The Silver Bullet of Gospel Growth – Not Having a Building

centrifugal-vs-centripetalI’ve been putting together the preaching programme for next term. And we’re heading back into the book of Acts. We won’t finish it this time round. But it’ll take us into uncharted territory as we progress through chapters 14-20. And some of that will be hugely encouraging as we trace the spread of the gospel through 1st Century Europe.

One of the things that I’ve had my eye on as I’ve read through these chapters is Paul’s missionary strategy for reaching people with the good news of the gospel. It seems as though he had a twofold strategy. He went first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. In other words, for as long as he was able he preached the gospel in the religious institutions of the day. He ran Christianity Explored in the synagogue while he could get away with it. But sooner or later that became unwelcome. And he was kicked out. But it didn’t matter. Paul then concentrated on taking the gospel to the irreligious; the Gentiles. To that end he was forced to use other buildings. If the gospel wasn’t welcomed by the religious establishment he’d have to use secular space. In Corinth he made much use of the house of Titius Justus, a God fearing convert. And in Ephesus he hired the Hall of Tyrannus (a person not a place).

There are clear parallels with our own situation at Christ Church Balham (CCB). We do not have a building. Our gospel ministry is not welcomed by some of the religious establishment. Historically the Diocese of Southwark and some local churches find our biblical  convictions and patterns of ministry offensive and have refused us use of their buildings (even though some of them are dying on their feet).

Our situation here at CCB is not that dissimilar to that faced by Paul. We meet in many locations. We meet in a (currently) ropey but in the fullness of time shiny new school hall in the morning, we meet in a dark and occasionally distracting pub function room in the evening, we meet in homes midweek for Growth Groups, we meet in a drama studio for ‘Knowing God’ and we meet in a curry house for the ‘One Life Suppers’.  That’s terrific. It gets the gospel out of the four walls of a church building and into the local community. And I have to keep telling myself that. Because as a recent post has  revealed, I occasionally hanker after a building, convinced that it’s the silver bullet to church growth. But it didn’t seem to be in Paul’s day. The gospel seemed to get along alright without the church’s need to call a place their own. And I have to keep telling myself that too! It’s no secret that I’d love us to have a permanent base in Balham. There are things that I think we could do that we can’t do at the moment. For example, I imagine ‘Boppers‘ would be easier with our own space in which to store the toys and a kitchen from which to serve an arresting array of homemade baking options! But I strongly suspect that one of the things that we’d continually have to fight against is the building-centric dynamic that would very quickly become the norm. I fear that we’d fall into a pattern of centring everything on getting people to come to our building rather jettisoning people out into the community. Our challenge is to continually remind ourselves that we’re meant to be a centrifugal church rather than a centripetal one (see diagram above for Physics lesson). In other words not merely sucking non-Christians into our building and church life but spitting Christians out from our building and church life. We must never become a holy huddle that retreat to the safety of our bunker to escape from the hostility of ‘the world’. If we ever have a building it’ll be nothing more than a base camp from which we strike out to explore the community around us and hit them with the good news of the gospel of peace.

There are implications to not having a building, of course. We’re unlikely to reach those who are keen for church to take place in church buildings. Obviously. And that’s ok. We can’t do everything. There are churches near us that can provide for people like that. St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting is a Church of England one that I wholeheartedly recommend. And Trinity Road Chapel is an FIEC alternative. But CCB can reach people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church building.

And that’s our challenge.

Three Ways to Grow A Church

growthWhat is it that makes churches grow?

Is it down to their buildings? The music? The location? The leader? The preaching? The style of their meetings? Their website? Which factors combine to create the elusive growth dynamic and ensure that the numbers are on an ever upward curve?

I preached on Acts 11 a few weeks ago. Cracking sermon. Small crowd (just a reminder that growth isn’t necessarily automatic!) But in Acts, the church in Antioch grew. God grew it. And He did it using three factors.

Without these we won’t grow. At least we won’t get biblical growth. With them, we may grow. That’s up to God. But these are three factors that He invariably uses.

