but I don’t think there’s much to disagree with in it – we are called to be generous churches that make and nurture disciples.  What was it Roy Searle called us to at our away day last October (which I will keep banging on about!)?  It was the great commandment and the great commission of Jesus – love god and make disciples.  This vision is not so different – be generous people – loving people – loving God and neighbour – generous with what we offer to God and what we offer to our neighbour; and to make and nurture disciples who will be generous loving people too.

The vision of the diocese is to have each church to grow – to grow in five areas in particular – to grow in Christ-likeness, commitment, partnership, influence and, yes, in numbers, the Five Marks of Growing.  Today we begin with the first of these – growing in Christ-likeness.

Being a disciple of Jesus means first of all being like Jesus.  A disciple seeks to imitate whoever it is they follow.  In our Gospel reading Jesus said to his disciples, “Follow me!”  He didn’t say, ‘Come and be religious.’   He didn’t say, ‘Come and learn lots of clever ideas about how to answer questions about life the universe and everything.’  He didn’t say, ‘Come and be good people.’  He said, “Follow me!”

In his last sermon in 2007: John Stott, one of the great Christian thinkers, writers and preachers of the modern age, said, after all his theology and biblical interpretation he said at the end, ‘…I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God’.

St Paul wrote that as Christians on earth we are the body of Christ.  To be the body of Christ we have to look like Christ, act like Christ, be like Christ – even be Christ.  Obviously it’s not about all growing long hair, beards and wearing white robes!  I had a friend in training college who used to win the award every year for ordinand who looked most like Jesus!  Obviously it’s not about physical appearance, it’s about how our lives look.  This is about much more than occasional tweak in our behaviour – asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ in each situation – though I don’t think that would go amiss.  It’s more about allowing the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God which is the Spirit of Jesus, to work deeply in us and change us from inside out.

But what is it to be Christ-like – to grow in Christ-likeness?  You have probably known some very good people over the years.  Some, what you might call, ‘saintly’ people. But is there a difference between ‘good’ and ‘Christ-like’?  You clearly do not have to be a Christian to be good, but do you have to be a Christian to be ‘Christ-like’?  I’m not sure even that is true.  I’d say Gandhi was Christ-like.  But, to turn it round, can you be a Christian and not try to be Christ-like – not be interested in being Christ-like?  There, I’d say you have a problem!  To be a Christian is to be someone who has heard Jesus’ voice saying’ ‘Follow me!’  Come and be like me.  To often people say, ‘I’m a good person!  I’m a Christian person.’  They may be good, but if they’re not interested in following Jesus and learning about him in order to become more like him, the word ‘Christian’ isn’t really being used aright.  How can you be a Christian without any interest in Christ?!

Back in the beginning when God made us, the book of Genesis says, He made us in His image.  We were able to think, we were able to create, we were able to feel.  Most importantly we had a relationship with Him.  Sadly instead of being content with being a reflection of God and His character we wanted to create ourselves in our own image.  This is very much a prevailing attitude today with people wanting to be ‘their own person’!  In our first reading, St Paul, writing to the Corinthian Christians, tells us that “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  Jesus himself is the image of God, he is what we were made to be, so we need therefore to become like Christ to be what we were created to be.  We won’t be satisfied or truly fulfilled until we start to grow in Christ-likeness because that is what, in the heart of our being, we were created to do.  Just as a flower can’t be satisfied until it grows towards the light, we won’t feel our lives are going in the right direction until we are growing towards being like Jesus – the image God – because we are made in the image of God that Jesus perfectly reflects.

We don’t know what we’re talking about, really, when we use the word ‘God’.  God is a mystery of colossal proportions.  If it wasn’t for Jesus we wouldn’t know what it meant to be created in the image of God.  We wouldn’t know how to be who we are.  Christianity believes that Jesus made the mystery of God accessible.  He gave a human face to God.

He revealed to us, in a way we could understand, what God is all about.  If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus.  Jesus once said an astonishing thing.  “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”  Jesus is what God is like – that is what Christians believe.  The great German Christian thinker, Karl Barth, put it that, “in God there is no un-Christ-likeness at all.”

But does all this mean that to be ‘Christ-like’ we need simply to copy Jesus behaviour,  to be good and kind, and wise and just?  Surely that would be just an outward show?  We need instead to get to the root of what it is to be Christ-like, the real heart of the matter.

What was it that made Jesus who he was?  As we peel away all the different layers of those things that made Jesus such an amazing human being we eventually come to his relationship with the Father.

