Size doesn’t matter!

July 5, 2009

( 2 Cor. 12, 2-10; Mark 6,1-13 )

Do you remember the ad for the Renault Clio with the slogan “Size matters!”. They were talking about cars – but the church gets het up about size too. Every so often a set of church statistics is published which purports to show declining congregations and church membership, often coupled with gloomy forecasts that churches will close and the Christian religion will cease to exist in the UK in about 30 years time. But, on the other hand, there are claims from one wing or other of the church that only churches advocating their sort of Christianity are ‘growing’, and, by implication, that this proves  their version of the Gospel is ‘right’.

I sometimes wonder if people who talk about size and success in relation to the Christian faith have ever really read their New Testament.

Look at the passage we heard from 2 Corinthians. This shows Paul far from being the honoured founding father of the church in Corinth that we imagine. His position is under challenge from so-called ‘super apostles’ who argue that Paul can’t possibly  be  major church leader: he doesn’t do miraculous signs, he hasn’t had a great spiritual experience, he doesn’t preach great sermons – he doesn’t even look the part!

In response, Paul  talks about his visions as if they happened to someone else, and boasts of his weakness. The whole passage is enigmatic. We don’t know what he means when he talks of being taken up to the third heaven. Is it closer or further away from God than the  “seventh heaven” which we often speak of as absolute bliss? We have no idea. Paul also doesn’t give us any details of his “thorn in the flesh”. We don’t know whether it was a physical ailment, or some sort of neurosis or mental disturbance, or even a family problem. All we do know is that he has eventually come to see it as a gift from God, to prevent him from getting too big-headed about his own success.

In his letter, he parodies the complaints of the ‘super apostles’ about him, and boasts of his own weakness, and the insults, hardships, persecution and calamities he has suffered for the sake of Christ. And why? Because Christ shows us a God revealed in weakness – in a man put to death as a criminal on a cross.

What we can take from this passage is comfort.  It tells us that even the giants of the faith have good days and bad days: times when they are in the third heaven and feel really close to God, and other times when they are in despair, in pain, when their relationships with their congregations have all gone wrong, and they feel hopeless and desolate.

This gives us the assurance us that it doesn’t mean you are a bad Christian, it doesn’t mean you are not doing God’s work, if you happen to get ill, or you lose your job, or you get depressed, or your family life is less than perfect. Only God knows  the true significance of such experiences, and God alone is is the judge of our success. Flashy events and big numbers are not necessarily the mark of success in a church  which follows a crucified Saviour.

Our Gospel reading ( like much in Mark’s Gospel) shows that even Jesus himself did not have what we would think of as ‘success’ in his ministry. He was rejected by the religious authorities of his time, by his family ( who thought he was mad! ) and even by the people of his own town. They are impressed at first, but when worldly considerations come to be taken into account ( “he’s only one of us; his father was a carpenter; his brothers and sisters are nothing special; who is he to be putting on airs?”) they turn against him and drive him out. In a way, this passage is  a true life example of the Parable of the Sower from Mark 4, where the Word of God is sown widely, and bears fruit at first, but then worldly things choke the growth and much of the seed doesn’t bear fruit.

As if to reinforce this, in the second half of the passage we heard, Jesus sends the Twelve out to extend his ministry in Galilee. He promises them success – but also warns them that they must expect to face the same rejection and opposition that he has. Failure will be part of their experience as well.

Given these readings, how should we judge the ‘success’ of a church?

Paul often used the concept of being ‘in Christ’ and spoke of the Christian community as being ‘the Body of Christ’.  This says to me that the only criteria of ‘success’ in a Christian context is how Christ-like a thing is.

Jesus was a man who was  as one with God and as one with the Holy Spirit. So anyone and anything which claims to be Christ-like should also be Spirit-filled. Here again we need to be careful. Some sections of the Church appear to claim that the only manifestations of the Spirit are ‘supernatural’ things, like speaking in tongues, freeing people from demon-possession and miraculous healings. But in his letter to the Galatians, Paul also talks about ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ being made manifest in the enhanced quality of natural human qualities – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  It is less easy to measure the volume of such qualities than the number of ‘bums on seats’ – but if we were to measure those qualities, wouldn’t we have a very different picture of what constitutes a ‘successful’ and ‘growing’ church?

At the end of April, I attended a conference organised by the Beds and Herts Churches Media trust. It was about Communicating Christian Festivals – how churches of many different denominations and traditions can use the major festivals of the Christian year to reach out into the community and make contact with those on the outskirts of, and outside our congregations. We had sessions on event management,  and how the music we use might affect our success; a Muslim academic outlined a Muslim perspective on Christian festivals ( make them more religious and less commercialised, he said); and the Bishop of Hertford urged us to be bold and take risks, and not just keep repeating  what has worked before.

The Anglican Diocesan Mission and Development Officer spoke of six words which should characterise mission today: simplicity, goodness, prayer, rhythm, companionship and story. Nothing about large numbers or miraculous events there, you note. ‘To be effective in communicating the Gospel, people must see something of God in you. Our lifestyle speaks to people’, he said.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the conference was the Question Time, where panellists ranging from an Anglican Bishop to a Salvation Army Captain answered queries about how to communicate better with those outside and on the fringes of our churches. Among the answers were: “ Relationships are important. You need to cater for people where they are.” “You don’t need trendier worship to bring people back to God; you need a relationship with them so that you can address their needs.” “We should not make too many distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. After all, it’s not true that ‘God so loved the holy people…..’ We  know that ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only Son….’”.

Again, nothing about large events or flashy events. Just the fruits of the Spirit in action.

The witness of the New Testament to the life of Christ, and the mission of the early apostles guides us to a different way of assessing the successful church. The criteria for discerning God’s presence are shown to have been radically redefined by the cross. God’s true power is expressed in weakness, not in events that demonstrate might and power.

Size doesn’t matter!


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