1. God grew the church in Antioch through evangelism on the ground (19-21)

In Acts 8  God’s way of getting Christians out of one geographical location so that they could share the gospel in another was persecution. It’s an unusual missional strategy. But an effective one. And as a result, Christians ended up travelling as far as Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), Cyprus (modern-day venue for package holidays) and Antioch (modern-day Turkey). As these Christians fanned out across the Eastern Mediterranean, they shared the gospel. But their evangelism had a narrow focus. They went only to Jews. The idea that the gospel was good news for the world was slow to catch on. But some enterprising men from Cyprus and Cyrene understood that Jesus had died for the sins of the world, not simply the Jews. And so they employed a very different strategy. They went to Greeks. This was deliberate cross cultural mission. And it was the first time it had happened in the history of the Christian church. They intentionally reached into a very different culture from their own in order to share the gospel. The Lord clearly thought this missionary endeavour was a good thing because He blessed their efforts (21). And this church grew. And it happened simply through evangelism on the ground. It was carried out by unnamed church members. Luke doesn’t say who they were. They were just the normal men and women of the church family sharing their faith in the Lord Jesus. And so this was a church that grew through the evangelistic efforts of everyday church members on the ground.

2. God grew the church in Antioch through encouragement from the side (22-24)

What happened in Antioch was so remarkable that the church back at Jerusalem HQ decided to send an envoy. They sent Barnabas. And I think they knew exactly what they were doing when they sent a guy whose name meant ‘son of encouragement’. When Barnabas saw the undeniable evidence of the grace of God, he took it upon himself to encourage the church. But his encouragement had a particular shape to it. It wasn’t that he was generally encouraging (though I’m sure he was). His encouragement had a specific purpose. He encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He urged and exhorted them to steadfast wholehearted loyalty to the Lord Jesus. What a blessing this man must have been to the church! That’s the kind of encouragement that I need. And I suspect it’s the same for you, isn’t it? I need people in my life who are there for me when I’m tempted to half-hearted discipleship. It can be a very powerful thing when one person takes it upon themselves to encourage another. So ask yourself, is there someone in your small group who could benefit from some encouragement? There will always be people who are les mature in their faith than we are whom we can encourage. This is something that every single one of us can do.  Imagine how much better you’d live the Christian life if everyone around you was roaring on their support! Imagine how much difference we could make if we were as positive and as vocal in our encouragement as we sometimes are with our criticism! Churches can grow through encouragement from the side.

3. God grew the church in Antioch through education from the front  (25-26)

Very quickly Barnabas realised that he needed outside help. And so he went to Tarsus to get Saul. It takes a big man to admit that a church needs more than he can manage. Whether he realised that the workload was beyond him or that he was out of his depth, we’re not sure. But he knew that this church needed a teacher because they needed educating from the front. And so this church grew because they had at least one gifted teacher. The New Testament takes it for granted that churches will appoint senior, godly men to instruct them. Churches need people who can spend time studying the scriptures for themselves so that they can teach those scriptures to others. In Ephesians 4, Paul makes it clear that pastor-teachers equip the rest of the church body for diverse works of service so that the church can reach maturity, unity and stability. And so churches need teachers to explain and apply the truth of the gospel. When that happens, men and women like Barnabas know what to say to encourage others to wholehearted service of Christ. And every church member then knows how to explain the gospel. Churches need gifted teachers with time to teach. And we need to access good teaching.

Every single church member has a crucial part to play in the growth of their church. All of us can contribute. We can all get involved in sharing the gospel on the ground. We can encourage one another from the side to keep serving Christ. We can demand andwelcome teaching from the front. The ‘formula for growth’ is actually very simple. And so we’ll send our forthcoming Streatham plant off with little more than a leader, some people and a Bible. And we’ll send them off with every confidence that God can use that to grow them if He so chooses.

Growing an Urban Church

The volume of literature written on the subject of church growth is mountainous. Put ‘church growth’ into Amazon and it recommends 3,945 books!  No doubt I’ll be able to spend eternity working out what I should have done. But in essence it’s actually very simple. There are three very straightforward things to do in order to grow a church in an urban environment.

