How can we grow the church? In what ways are we tempted? In what ways do those temptations lead us away from growth, personal and corporate? This sermon was inspired by a day conference led by Bob Jackson, on growing our churches.
Can you imagine? 40 days of scorching heat, even in the shade. 40 nights of numbing cold. And that wasn’t even the hard part. No, the hard part was the inner wrestling, the mental struggle, getting over the desire to do things the easy way and instead do things the right way.
In the 6 weeks up to Easter as a church we have a season of preparation, a chance to look again at ourselves and come once more to God. And as part of showing that we make some changes to our worship. We don’t have flowers in church, we have purple coloured hangings, we don’t sing the gloria in communion services. Little reminders of the call to spend more time with God, more time seeking his will. Which of course is what fasting is about. And during these 6 weeks we focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross, we remember again why he died for us, to show us God’s love. And we celebrate God’s gift of new life at Easter when we remember once again that God brought Jesus back from the dead.
So at the beginning of Lent we think about the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus was tempted to misuse his power. He was tempted to misuse his power to help himself, to get more power, to reveal his power to others. Instead, he chose the path of loyalty, service, and humility.
But one of the questions that Jesus raises for me is: what temptations do I struggle with? And, what temptations do we as a church struggle with? I want to suggest some of those temptations that we might be struggling with.
Complacency. The temptation to think or act like things are basically going OK. Alright, there might be things that we can do a bit better, but essentially we’re on the right track. If we keep on with things as they are then they’ll turn out OK in the end. Which might lead us to the temptation of Resistance to change. We don’t like change. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like things that are different.
Another temptation is Apathy. A lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. As a church we can be tempted to be apathetic about all sorts of things. About our community and the problems that people in it face, about our church, and, most importantly of all, about God. God and church can become just another thing that we do, just another club we belong to.
We can also be tempted to Despair. Even if we are not complacent, we can fall into the trap of despairing, of feeling that there is no hope, that things won’t get better, that all change is bad.
A few of us went to the Deanery Conference yesterday. It was very good and was led by Bob Jackson, a former Archdeacon and Growth Officer. Bob helpfully reminded us of what growth is about. Growth is about growth in our depth of faith, our relationship with God. Growth is about growth in our ability to serve, about our ability to practically show God’s love. And, yes, growth is also about growth in the number of people growing in their faith and ability to serve. So, growth in depth, growth in service and growth in numbers.
Bob also talked about 3 things that can help us overcome those temptations, 3 pieces of wisdom about church growth. These are being intentional, being prayerful, and being focused.
As a church we need to be intentional. We need to have a God-given vision of what we as a church are being called to be. We need to have a strategy for how we are going to reach that vision. We need to be intentional about working for growth, not simply doing the same things in the same way because that’s how we like it, or because that what used to work, or because that’s what we think other people will want. So, as a church, and as individuals we need to be intentional. We need to intend to grow, we need to seek God’s helping Holy Spirit so that we, as individuals and as a church grow, in our depth of faith and our ability to serve. And, as a church, grow numerically as well.
As a church we need to be prayerful. These changes, these intentions need to be from God and focused on God. How do we resist temptation? By changing the subject! By focusing on God instead. Notice how Jesus resisted temptation. He quoted Scripture. He changed the subject to God. And, all three of his quotes come from Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 8. Jesus was reading the Bible and applying it to his life. With God’s help, with the help of the Holy Spirit guiding us, that’s what we can do as well, as individuals and as a church. We need to focus on God through prayer so that we are guided by him. So, we are having a service of Prayer and Compline on 13th March at 7:30pm and we’ll be having services on Wednesday at 11:30am throughout Lent, to give us extra chances to prayer, to lift things to God and to seek his guidance.
As a church we need to be focused. But, Bob warned us, not on growth. That’s God’s job! We need to be focused on the quality of what we do. That’s why the PCC is focusing on enriching our worship, on looking at how our worship together can help us meet with God and be transformed by him. That’s why we need to focus on the church building, so that we worship somewhere where we are not distracted by the cold or noise or discomfort. We need to be focused on the quality.
Last year, a journalist asked a Toyota spokesperson “How important is your target of selling 10 million cars this year?”. The spokesperson replied “The numbers are a result of our policy of making fine products.” Toyota is focusing on making fine products and so sold 9.9 million cars last year.
So as a church and as individuals we need to be intentional, prayerful, and focused on quality. Why? Because of what we heard in the reading from Romans “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. Everyone. That is why we are called not to give in to the temptation to complacency. We are the parish church of Swadlincote. We are called to care for the whole of our parish, for everyone within our parish. We have about 100 names on our Electoral Roll, about 100 people who consider themselves members. There’s about 7,000 people in the parish of Swadlincote, and about 35,000 in the town of Swadlincote. That fact alone should keep us from the temptation of complacency.
And that should also keep us from the temptation to resist change. One of the other things that Bob Jackson challenged us with yesterday is that churches that don’t change shrink, and churches that do change grow. Of course the changes have to be the right ones, of course those changes have to be the ones that God is calling us to make. And, yes, change is hard. And, yes, some of the changes that are suggested will be wrong, will be mistakes. But, let us start with the prayerful belief that God is calling us to change, calling us to change in our own lives and in the common life of our church. God is calling us on the adventure of a journey with him, and, like Jesus we can be led by the Spirit.
As I’ve said, during Lent we journey with Jesus towards the cross, and then at Easter beyond the cross to the resurrection. That is the adventure that we are called to be a part of, the adventure of being transformed by a loving God, so that we can be a part of transforming the world that God loves.
And for that reason we should be able to keep away from the temptation of apathy. The temptation to think that this isn’t important enough, or that we’re not good enough, or young enough, or wise enough, or holy enough to make a difference. I’m pretty sure that by now you’ll have your own personal list of ways I’m not something or other enough. That’s one of the reasons why we’re not called to do this alone. We’re called to do it together, to ‘spur one another on in good deeds’ as the writer of Hebrews puts it. Together, we are the body of Christ. Individually, God is calling us to get involved, to make use of the skills and gifts that he has given each of us in his kingdom and for his kingdom.
Of course, even if we avoid those other temptations we might fall into perhaps the worst temptation on this list, that of despair. We can despair that there’s over 6,000 people in the parish who don’t yet call on the name of the Lord, who don’t know God’s love and God’s concern for them. We can despair that things aren’t the way they used to be. We can despair that we can’t see things getting better.
But, we know “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame”. We can trust in God. But, what does that mean? We can trust in God to do what? Well, we can’t trust God not to lead us to places that are difficult. We can’t trust God not to take us to places where we’d rather not be.
But, like Jesus, we can trust that God will be there with us. We can trust that God will help us. We can trust that God understands our temptations, understands our doubts and hesitations and weaknesses. We can trust that God understands our reluctance. And we can trust that God will lead us through those wildernesses, through our own Calvarys, to new life, to new abundant life, to more of the sort of life that God longs us to have.
Because, it is God that grows his kingdom, it is God that grows his Church. We can work for God’s kingdom, we can work for growth in his Church. We can prepare the ground and sow and water the seed, and tend the plant, and help it to flourish. But it is God that sends the growth. We can resist the temptation to despair by knowing what is our responsibility and what isn’t.
We can resist those temptations because God sends us his Holy Spirit. We’re going to pick up some of these things on Tuesday at PCC, so please pray for us. We’re going to pick up some of these things over the next few weeks and months as we seek to become the church that God wants us to be, as we seek to flourish under God’s love and care, as we seek to journey together and with God. This Lent, let us seek to do that, together. Amen.