How does the church deal with success? I have been fortunate to have been in a number of churches during my ministry where (despite me!) numerical growth has taken place. I fully recognise that there are others who have worked hard, prayed hard but through no fault of their own have not been in such situations of potential. Nevertheless the response to such growth and what others have termed success has often been underwhelming! I recall how on one occasion I was asked to share some of my experiences of ministry. I gave an account of four situations where considerable growth in numbers, response to social need and depth of fellowship and spirituality had taken place, to be met with a stony silence. It was only when I started to speak of a more difficult situation where such things had not taken place that I was greeted with enthusiasm!
Why it is that Methodism seems to struggle with success? I can think of three possible reasons.
First, most of us have been in a declining Church all our lives, our situation shapes expectation, subliminally it is easy to rationalise and justify decline.
Second, the theology of the sixties and seventies had a strong emphasis upon the idea of remnant, the thinking being that the small faith group was more effective and positive than the large. I remember hearing with amazement a senior Church leader describing how his situation had declined numerically to an astounding extent, but he was delighted with that because he felt that he was being faithful to the radical and challenging gospel.
Third, we are quite rightly wary of the so called “prosperity gospel” pedalled by American television evangelists and, from my London experience, affirmed by some of the ethnic churches of other traditions.
The theological question I want to ask is does God want us as a Church to grow numerically and be successful? Now of course we must ask what does the word “successful” mean? In a brief article I cannot spell out the various ways we might view success, so please excuse me if I share my own view, perhaps in the feedback others may like to share theirs.
I firmly believe that three criteria need to be in place for success in the life of the Church.
First, the creation of a community in which the love of God is experienced and self evident.
Second, the proclamation of the gospel that through faith in Christ we can receive salvation, know forgiveness and commence discipleship.
Third, an openness to the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit to empower our mission and answer our daily prayer “Your Kingdom come…”
That pattern is set out very clearly in Acts Chapter 2 where we see the fruit of a Church working well leading to success coming in various ways:-
- people becoming more theologically literate and therefore more confident in their faith (v42)
- seeing God at work through changed lives, healings and the sometimes extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit (v43)
- the quality of the community life, so different to that of the local drama group, choir, golf club or pub (v44-45)
- worship which challenges and inspires and where God is clearly at the centre (v46 – 47A)
- outreach which makes an impact in the local community and leads them to think positively about their local Church (v47B)
- numerical growth (v47B)
I suspect that the point which causes Methodists the most difficulty is the last: numerical growth. If numerical growth is not important why does Luke bother to count and report a growth in numbers? Are we lauding the virtue of faithfulness, in the context of a declining Church, in order to avoid facing up to issues of decline where a more appropriate response might be repentance?
Growing churches see and experience faithfulness and success as being inextricably linked.
So the question I would ask is whether or not we think that God wants us to be successful, however we understand it? Linked to this, if God does want us to be successful as a Church why does Methodism in many ways, especially numerically, not seem to be? Is the personality of the leader a factor? Do our structures and the way CPD is sometimes applied constrain risk taking? What might we do to enable success?