When it comes to preaching on idols or idolatry, I sometimes ask the congregation to suggest idols that they think are issues in society today. The responses are usually reasonably predictable: money, sex, sport. Those are the things we good church people can often think of as idols. That’s not wrong – there are people for whom these things have assumed the wrong place in their lives. But I’ll be honest; I’ve yet to meet a Christian in the broadly evangelical church for whom sex is an idol; perhaps sexual purity, but that’s the subject of another post. I sometimes try and prod the conversation: what about family? marriage? church? Could they be idols?
As is so often the case, the real drama is in the silences. In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan – a woman who had been a promising potential novelist but whose career became subsumed when she married her teacher Joe. Early in the film we come to the two of them, now relatively aged, awaking to a phone call with the news that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature. As the news is broken to Joe – with Joan listening in on another phone – the camera shifts to Joan. She barely moves – but her face speaks volumes, hinting at layers and depths of varied emotions that imply a kind of darkness that can’t be named, but longs to be. It’s an astonishing piece of silent acting from Glenn Close, which is echoed throughout the film by similar moments. She is attentive to Joe’s every need (both as they travel to the Nobel Ceremony, and in flashback to the early days of their relationship); but something is trying to emerge, but also stay hidden. Christian Slater plays Joe’s would-be biographer, who thinks he can see there’s a secret to come out; and we uncover it with him.
To say more would be to spoil the film; it’s often comic, but really it’s a drama about ambition and frustration, about marriage and the challenges facing the wife of a lauded man. The film’s present day is 1992; it would be tempting to say that things have changed, but I’m sure many of us can understand that in much of life they haven’t.
At least, it often seems, they haven’t changed in the church – which is where I have worked for all my married life (save the first two years of our marriage, which was spent at seminary). When I was training for ministry (in the late 90’s/early 00’s), women had been welcomed to priestly ministry in the Church Of England for some years – though it’s only relatively recently that the glass ceiling to women becoming Bishops has been broken. Nevertheless, at the seminary I attended (chosen as much for geographical location as any theological conviction of mine), the support group for the spouses of students was very much a wives’ group. I can’t now remember the official name of the group; but there were a grand total of 0 female students training there for ordained ministry; many (though not all) of the staff and students at this conservative college did not agree with the ordination of women, and often said so – loudly and publicly. So it’s little surprise no women trained alongside me. My loss; though I suspect not theirs.
Never mind, though. Other parts of the Anglican church were better. Right? The network I was most committed to at that time contained few, if any, high-profile female church leaders. Platform speaking engagements were largely for male church leaders; women from para-church groups; or were wives of male leaders of (large) churches. These large churches were spoken of as being led by ‘X and Y Surname’ (husband and wife) where the husband was the ordained leader. The wife would often be on the large paid staff team; though sometimes not. She would sometimes be still be spoken of as leading the church with her husband, despite not being paid by the church, not having a formal input in the decision-making and only being involved in church life, like any other member of the church would be. Now it is fair to say that in this network things have got much better in these regards; I’m sure some would say there is still a way to go – but it seems much that is good has happened.
It’s true, however, that the role of clergy wife and clergy husband remain very different. My wife has been invited to chair Women’s Fellowships, sing in the choir (until someone overheard her singing), do the flower arranging. She’s not done most of it; whilst she was unable to work for Visa-reasons when we came to Cape Town, she did volunteer much time to the church; but things have long since changed. The same expectations or offers are rarely made of clergy husbands. Married women who are clergy speak often of a church’s inability to see that she must be ‘a wife, a mother and a clergywoman’; a similar expectation of a married clergyman does not exist.