When lost as a young boy he was found in the temple talking about God as his Father; when he began his public ministry he withdrew to spend an extended time alone with God; whenever pressure built and things got busy he would look for a place to pray to God.  And God spoke to him.  When he was baptized the Holy Spirit came upon him and he heard God say, “You are my beloved son.”; when things started to come to a head Jesus went up a mountain with a select few of his disciples to pray, and God sent him Moses and Elijah; when he sweated blood praying in the Garden of Gethsemane God sent him an angel to strengthen him (Luke 22 v 43).  We have several accounts of him in the temple or synagogues.  He knew the scriptures.  He could discuss them and was always quoting them in appropriate or thought provoking ways.  He had a close and intimate relationship with his Father and this relationship produced the wonderful deeds that he did.

Jesus’ call to Simon Peter and Andrew was to ‘follow him’ – to leave what they were doing and to ‘follow him’.  He went on to give the same challenge to James and John and 8 other disciples.  Over the next three years they did just that and it transformed them.  They had to battle with very human characteristics: pride, envy, fear, doubt and jealousy.  They argued over who was the greatest and Jesus had to show them that that honour belonged to a little child.  They wanted to know who would sit next to Jesus in his Kingdom.  They ran away when Jesus faced his darkest hour.  Even after the resurrection when Jesus had forgiven Peter for abandoning him Peter still was concerned about comparing himself to another disciple to whom Jesus was particularly close.  They were never perfect.

But they also learnt from Jesus, he taught them new things about the nature of God, sometimes things he shared publicly like in the sermon on the mount, sometimes private talks for which only they and the close group of men and women around Jesus may have been ready.  He explained to them things from the scriptures both before his death and after his resurrection.  At their request, impressed no doubt by his relationship with his Father, he showed them how to pray in the words of ‘Our Father….’

And being around him rubbed off on them.  And after Pentecost they were filled with his Spirit and started doing the things he did, living with his character.  They were so like him they were able to do the same miracles he did and people flocked to them.  How they would flock here if we were really Christ-like!  If we could offer folk a way of being more Christ-like themselves we would satisfy the deepest hunger in every human soul.

So how do we go about growing in Christ-likeness?  It would be easy to make a list of the characteristics we would like to see from Christ-like individuals or Christ-like churches.

Generous, sharing, thoughtful, loving, just, supportive.  But this could also describe the local football team or WI group.  They too are very good at rallying round when there is a need and often even when there isn’t.  What we need are churches inspired by the relationship of their members with their God and creator.  Women and men made in the image of God and renewed in the image of Christ.  Men and women of Prayer.  Women and men of all ages, from young ones onward who soak up the scriptures, think them through and apply them to life today.  People who spend time with their heavenly Father just as Jesus did.  People who follow Jesus in this and all things.

What we need is followers of Christ, whose relationship with God is shown in their actions.  Just a small group of ‘Christ-like’ followers turned the world upside down in their day.  It would be great if we could do the same – starting here!  Why not?!  There was nothing special about those first disciples.  They were ordinary working men.  But they followed Jesus and desired to be like him, until they were.

Let’s start today.  Perhaps there’s some characteristic of Jesus that impresses you?  His humility and honesty, his servant heart – serving others, his love that was willing to pay a price, his integrity, his perseverance in the face of opposition or discouragement, his faith, his willingness to forgive, his courage?  Is there something you could do – one step you could take to becoming more like that?  You won’t fix everything wrong in your life all at once, but if you start to follow, and keep following, you won’t need to – you can change gradually day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, decade by decade.

Jesus said once, “Remain in me, as a branch remains in a Vine, and you’ll bear fruit.”  (My paraphrase of John Chapter 15)  Stay following, stay plugged in to him like a branch and his sap, his life will flow through you.  Let his Spirit flow through you and day by day you’ll become more like him…  I promise.  If you don’t sue me!  All you need to start growing in Christ-likeness is to want it.  And if you understand what it means you will want it.

13.1.12 – 10am – St Laurence’s

Sermons – Growing in Commitment

Readings: Isaiah 49: 1 – 7 and John 1: 29 – 42

Well we are continuing this morning with our sermon series on the five marks of growing churches.  And this comes out of vision within the Diocese for growth and making and nurturing disciples.  And so perhaps it would be useful at this point to remind ourselves of what those five marks of a growing church we have been asked to explore are.  And they are growing in Christlikeness which Marion looked at last week; and then growth in commitment; in partnership; in influence; and in numbers.   And this morning I shall be looking at the second of these which is ‘growing in commitment.’

