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