The problem seems to be that inherited models of church leadership and gender roles within church and family have not kept up with a changing society. There’s also another, subtler pressure. In many churches – especially larger, suburban ones – excellence is a spoken or unspoken value. Professionals who are members of these churches work in businesses where excellence is prized; so churches have to imitate that. That’s expressed in many ways; but not least in the role of women. Either a clergy wife must be fully involved in ministry – paid, or not – to ensure it all happens; or she must sacrifice much of her time and career in order for her husband to meet church expectations. One theory goes that excellence in anything requires around 10,000 hours of committed practice; for that to be a reality someone must take care of the rest of life for the one who aims to excel. That’s almost always a woman, like Glenn Close appears to be in The Wife; doing everything behind the scenes whilst her husband is lauded across the world thanks to his 10,000 hours of labour. It never seems to be mentioned that by definition, as the man achieves his greatness thanks to the 10,000 hours given to his craft, the woman has invested the same amount of time in un-lauded areas. Behind every great man … the expression goes (the tag line of the movie is a clever play on this, especially in light of the film’s ending).
It’s patriarchy writ into the fabric of family and career, of course. The church is slowly learning to let go of it, but whilst it slowly learns the ministry of women in church, business (or wherever) suffers and stagnates as the woman’s call is seen to be to follow and enable the husband’s call. Doesn’t Ephesians say a woman should submit to her husband?
Well, it does – but that was written 2,000 years ago; and it seems to ignore that at the start of that section of Ephesians the invitation to all of us, of whatever gender, is to ‘submit to one another’. So this assumes a husband also submits to his wife in some way; in fact, so submissive is he that he is expected to be willing to do for her what Christ did for the church (to die). More of that passage is about the responsibilities of the husband to sacrifice (and to submit) and of Christ’s love for the church than is ever said of the wife’s responsibility to submit – which in any case is never defined; presumably the better to be re-interpreted within each time and place. But the Bible has usually, over 2,000 years, been written, translated, taught by and written about by men – so it’s no surprise, really, that these attitudes and interpretations continue as the norm in many places.
As a married male church leader I speak to people like me. Are we willing to submit to the calling of our wives? Are we willing to say ‘no’ to posts, opportunities or potential avenues of church life in order for our wives to fulfil their calling – as we have so often expected them to sacrifice to us. I’m not talking here about motherhood and the ‘traditional’ housewife – though not to dismiss and denigrate that if that’s what both feel is best for their marriage. For most of my ordained life, my wife has had paid employment too. She has a calling too (of course she does; every disciple does). We also need a second salary – especially now with children. So my wife follows her calling and gifts in the world; social enterprise, academic research, photography – and other things; one of those other things is motherhood, but it’s by no means the only one. So, as sometimes she has had to say no to opportunities to enable my ministry, so I must also, equally, say no to some things in order to enable her ministry. If I were looking to move to a large, busy church (which I’m not), maybe I would have to rethink my plans because of my wife’s career and calling. Maybe a church shouldn’t be busy (or maybe even large? that’s to discuss another time, I think)? Too often I, and men like me, can be entitled in our expectation of our wives to sacrifice, to give up, to say no, for our sake. Of course, we say and think to ourselves that it’s ‘for the Gospel’; failing to notice that our wife’s calling is as much ‘for the Gospel’ (whatever that means) as mine – maybe even more so if she’s not spending all day in the church office.
This needs saying to us: male, married church leaders must say no (sometimes to the church, sometimes to ourselves), that our wives may yes to God’s invitation to them. If something we say no to must still be done, then God is big enough to cope with our no; and if the church complains … well experience seems to suggest that if the no is repeated often enough and for long enough, the point is taken.
God can cope without us; God can also cope without our wives. He can cope without all of us; but too often we have just assumed He can cope without our wives, or can only cope with them within very specific parameters. To misquote The West Wing, let’s let God be God; let’s be strong enough to say no, that our wives may say yes.
Pavlova was always one of my favourite deserts. It was a regular Sunday lunch pudding; my mother was a dab hand with meringue-making (which, it turns out, is not a common gift); the crispy-chewy product would then be slathered with cream and fruit of some description: berries, apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi … the list goes on. Simple, but memorable. All the better for it containing fruit, and therefore being healthy. It was something of a shock to discover that it’s not a dish of British origin – I just assumed it was, coming as it did for us after a traditional English Sunday roast. It turned out it was Australian; but my deep-seated desire to beat Australia in sports was nevertheless glad to acknowledge that this was a good desert anyway. Later, however, I discovered that the British had co-opted the pavlova, and put their own twist on it in the form of Eton Mess. Named after that most private of private schools, it’s all the elements of pavlova mashed up into a mess in one small pudding dish. I’m sure someone will try to tell me why it’s radically different; but it’s not. It’s just good old-fashioned English co-option of another culture. The same part of me prefers to it to pavlova as likes to take ice-cream and mash it up into a semi-solid state, all the better to mix with sauce. The mess just seems more tasty to me.