And so let’s now see what our set reading for today has to say to us about commitment.  And you will recall how through Advent we heard how John the Baptist had a calling burning within his heart to prepare the way for Jesus, the One who was to come and to be the Saviour of his people.  But as Jesus has now come and begun his public ministry John is very much aware that he must now begin to fade into the background so that the focus can be on Jesus.  “He must become greater; I must become less,” says John.  And these are not just pious words by John as he now begins to encourage his own disciples to transfer their allegiance to Jesus.  And I’m sure it must have hurt him personally to let such gifted and loyal disciples go. And I think it says something about John’s character that he doesn’t try to stand it their way at all.  And it’s a lesson for us too on a personal level; for as Christian people we must be very careful of the example we set so that we don’t put people off or stand in the way of those wanting to know more about Jesus.

And so one day as John is at his usual post with two of his disciples down by the River Jordan he sees Jesus coming and says: “Look; this is the one I told you about.  This is the one who takes away the sin of the world.”  And catching a glimpse of Jesus the following day these two disciples taking their cue from John go and walk on after Jesus.  And we know one of these two is Andrew and while we are not told the name of the other one, the general consensus seems to be that it’s John the Apostle, the author of this gospel.

And so as Jesus sees them walking behind him, he turns and says to them “What do you want; why are you following me?”  And at this point I don’t think, they can really articulate why or what they want except there’s something about Jesus, almost like a gravitational pull that draws them to him and that makes them want to know more about him.

“What do you want?”  Well on the surface it seems to be a very simple question, doesn’t it – “What do you want?”  But it is a question with deeper implications, not only for those early disciples but for us too.  Sooner or later if we begin to take Jesus seriously we face the same question: what do we really want with him, or from him?  What are we looking for?  What do we want?

And as for these two in the narrative, Jesus looks at them and as he waits for an answer they seem rather nonplussed and give him what seems to be a rather curious response.   “Where are you staying?” And an answer of “Where are you staying?” to a question of “What do you want?” does seem rather odd doesn’t it, but if we are to understand what’s really going on here we need to appreciate that in that culture asking a question like that, in effect, meant inviting yourself over for a meal as you would only do that with a friend.  And so they looked at Jesus and they say: “We would like to come to your house for dinner.  That’s what we want.  We want to be your friend we want to get to know you”

“Where are you staying?” they ask.  And Jesus says: “Come and you will see.”  And they spend the day with him.  “Come and see” he says.  “Come and get to know me and spend some time with me.”  Well they may have heard a little about Jesus from John but here Jesus is inviting them into so much more. And Jesus offers the same invitation to us too as there’s a deep longing in his heart to be in relationship with all those who want to know him

And this is the first step we take towards discipleship; it’s getting to know him.  And how well do we really know him I wonder?  This what Tom Wright says in his book: ‘Simply Jesus’ he says this: “With Jesus, it’s easy to be complicated and hard to be simple.  Part of the difficulty is that Jesus was and is much, much more than people imagine.”  He goes on to say this: “Jesus – the Jesus we might discover if we really looked! Is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than – we the church! – had ever imagined.”

And then notice this, Jesus doesn’t press these two disciples of John into making an immediate response, but gives them opportunity to spend time with him and to consider all the implications before making any commitment.

And what we see happening here in John chapter 1 explains the readiness of the disciples later on to make the radical break from their occupations and to follow Jesus when he calls them by the Sea of Galilee.  “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” he says to them.  And Matthew in his gospel account says: ‘At once they left their nets and followed him.’  And being able to make such a radical commitment like that at such short notice now begins to make sense.  I’m inclined to the view it didn’t happen quite as suddenly as it first appears as they had already spent time with Jesus and had opportunity to think things through.  And it seems to me almost certain that the time they had already spent with Jesus was what prompted such a decisive and committed response.

And we can see the impact that that time spent with Jesus had had on Andrew and John – it was life changing.  And somehow we’re never quite the same if we’ve had an encounter with the reality of Jesus.  And the first thing that Andrew does the following morning is to rush off and tell his brother Simon Peter.  “Simon, Simon we have found the Messiah.”  And then we read that Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. And what a wonderful privilege it is to introduce others to Jesus. And it seems that John had also told his brother James.

And what we see as we go through the gospel narratives is that there is an ongoing process at work in discipleship and the more time the disciples spend with Jesus the greater their commitment becomes.   And it’s the same with us too.  When we experience the reality of Jesus in our lives a desire begins to awaken within us to go deeper and to know him more.  But the trouble is that so often we only go so far and for whatever reason we go no further.  We are drawn to Jesus but then stop.  And this is something that C.S. Lewis says.  He says this; “Too often we are like children who settle for playing in mud puddles when the beauty and immensity of the ocean is only a few feet away.” And I like the way that Lewis sums it up. We are content playing around in the mud puddle but after a while, we tend to rationalise it and say: “Well, that’s all there is.  That’s all God intended.”  But Jesus in the Gospels continually encourages us to ask for more.  And if only we could fully grasp all that God has in store for us and what Jesus is longing to lead us into.

