New book on church growth calls for end to “theology of decline”.
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Evangelicals want people to become Christians, to embark on and continue a life of following Jesus, to become part of the church and to play a part in bringing others to faith. While contemporary evangelicals may differ on some issues, we all agree that we should be praying and working towards as many becoming Christians as possible, and so a goal of church growth is axiomatic.
But for some with different theological views, particularly many theologians and leaders in mainline Protestant denominations such as the Church of England, numerical church growth has been seen as irrelevant to the deeper work of the Kingdom of God in society, impossible in a context of secularism, even undesirable because of the ‘arrogance’ of proselytism. Also, within evangelicalism and in other traditions which are positive about church growth, the complaint has often arisen that most thinking and effort has gone into sociological research and evangelistic and church planting techniques, leaving rather a thin philosophical, historical and theological basis for the enterprise.
These are the issues which a new book seeks to address. Towards a Theology of Church Growth (Ashgate Publishing, 2015) is endorsed by Archbishop Justin and was officially launched on June 8th. Editor and leading contributor David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, Durham; he has researched and written on church growth in other publications and is known for challenging the common media portrayal of the church in Britain being in terminal decline across the board. In his introduction Goodhew states categorically “our theology of decline must go”. To those who argue that a focus on “bums on seats” downgrades spiritual depth and the divine work for justice in society, and to those only interested in pragmatic techniques, the author encourages development of a theology rooted in the Scriptures, showing clearly how more people in the pews is a natural outworking of Christian doctrine and faithful to church tradition.
Goodhew’s introduction summarises the main issues and briefly surveys the areas addressed by each of the contributors in their essays. Hostility from within the church to initiatives for growth (some origins of these ideas are helpfully explained) is more in line with secular theories of the irrelevance of religion. In contrast, a view of numerical congregational increase can be seen as “creative subversion” undermining the dominant and increasingly atheistic secular discourse. David Marshall, for example, challenges the liberal concept that proclamation of the Gospel is arrogant and conversion to Christ is somehow undesirable in an age of pluralism. Rather, confidence in the message and the Saviour coexist with humility and service in authentic Christian faith. Marshall is positive about the possibility of people turning to Christ from other faiths – something which the C of E has usually been ambivalent about.
In a theological and biblical survey, Mark Bonnington (also from Durham) compares and contrasts different understandings of the Kingdom of God from prominent writers over the last century, and then looks at how the early church grew according to the evidence in Acts and the life of Paul. Duke University Professor of NT Kavin Rowe’s study of ecclesiology in Acts shows how the early church, while not advocating revolution in the form of challenging and replacing forms of government, nevertheless was not pietistic and internally focused. It promoted a worldview which “took up space in public”, calling into question the dominant understanding of reality and how to live. It’s well known that the church with its message, values and example influenced the whole Roman empire and beyond, but growth in numbers would have been key to this. Ivor Davidson, a Professor of Theology at St Andrews, explores further some data around rapid church growth in the first few centuries after Christ, both before and after Constantine, and suggests some reasons for it. He concludes his chapter asking some important questions about how the church might grow again in our era as it rapidly becomes more similar to the pre-Constantinian context of the church as a persecuted, but growing minority.
Four subsequent chapters look at distinct periods in the development of the church in Britain: the Celtic missions, the medieval period, the Tudor time with a particular focus on Cranmer’s legacy, and the modern period from the mid 18th century. Miranda Threlfell-Holmes, with carefully chosen examples, challenges the common assumptions that either the whole of medieval Europe was Christian so no church growth was needed, or that church at that time was all about superstition and power politics, and real evangelical Christianity did not appear until the Reformation. Ashley Null, who has written extensively on Cranmer, likewise corrects the widespread belief that the Reformation emphasized dry doctrine as opposed to the heartfelt desire for God of medieval mystics. For Cranmer, national spiritual renewal was to be based on Scripture and correct biblical doctrine (“combining elements of monasticism, humanism and Protestantism”), resulting in knowing God with love, devotion and experience of joy.
Alister McGrath focuses on parables of growth in the Gospels, where the seed is compared to the message of the Kingdom of God as a present and eschatological reality. The Gospel is good in itself, argues McGrath, and does not have to be “made good” by changing it to suit the tastes of contemporary culture. Graham Tomlin of St Mellitus College looks at the role of the Holy Spirit in mission, particularly as articulated and lived by the fast growing Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Britain and around the world. Being from this tradition himself, he is able to offer lessons for the whole church but also important critiques of some of the extremes of this movement: a focus on material prosperity and outward show of spiritual zeal, with a downplaying of the cross and development of inner character.
For such an eclectic book with contributors drawn from a variety of theological positions, there are some points of view which many evangelicals will take issue with. For example Bishop Martin Warner addresses an important point of why many Christians are not sharing their faith effectively, or at all. He correctly identifies the fear of ridicule and the sense of “systemic hostility” to the Gospel. But his solution appears to be entirely one of finding common ground with the culture and affirming its insights, and he rejects any notion of communicating the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. Similarly, Sr Benedicta Ward offers an unrealistically rosy and non-confrontational picture of Celtic and Roman mission to the Anglo Saxons. In fact the book perhaps would have benefitted overall from more of a critical dissection of the worldviews and psychologies in the culture which are a major obstacle to church growth, and which cannot be simply explained away by the church’s failure to engage winsomely or “relevantly”. There is a need to challenge a prevalent “establishment Anglicanism” which hopes church growth can occur without the need to set “Christ against culture”, to confront falsehood, to call people to a radical turnaround, and then when growth does occur, to control it within formal ecclesial structures which may be outdated and restrictive (for an alternative view, see this recent article ).
But overall I found the book very refreshing and helpful. Editor David Goodhew’s passion for church growth shines through. He is not afraid to take on the liberal theological establishment with its decades-old disdain of evangelism, reinvention of ‘mission’ as merely social concern, and “decline theology”. He admits in his conclusion that more needs to be said on the counter-cultural aspects of the Gospel message, for example the atonement. The contributors come from different perspectives but share the commitment to evangelism. They take the Bible’s own witness seriously: I didn’t find any questioning of the historicity of the Acts account, for example. Lastly, though this volume is an Anglican initiative, nowhere does it get caught up in internal Anglican issues. Its focus is on the numerical growth of the local church – all churches – and how a theological, biblical and historical perspective can help with this.