I find mess generally appealing. Not physical mess per se – I’m neither especially messy in my surroundings, nor especially tidy (maybe my family would disagree…). I don’t like dressing smartly; I feel most comfortable in jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. Ties annoy me; I don’t mind my Sunday-morning clerical collar, as long as I can carry it off in some slightly disordered way. I don’t think in a clean, ordered way – this is in part down to my ADD and my learning disabilities. I find it hard to plan a rigorous, logical train of thought. I can make associations between ideas; I then often find that I have to backtrack to enable anyone listening to me (and, often, myself) to see that there is a very good reason for what I said, it just wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t inherit my Dad’s mathematical bent in all sorts of ways; in particular, I can get very bored with ‘showing the working’, as teachers always insisted we do. I have to, often, however; in my preaching I’ll let ideas marinate in my head, then write down notes of a structure – which gives a skeleton to my ideas, and makes it look much more ordered than it ever was in my head at the beginning of the week’s preparation.
The same is true of my leadership. I’m not a great planner; I’m not a systems person. It’s not that I think they’re bad – it’s just very hard for me to get into them. I’ve had much leadership training – most of it emerging from suburban, professional men who often lead suburban churches full of professionals. These programmes tell me the strategies and – yes – programmes that help to ensure healthy and numerically growing churches. I’ve learned much from these; but I’ve also learned it’s hard for me to lead and work that way.
So I lead in a kind of strategic mess. I have a fairly firm idea of the sort of place I want to get to; I’m not too sure of how we’re going to get there. I have a few people alongside me who are better at the structure than I am; they’re the sort of people who can help me see the route on the map that might be most helpful for the general sort of destination that I have in mind. The church I lead is in a messy kind of area. It’s predominantly urban; but there are aspects of suburbia to it also. There’s much poverty, and many on the cusp of poverty; there’s a good number in a quite high-powered jobs too. Then there are students, who are in their own special kind of category. Over the years we’ve been here, many programmes and courses have crossed our minds; few, if any, of them have been the right idea at the right time. We meet together three times a week – twice on a Sunday morning, once on a Thursday evening – much of the rest of time we leave people to do their own thing that God has called and shaped them for, and to ask for help if they need it.
This mess can be unnerving; unnerving for me, even if it feels more natural. The liturgical tradition of which we are a part helps gives some structure and safety, rounding off a few of the rough edges I may leave untended. The church order of Anglicanism can do that too – though we’re an odd church, in ‘association’ with Anglican structures, whilst not fully part of them. Maybe that’s why I can find myself a good fit with this particular church. It can be unnerving for members too; sometimes people will join a church because it offers something different. Our church does – but after some time, the seeming lack of structure, the mess can expose raw edges in us all and we can start to bump up against each other. That’s not always pretty – and sometimes people end up finding a different home. We could do better – and next time, we try to do so.
We also, though, need to be true to who God shapes us to be. When people find a home with us, they express that they like – or have learned to like – the mess and informality. It seems to allow people a way to be themselves, to change at their own pace, and to discover who God has made them to be, rather than to be a cog in a church machine that seems to exist to keep itself going.
The fact is that too many of us – ministers and lay people alike – are hurt, burned out, worn down by church life. I’m as much to blame as anyone. We don’t seek to be a church for everyone – no one church is going to be home to everybody; but we do seek to be a church that errs on the side of space rather than structure, improvisation rather than planning, mobility rather than staticity. We are church in the mess, for the mess; serving a God whose Spirit hovered over the formless void and who specialises in bringing order of chaos. We may get more wrong than we get right; but in his mercy, God works for good. This may not be what every church is invited to be; but I wonder what would happen, what new things might emerge, if more of us church ministers made our home in the mess; seeking to control less, and see what might come as a result. As society urbanises at faster and faster rates, this mess will become the context of more and more ministry. Maybe there’s a call to freestyle, to improvise a little bit more in the future that’s arriving in our cities. Anyway; for better or worse, this is who we are and under God’s grace, who we seek to be.
Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of leadership. Servanthood, shepherd, influencer, pastor, teacher (there’s a fierce debate – really – as to if there should be a hyphen between those last two. Only Christians could make a debate out of a hyphen). And so on. One that stayed with me – and I can’t remember where I heard it, so apologies for not sourcing – is something like this: that leadership is the art of being comfortable with the fact that you’re always disappointing somebody. I’ve found that to resonate; and I’d add to it that I’ve needed to learn to disappoint the right people at the right time. If you’re leading more than one person, then at least one person is going to be in some way disappointed with you most of the time. There are two people to add to that picture. One is the leader herself – most of us find that we often disappoint ourselves, and live with a permanent frustration that things aren’t as they could or should be – and it’s our fault (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). The other is God; if we’re in Christian leadership, then we often sit with the nagging sense that God must be a bit miffed that we’ve let Him down again (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). All of this is why Christian leaders need all of the following: close friends, people who pray for us, mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, holidays, fun, and a dog. None of these insulate us against crashing and burning; but they give us a good shot at avoiding it.
By all these definitions, Emma Thompson’s character in The Children Act – a new film adapted by Ian McEwen from his own novel – is a leader with whom most of us could connect. She spends most of the film becoming aware that she has disappointed, is in the process of disappointing or is about to disappoint someone – not least herself. She’s a high court judge in London, ruling on cases affecting children. Many of them are the headline-grabbing, soul-wrenching moral dilemmas; which conjoined twin to let die, and the like. The case at the film’s centre is of a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. He’s days away from turning 18, when the choice would be entirely his; but by law, a 17-year-old can be forced to take treatment against his will. To help settle the case, Emma Thompson visits him in the hospital – an unconvential act that’s probably highly unprofessional, made plausible by Thompson’s brilliant, subtle performance. She makes her ruling around halfway through the film – the rest of which deals with the fallout. Alongside all this, early in the film her husband (Stanley Tucci in a quiet and humbly powerful performance) tells her he loves her but wants an affair due to a lack of intimacy.
At this point it’s worth pointing out a few things about Ian McEwen’s work. He’s brilliant, of course; he often sets up a plot with great economy and not a little wit but then doesn’t seem to know how to make it all end plausibly (prime example, Saturday; a plot which collapses under the weight of its central, clumsy metaphor). He also doesn’t appear to be a great fan of religion; and he’s not a great screen adapter of his own work. This book and film are an improvement on much of that, even if the ending still feels as somewhat contrived as it did in the book. Religion isn’t exactly given a fair-hearing, but it at least feels somewhat understood here; there’s a devastating moment (for Anglican clergy) when one character is asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, to which he replies ‘I’m an Anglican’. In that short exchange lies a thousand truths.
Whatever choice Emma Thompson’s judge makes in the cases and marital decisions before her, she’ll disappoint someone. The film ends on a touch of hope, but given all that goes before, it’s a fragile kind of hope. Clearly there are many brilliant leaders who don’t profess to know God and who survive and even flourish in the experience; for me, as a Christian leader, the question remains: Who do I disappoint? How do I deal with my own disappointment in myself; the disappointment others feel in me; the disappointment I think God must feel? Where do I take it?
For a start, I need to take it to all those places and people (and dogs) I listed earlier. But as I said, none of these are guarantees against failure – public or private. I think the key lies in taking to heart the fact that God doesn’t need me. I meet many leaders – myself included – who are prone to thinking God/the church/the world needs us. The truth is God needs no-one; but in his incredible, scarcely credible love and grace he chooses to involve us anyway. It’s not that God needs us; it’s way better than that. He wants to involve us. We’re not essential; so when we screw up (which we do), when we die (which we will), when we sleep or go on holiday or have fun (which we have to – though knowing some leaders you wouldn’t know it), the world and His plan will carry on regardless.