But let’s turn over a few pages from our reading into John chapter 6 and we see what happens when commitment is only superficial.  And what we see there is that there were many who were attracted to Jesus and liked to be associated with him and in a way followed him but they later turned back and left him because they took offence at some of the hard things he was saying.  And, of course, that’s no commitment at all.  Leaving can be easy but hanging in there when the going gets tough does require real commitment.

And Jesus then turns to the 12 who are close to him and says: “Do you also want to leave?”  And this is how Peter answering on behalf of the 12 says; and I’m reading it now from the Message translation: “Master, to whom we would go?  You have the words of real life.  We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

And those who truly want to follow Jesus and to commit themselves to him are those who have discovered that there is no one and nothing more valuable that Jesus.  There’s no one more worthy of our commitment and devotion than him.  And it brings to mind some of those stories that Jesus tells in the gospels, one about a farmer and the other about a pearl collector.  And the farmer is ploughing one day when, to his amazement he comes across some buried treasure in the field in which he’s working; and so he quickly covers it up again, and sells everything he has, absolutely everything to release enough money so that he can buy the field for himself.

And then to underline the point he’s making, Jesus goes on to tell of the pearl collector who comes across the last thing in pearls – the smoothest, purest pearl he has ever seen.  And this pearl is so desirable that he sells his house, his servants, his entire pearl collection, in order to buy that one perfect pearl.  And the reason that Jesus tells these stories is to show that these men, in selling everything they had, in giving up everything else, were not viewing it as hardship or sacrifice.  They did it ‘out of joy.’ It was reckless and wholehearted, because they knew that the goal of securing the treasure, or buying the pearl, was really worth it.

They did not view it as hardship or sacrifice.  But it doesn’t mean there will not be times when there may be hardship and sacrifice.  And Jesus never said that following him would be easy.  In fact, he referred to it as being the ‘narrow way’ and the way of the cross but there is nothing more rewarding and fulfilling than in responding to his invitation of wholehearted allegiance and commitment to him.  Jesus is worth more than anything this world can offer.

And, of course, a commitment to follow Jesus means seeking to follow his example and seeking to become more Christ like as we heard last week.  It means being a servant and following in obedience wherever he may lead.  And that may all seem like a very tall order and well beyond our reach; perhaps unattainable.  And our response might be: “well how can we possibly give that level of commitment?”  And this is how William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940’s liked to respond to that question:  He would say this:

“It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that.  Shakespeare could do it – I can’t.  And it’s no good showing me a life like Jesus and telling me to live a life like that.  Jesus could do it – I can’t.  But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this.  And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.”

And if we turn a few pages further on in this gospel isn’t that precisely what we find Jesus promising; that he will ask the Father to send the Spirit who will be with us and within us.  And it’s the Spirit within who makes Jesus real to us.  And the Apostle Paul writing to the Church in Rome puts it like this.  He says: “If we belong to Christ then we live not by our own inclinations, but by the Spirit, since the Spirit of God has made his home in us.”  And the Spirit makes his home in us because he wants to relate to us in a personal way and to change us from within.

Well I must close and perhaps I can finish with quoting some words from an old gospel song that has been buzzing around in my mind as I’ve been preparing for this morning.  And it’s:
“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands:
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.”

Philip Newell
Licensed Reader

Sermon preached at a service of Morning Worship at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 19th January 2014

Sermon – Growing in Partnership

Reading & Sketch based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 & Romans 12:1-5

As St Laurence’s we are halfway through a series of services and sermons trying to express a vision – the vision of the Archbishop of York and his staff – for the Diocese of York in particular, but a vision that ought to be one that all churches – all Christians – should share.  A vision of being a growing church – growing in five specific areas – it’s definitely not just about getting more bums on pews, though one would hope that would be the end result.  Something that is not growing is, pretty much by definition, either dying, or not alive in the first place, and the same could be said of a church.

The vision of the diocese is to have each church growing – growing in five areas in particular – growing in Christ-likeness, commitment, partnership, influence and, yes, in numbers, the Five Marks of Growing.  We have already thought about growing in Christ-likeness and Growing in Commitment.  And even though we’re in a joint service today it felt appropriate to carry on our series because the theme is ‘Growing in Partnership’.