1. Throw open the doors!

We want people who don’t normally come to our church to start coming to our church. That can happen in one of two ways. First, people who currently go to one church leave that and start coming to ours. That’s called transfer growth. I’m alright with that if people are moving into our area or leaving behind a church which doesn’t live by the Bible. But it’s not really kingdom growth is it? It’s just shifting Christians round the chess board! Secondly, people who don’t currently go to any church start coming to our church and come to faith. That’s called evangelistic growth. It’s the best kind! When people become Christians it means that God’s kingdom grows. We’re not simply redistributing the Christians.

Everyone in a church can be involved in ‘throwing open the doors’ by persuading people to come to church. Persuasion isn’t coercion, so we’re not doing anything inappropriate. Persuasion attempts to address the will and change it; coercion bypasses the will and forces its hand. We need to try and persuade people without the inclination to come to church to change their minds and give it a go. But when was the last time you persuaded someone of something? If you’re out of practice try it on your kids or your friends! Have a go at convincing them to do something they don’t want to do; like coming to church.

2. Offer them a home!

We want people to feel that when they’ve come to church, they’ve found a home. We want people to belong. And so we’ll not only want to welcome them but we’ll want to help them fit in. Consequently relationships are crucial.

Everyone in a church can be involved in ‘offering a home’ by being involved in church life. We can participate in groups and events and, most importantly, relationships with newcomers. So one of the key things we can do is pitch up. If we’re not at church then we can’t encourage others and we can’t contribute to the building up of the church body. If we’re not there it’s like losing an arm from the body. We’ll get by but it won’t function as well as if we’re there. If six families happen to be away at the same time that has a huge effect on the congregation that’s left. We’re talking about being 20 people down on normal, once you take into account the kids as well. That affects a congregation. Of course, people have weekend commitments from time to time. If we live away from parents and family we’ll need to be away to visit them. And let’s be honest, the concept of arranging when we’re away with others is just weird. So what’s the answer? I’m not sure. But we need to be aware that, in general, a crowd attracts a crowd and so the growth of our congregation will be slower than if we were all there. Since relationships are at the heart of offering people a home, another significant way we can make a difference is by sharing meals together. Let’s face it, we bond as we eat and we share conversation. It doesn’t matter how chaotic the experience or how horrendous the meal we serve, let’s get others into our homes or sharing a table at Pizza Express. There are some great 2 for 1 offers at the moment!

3. Stem the flow!

We want people to stay. Not everyone will be able to stay in the city long term but some will. There are always reasons for people to move out of town. Sometimes those are good reasons. Sometimes they’re not. Staying put requires sacrifice and we won’t all be able to live with the sacrifice. Of course, if people move away it cancels out the growth of our church, though presumably another church will benefit. At CCB we’ve lost some key families in recent months for really good reasons. But it’s had an effect on our all age congregation. That’s why sometimes it feels like we’re taking three steps forward and two steps back!

Everyone in a church can be involved in ‘stemming the flow’ by shelving our desires to leave the city, or at least delaying them for a while. It doesn’t have to be forever, but if we were thinking of leaving next year why not stay for one more year. If we thought we’d stay for two more years why not make it four! Of course, the recession may be an answer to our prayers! Urban churches will always be churches in which people leave. It’s in the nature of urban ministry. And urban ministries can serve the wider church by sending out people ready to make a contribution at whichever church they end up in. That’s a great ministry. But we also need to ensure that we’re growing and building the kingdom where we are.

I know it’s more complicated than what I’ve suggested. Presumably that’s why there are so many books on the subject. But it’s not rocket science, is it? If we open the front doors and let people in, if we give people a home and help them settle in and then we stem the flow so that fewer people leave than arrive then, well, you do the maths! I think it means growth.

Every individual has a part to play. And isn’t it great to be doing this with others? We should be encouraged. The Lord can use our efforts for His glory in growing us, not simply in maturity but in number, if we’ll commit to these three simple principles. Well that’s the theory, now for the practice!