So the pressure is off. Ever met a defensive leader, one who flies off the handle in blame or self-recrimination at the merest hint of failure or criticism? I have – I am, or can be, one. The effect can be devastating; as a result of knowing one for a few years, I ended up with PTSD and was suicidal. That can all stem from thinking we’re needed; that God somehow relies on us. He doesn’t. How arrogant and self-aggrandising it is for me to think that an eternal God who broke the power of death would need me. No. He doesn’t need me. And that’s OK. Because He wants me and chooses me because of Him, not me. Because He loves me.
That needs to be enough for me. If I let it penetrate my soul – daily – it will be enough. And it can be enough for you also.
This is the first in a new series of posts giving non-chronological snapshots of the story of our church’s life.
His name was Peter, but most knew him as Green Eyes. He had been part of our regular Thursday Community Supper for most of the six and a half years that we have been meeting. This supper isn’t an act of food provision, and it’s not a project that aims to serve the marginalised. It exists to provide a space for people to eat good food together, to listen to each other, to get to know each other without the pressure of time or the divisions of one of the world’s most unequal cities getting in the way.
Over time we have found that many of those who attend regularly are poor or marginalised in some way; a good number of them sleep outside. Our policy is that we are not a soup kitchen; we serve food to people at their tables rather than expecting them to queue up. The university professors who attend sit and eat the same food as those with no job, sleeping on the street. Some of us who are more privileged come to cook or wash-up or serve food to tables; some attempt to shepherd the children in a room at the back of the church; some of us just sit and listen and talk. For all of us, the goal is the same – this is about community, about knowing each other. Sometimes, towards the end of the evening, we’ll have a very informal and short expression of the Communion Service around one of the tables.
Peter was well-known locally, and especially well known amongst us. He often came on a Thursday drunk; but we don’t turn away for being under the influence of drugs or drink – unless they’re very disruptive. After all, most among us who come are under the influence of caffeine; prone to greed; frequently found to be binge-watching; slaves to lust; prone to anger. But we don’t stop those people at the door; so to do so to others would seem to be a strange double-standard. It’s not as if the Jesus whom we claim as our model turned people away because of their addictions.
When we got to know Green Eyes, he would tell us why he came to Thursday Supper. “I don’t come for the food. I can get that anywhere.” (This is true – if you are desperate, food of some description can usually be sourced if you know where to look). “I come here for respect.” He understood the essence of what we are about; it’s not about the food.
Some so-called homeless ministries serve food past it’s sell-by date; some have their guests sit and listen to a talk. We don’t. We eat good, fresh food. And we listen. And we talk. And sometimes share Communion. Out of that has grown a partnership with an NGO run by one of our number which assists people into rehab programmes and night-shelters, and has seen success in doing so. Out of that has arisen a series of friendships which nourish us longer than a meal does.
A couple of months ago Green Eyes’ wife appeared at Thursday supper, distraught. He had died from complications associated with TB. He hadn’t had a funeral. So with her, we arranged one in the church. The family’s first language is Afrikaans – so I had little to do or say. Much of it was led by our friend and church member Craig, in Afrikaans. Memories were shared. Craig talked about us seeing and knowing each other across Cape Town’s divisions; and how Jesus saw and knew Zaccheus; and how Jesus sees and knows us, too. It was simple and profound; and I only understood what a few of the words meant.
Now on Saturday mornings a group of Thursday night regulars meet together, whoever wants, to read the Bible together and to talk about it means for them. In doing so, no one is teaching or leading, so much as all are reading together – trying to shed the layers that years of religion and systematization has enforced.
This is our church. Well, a large part of it. There’s also our 2 Sunday services. which look more like Sunday services are often expected to. But really we think of ourselves as having three services – 2 on Sunday, 1 on Thursday – all of which are in a process of evolution which we hope is God-guided. We are trying – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding – to build with God a church in which power is equalised, division rejected and our common status as image-bearing children of God celebrated. It’s hard and messy, and there’s little in the way of strategy or structure. As one friend put it in his PhD research on the subject, this is mission as improvised jazz as opposed to finally structured song or symphony. We don’t know what this will lead to, but it seems to us and the Holy Spirit to be good.