The Partnership we’re talking about is about working together as individuals in our churches, working together with other churches, locally and globally, and also about working together with schools, community groups, people, organisations, others beyond the church for the common good, peace and justice, for the causes of the Kingdom.  It’s about loving our neighbours as ourselves.  The first letter of John says, “Those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” – whether they are part of the church or not.  Where love is, God is, and we need to be working with God wherever his Spirit is working.

Now partnership can take many different forms.  Can we think of a few famous partnerships real and fictional?   Batman and Robin, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Torville and Dean, Tom and Jerry, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, Superman and Lois Lane, Anthony and Cleopatra, Morecombe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy, Marge and Homer Simpson.  Can you think of any more? …

What makes these partnerships work (or not work in some cases)?  Love for one another?  Ability to compromise, or inability to do so.  Inability to see beyond their own interests and desires tends to lead to comical disaster.  But in the cases of good and effective partnerships, the two working together are far funnier, far stronger, far more effective at what they aim to achieve.  Mother Teresa said, “You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together, we can do great things.”  It wasn’t Mother Teresa who single-handedly blessed the slums of Calcutta.  It was her whole community of nuns and them working together with others in their community and other supporters around the world.

There is an amazing power in partnership that goes beyond addition to multiplication.  This principle of partnership is found over and over in the New Testament.  In fact, the word “saint” appears ninety-nine times in the New Testament…and it is always plural. Every time you read the word it is “saints,” because you can’t have just one.  A saint ain’t! Saints come in groups of two or more.  What other things only come in plurals?  Trousers, pants.  I don’t know if you can think of any others?  Just as you can’t have a trouser, you can’t have a saint or a Christian.  We are part of one another.

Every Sunday morning a complex of partnerships is taking place, St Paul describes the church as a body and, just as within the human body, there are many different parts and many different functions in the church. Yet, they all work together to make the body of the church alive and active. We are all in partnership with one another.

On a typical Sunday our different churches each have a number of people doing various things.  What do we need every single Sunday?  A minister or worship leader of some sorts, readers, organist (or other musicians), choir members and those who sing up in the congregation, churchwardens or stewards, welcomers, childrens’ group leaders or helpers, coffee makers and servers, flower arrangers, cleaners, those who lead the prayers, servers, the list could go on. All of us need to be in partnership every Sunday so that we can worship God, share fellowship with each other, and grow as Christians.  And that’s just Sunday.

And partnership is also about working with other churches, other denominations – we are all part of the church – the body of Christ.  There is only one body of Christ.  In using this image St Paul was saying we belong together, different individuals and different churches.  The sadness of the division of denominations is that it’s a bit like disparate body parts trying to function without each other, as if a random collection of noses, ears, eyes, limbs, organs and so forth were trying to manage without one another.  Paul says even if one part does say, ‘I’m not part of the body’ it doesn’t for that reason cease to be part.  Just because we think we can manage alone – as individuals or as churches – doesn’t mean we’re less ridiculous than we are – disembodies noses etc.

In our little sketch at the beginning – the hand didn’t want to be the nose because it sneezed – do parts of one body really find one another unsavoury?  Even if they do, do you really cut off your nose to spite your face?  The hand may find the nose snotty and disgusting but the whole body will feel worse if the hand doesn’t get involved wiping the nose!  And the whole body gains from what the nose can tell it – avoiding disgusting smelly things and enjoying lovely smells.

We are ridiculous when Evangelicals find Liberals unsavoury or vice versa – when Catholic quarrels with Protestant, when Anglicans try to get on without Methodists and vice versa.  We do have our distinctive identities – if the whole body were a nose, even though it were perfectly united it would also be ridiculous – I’m not saying we don’t need or shouldn’t have our respective churches, but if we don’t work together when we can or should the body of Christ locally and nationally and internationally is harmed.

How we work in partnership with other churches is important.  It’s going to become a really live issue for us at St Laurence’s in the near future as we have to combine with the Cloughton Cluster of parishes and St Mark’s and St Luke’s.  You Methodists are in many ways a step ahead of us in this, the issues of how you relate to other churches in your circuit and wider area are things you have been working with for many, many years.  Like members of one body our separate churches and denominations have their own identities but they are parts belonging to each other – that should be working together.  If we only stick to our own church and never attend a joint service or go to another venue to join with our fellow body parts we’re like a body with a nasty disease – something like motor neurone disease where nerves don’t carry messages from one part to another properly.  Such a body becomes ill.  Together we form one body and each member belongs to all the others.

This also affects how we work financially – certainly within our denominations.  Because we are one body – or seek to be – there is a financial interdependence.  I’m not sure how it works in the Methodist church – I suspect it’s similar – but in the Anglican church the parish share system reflects this idea of partnership.  All churches pay to a central pot – those that are able pay more, those that are less able pay less.  And in that way churches that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a minister can have one.  Having said that, the system is breaking down somewhat as there isn’t enough money coming in.  The system is changing so that instead of paying a levy worked out somewhere else, each parish looks at what the ministry it receives costs, how much it can afford, and makes an offer – hopefully in a spirit of partnership in the gospel with other churches – other members of the body of Christ.  There are all sorts of practical flaws with the idea and we’ll have see how it works, but the spiritual thinking behind it is good.  It’s supposed to make this idea of partnership in the body of Christ much more part of our thinking as churches.  It will only only work if we’re growing in our idea of partnership with other churches.

As I mentioned earlier though this idea of Christians and churches growing in partnership is wider than just Christians working together.  It’s also about working in partnership with others in our community to achieve something that we cannot do alone.  If, for example we are going to have a significant impact on relieving poverty in and around Scarborough we will need to work together with other charities, with community groups, with council and government agencies.

Clare would be able to tell you much more about the work on Barrowcliffe for instance.  Working with the residents association there, with the childrens’ centre, with the school, the police, the council.  Things are happening because of this partnership which the churches, even working together, could not achieve.  A foodbank that can give out food parcels to struggling families is taking shape – in partnership with the Rainbow Centre, the children’s centre – other groups.  Taking what we have learned in being partners in our churches, between our churches, we can extend the reach of the body of Christ and work with the Holy Spirit, who is often at work far beyond the boundaries of our churches.

Partnership with others brings strength.  Research shows that diverse churches tend to grow. Where there are people of differing ages, gender, backgrounds and ethnicity a new creativity is often born.  Paul and Timothy’s partnership showed everyone how God could produce unity through diversity. Timothy had a Greek father and Paul was a Jew, but they worked in superb harmony to demonstrate how the Spirit blends diverse backgrounds through Christ. One of the characteristics of effective partnerships is complementarity: that’s a big word!  It means our differences complement one another.  Different people bring different gifts to the task. Diversity can be a tension – our differences don’t always sit comfortably together, but as long as people value one another, it is usually a creative tension.

We, here today, are already in partnership as churches.  Could we be more so?  Could we grow in partnership?  Could we grow in partnership within our churches – each part of the body contributing to the purposes of the whole?  What part could you play?  What partnerships could we make with others in our community that would further the cause of the Kingdom of God?

A living body is either growing or it is declining.  Let’s not be content with the level of partnership we have already within our churches or between them or with other churches.  Let’s seek to grow in partnership, for then we will be growing in Christ.

27.1.13 – Alastair – 10:30am Joint Service at Scalby Methodists’

Sermon – Growing in Numbers

Romans 10:1-15 and Matthew 28:16-20

Word with the Children

– Is this stone growing?  Why not?
– Is this (pot plant) plant growing?  Why?
– Is this plant growing (wilting rose!!)  Why not?
– Can you think of other things that grow?
– If I said something is growing, what do I mean?  If I say a tree is growing, what do I mean?  … It’s getting bigger.
– Today we’re thinking about growing the church.  Not growing the building.  The church is not the building – the church is the people.  If the building fell down the church would be wherever we – the people here – met.  Did you know that…?  You are the church – and you and you and you – not the building.  So even though the building remains the same the church can still grow.  It can grow if you grow – but how else can it grow?  If there are more of us.  We want the church to grow.  Jesus wants his church to grow.  He wants there to be more of us.  He wants this building to be fuller.
– How can that happen?  How can we get more people to come to church?  More people to be Christians – to be friends of Jesus?

Here’s something to think about…  If you invited just one person to come to church and they came, and kept coming, what difference would it make.  The church would grow … by one person.  But what if everyone here invited just one person to church and they came, and kept coming?  That can’t be that difficult, surely?  But we’d be full!  Could we think about who we could invite to come to church?

What would happen, then, if those new people invited more people to come?  I have here a chess board and some Duplo bricks.  The chessboard is the church – the bricks are the people.  If we start on square one with one brick – that’s one person.  The one person invites one more.  How many is that?  Two. Put them on the next square.  Now there’s two people in my chessboard church.  Now if those two invite one each – two more.  So on the 3rd square 4 – and so on. 4th 8, 5th 16, 6th 32, 7th 64, 8th 128.  If you start a church with one person and if each one invites someone else who comes – just one person invited and coming per year.  That’s not hard is it?  In 8 years you’d have 128 people.  But if we say we started with 100 – sometimes we have 100 here at our 10am service – if they all invited one person per year and they came, we’d have 12,800 people here!!! Actually it’d be way more than that, but I can’t do the maths!  Back to the chess board church – if those 128 kept on inviting one each, each year for another 8 years, that is by the end of the 2nd row – 16 years – there would be 32,768 bricks there.   By the end of the next row 8 million, 388 thousand, 608!  Before you got to the end of the chess board our bricks would reach to the moon and everyone on earth would be a Christian.

Of course it’s more complicated than that.  But if each of us made just a little effort to grow the church it would be massive very quickly.  I think that would be wonderful.  Jesus wants his church to grow.


Today we’re finishing our series of services reflecting on growing the church – about transforming the churches of our Diocese into what the Archbishop calls ‘Generous Churches Making and Nurturing Disciples’.  We have thought a lot about other ways the church can grow, growing in Christlikeness – our church members becoming more like Jesus – Growing in Commitment – each of us being more committed to Jesus and to the work of the church, so our faith isn’t just an add-on leisure activity we do on Sundays.  Growing in Partnership with each other, with other Christians and churches, and with other community groups.  Growing in influence – in the effect we can have in our local communities.  To my mind each one of these grows out of the one before.  The more Christ-like we become the more committed we will be.  The more committed, the more we will work in partnership with others and the more influence we will have.  But all this is all very well, because, as the children will tell you, normally what we mean by saying that something is growing is that we mean it is getting bigger.  Isn’t that the bottom line?  Actually I don’t think it is, but if the rest were really true I don’t see how the church would get smaller.  Genuinely Christ-like, committed churches, working in partnership, influence their local communities, and grow in numbers.

Jesus’ last recorded command, which we heard in our second reading, was to make disciples.  In our first reading we heard St Paul being passionate about the fact that he wanted his fellow Israelites to be saved – that is to come to Jesus the Saviour.   “But how can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  … How beautiful are the feet of them that bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to others!”

I don’t think Paul was talking about ‘preaching’ in the sense in which I’m doing it now.  He was talking about the Roman Christians he was writing to, sharing their faith with others.  And that’s not complicated.  It’s being willing to say to someone, “This is important to me.  Why don’t you come to church – or to some church group or event – and see for yourself?”  Why do we find that so difficult?  In the past few years there are some new folk who have come to church and stuck because of what Marion or myself have said to them.  There are more who have come because of what others have said to them.  But what if we all were involved?  It needn’t be in a big way – just remember the Duplo bricks.  And remember you are the church – not just those who wear dog collars or are licensed Readers.

I don’t think we should be shy about our aims to increase the number of people associated with church, as worshippers and disciples.  If a church is growing in numbers, it is usually because it is focusing on the other Marks of Growing we have been thinking of. Increasing numbers is often a sign of spiritual health and it certainly increases the Church’s potential and capacity to do God’s work in the wider community.

It is not just about numbers though.  We could grow the church by false pretences.  Saying, ‘Come to Jesus and he will do miracles for you and make you rich and magically protect you from all harm and so forth’ – who wouldn’t want that kind of guarantee?  There are some churches – mostly in city centres – which preach this sort of thing – what has been described as the Prosperity Gospel – and accompanied with lots of money and state of the art technology and music groups and presentation techniques they become very attractive and grow very quickly.  But I’m not sure it’s Christianity – it’s more like materialism at prayer.  Not that we shouldn’t use the best techniques available if we can resource them, to make the good news accessible to a new generation, but if we’re not going to be honest with folk that the way of following Jesus can be a hard road at times, I’m not sure it’s Christian.

It’s not just about numbers.  The fastest multiplying cell in the body is the cancer cell.  Growth in numbers cannot be the be all and end all – it must be accompanied by the other forms of growth we’ve been thinking about, or it’s not really the church that we end up growing.  But having said that, not growing in numbers is, I think, a sign that something is lacking.  And, to be honest, numbers have not been growing here – at least not at traditional church services.  In my 7 and a half years here the average Sunday attendance at all services, taking the 8am service and Evensong into account, has gone down by about 10-15 people.    But… if we factor in things like Messy Church and non-traditional elements, we are growing in numbers, quite considerably, so don’t get depressed – but let’s not get complacent either.

Evangelism – sharing our faith – is part of the calling of every Christian.  It is Jesus’ Great Commission – not just to his 12 disciples, but to us all.  But ‘evangelism’ can be a dirty word.  It can be done, and has been done, badly at times in the past.  I went through a phase of thinking evangelism was something you wouldn’t do to a cockroach or a rat!  To treat a fellow human being as evangelism-fodder – to be interested in them if you thought there was some chance of getting them to church in order to boost our fragile egos – but dropping them if they weren’t interested – that just isn’t Christian love.  We Anglicans are still a little bit nervous of the ‘E’ word, I think for that sort of reason. It seems un-British to be too in-your-face.  But of course it all depends on what we mean by ‘Evangelism’.  Just because evangelism can be done badly, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our faith.  Just because the bath water is dirty – don’t throw out the baby with it.  Inviting someone to church doesn’t have to involve feeling awkward and shunning that person if they don’t come!!  You can, and should, go on being friends with them, respecting their reasons for not coming.

Numbers are important. We’re assured by Jesus that whatever assails the Church, it will survive, to the end of the age (Matthew 16.18 says, “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”).  But visit Turkey (where most of the churches St Paul ministered to in the early days of Christianity) and you quickly see that Jesus’ promise is no guarantee that any particular church or group of churches will go on forever. 2000 years later, are we in Western Europe heading down the same road?  It’s an uncomfortable thought and is sometimes countered by the disparaging, dismissive phrase: ‘we shouldn’t be too concerned about bums on pews’. But that’s too easy.  We need people in our churches if we’re to maintain the structures and do the work in our society that God would have us do – as well as prayer and worship.

The gospel of Jesus Christ really is good news. It doesn’t promise an easy life, but it does promise a full life – one lived in relationship with God – life as it was intended, by God, to be.  It is worth sharing.  We avoid the trap of doing evangelism only to massage our egos if we understand that we’re not wishing to add to the Church for our sake but for the sake of those we’re trying to reach with the gospel.  It really will bless them.

So how do we go about growing in numbers?  It really can be as simple as I described with the children – being willing to invite someone – to say, ‘come and see’.  But there are other things we could do as a church too.  In Matthew 28.16-20 Jesus makes it clear that the gospel must be proclaimed. This means using words. But it means using other tools too. Evangelism can be as much about record-keeping as preaching.

Here’s a silly little made-up story. Bill and Brenda have retired from fulltime work and offer their services to the vicar, who responds: ‘We must grow in numbers – the Archbishop says so. So what I’d like you to do is to walk up and down wearing a sandwich board, declaring that Jesus loves everyone – and hand out tracts which spell out the message.’
Well of course the vicar didn’t say this. What she did say was: ‘We have a lot of young families through our church via baptism and we don’t follow them up. Would you be willing to go through the church records and on the anniversary of every baptism send out a small present for five years following each baptism. Something that every child and family would appreciate. And then in early December please send a personal letter to those families, inviting them to the Christingle Service – or at some other time inviting them to an All Age Service.’ In the same way we are wise to keep – and to use – records of those who have funerals and weddings here, and of children who attend Messy Church and so on.  Record keeping can be a means of evangelism.  One we already use for funerals through the Barnabas group.  We keep records of most of these things, but we are in need of folk to follow them up.

Another powerful means of evangelism is simple pastoral care. A few years ago, Bishop John Finney undertook research into the way people come to Christian faith in Britain today. One key factor was good pastoral care. People who felt cared for by the church came to be part of the church.  We all love to be loved! As every pastor knows this is time-consuming and energy-sapping but it is one of the reasons for having a Church.  If the Church is to declare good news it must first be good news. This doesn’t mean that clergy should become chaplains to their congregations; it does mean that they, together with the PCC, should ensure that the church has good systems in place to ensure that everyone – including members who are no longer attend – feel wanted and a part of the body of Christ.  We have some who visit on behalf of the church already.  We could do with more and we could do with some more organising energy in this area.

There are other means of evangelism.  Hospitality is another.  Social events.  Contact with schools.  Running groups for seekers – those who are interested in exploring faith.  Done the right way, with care and sensitivity, door to door visiting and inviting can still have its place.  The list could go on and on.  We do many of these things already, and would like to extend them.  We are inundated with good ideas, but not with people who will be the foot soldiers and organisers.  “…how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”  As Jesus said once, “The fields are white unto harvest.  Pray the Lord of the harvest therefore, to send workers out into his harvest field.”

Britain is a tough mission field. I remember talking with Patrick Mukholi, our former CMS link partner from Kenya who was working in Oxford.  He was finding it tough here.  He told me that in his own country he could easily establish and grow flourishing churches. Over here people were resistant, apathetic, over-busy. But here we are the exception rather than the rule.  The worldwide Church is growing – fast. It flourishes in some surprising places, including China.  It remains true that the Christian Church is the largest movement that our world has ever known.  I don’t say that out of superiority or complacency; it is simply to note a significant fact.  Jesus’ promise remains true.  “I will build my church.”  Are we willing to hear his call to play our part in that?

Alastair – 17.2.13 – St Laurence’s, 10am Morning Worship