Assuming you’re not the sort of church leader who only spends a short amount of time at any one church, on the face of it there seems to be much that’s understandable about this. After all, it would be a hard experience to be part of a church for, say, 10 years, and for it not to be the sort of church that you would want for yourself and for any family that you may have. A disconnect in spirituality or theology between the leadership and the church can be a jarring experience that can lead to painful conflict, and to more than a few people (leaders included) leaving a church jaded, cynical, wounded and finding their faith ebbing away. It’s potentially even harder for church members if that disconnect exists in a church located in an area where there are few (if any) others to choose from: if you want to be part of a church community and don’t have a practical choice as to which church that is but find yourself alienated by how the leader is shaping the church, then it can be the sort of experience that asphyxiates faith like a slowly building carbon monoxide leak.
As someone who’s been in full-time paid church leadership for 17 years, I’ve been to several seminars and read more than a few books that tell me that as a leader I need to build a church that is the sort of church I would join if I was living in the area and looking for a church to go to. In addition to the reasons just mentioned, the argument goes that if I’m to encourage members to commit to a church community and invite others to join it, then it would be hypocritical for me to do so if I wouldn’t commit to the church myself in their position. It’s hard to argue with, and to a certain extent I don’t want to. If I had a fundamental disconnect with the dominant theology or practice of a church I was invited to lead, then I would have a choice: put up with it (which would be very difficult to square with my conscience), try to change it, or not do the job. If a church is on a path to death, then clearly something is going to have to change unless all present are in agreement that what’s required is a good death (and there’s no shame in that – we believe in resurrection, so allowing a church to die so something new can emerge is a noble calling). However the truism that the leader must build the church the leader wants to go to is rarely aimed at theological fundamentals or practices that are at the heart of the church’s life. They’re more stylistic, fringe issues that make the leader feel safe, comfortable and at home. I’ve seen more than a few churches being broken apart as the leader seeks to bend the church he’s (and it’s almost always him) leading to the shape of his will. The result is a church that he and people like him like; and very few others.
At the risk of death by a thousand qualifications, it’s clear that after a few years of one person’s leadership, a church will inevitably reflect aspects of that person’s character, theology, practice and preference. To a certain extent that’s unavoidable and natural. More often, however, this maxim is preached by an alpha male sort of leader; the sort who I once saw spontaneously (I do wonder if that should have been in quotation marks) play wrestling with his leader mate (yes, really) on the stage of a leadership conference attended by thousands as part of an in-joke only about 20 were privy to. Oh how I laughed. I found myself thinking; you wouldn’t have seen women leaders doing that.
There’s the rub. For around 2,000 years church leadership has been mainly male. Inevitably, therefore, material on church leadership has been delivered by (usually white) men; the images and metaphors have been male-centric, appealing to the idea of the alpha male leader, courageously leading a church into an unknown future only he can see. Men telling men in leadership to be the sort of male leader men like to think they should be. Clearly God has done some good through all this – as God always will – but much harm has been done also; it’s way past time for a change. As more women (slowly) are oh so graciously permitted to step into a church leadership, we need paradigms of leadership that redress the balance. It’s also hard to square what we know of Jesus with the image of the courageous alpha male leading towards the future that has been revealed to him; after all, the real Jesus begs to be released from suffering and doesn’t know when He’s returning.
What paradigms are we left with? Well, we should let women develop them. This mustn’t be the leadership manifestation of mansplaining. One metaphor I’ve found illuminating, however, is that of the midwife. I’ve never given birth, nor been present at a birth; but it seems clear to me that the midwife’s role is to assist and create an environment into which the emerging new life can be safely born. In this metaphor the mother giving birth is the Holy Spirit, the church leader is the midwife working with the natural processes of the Spirit, the church is the baby being born. The leader with her knowledge, experience and training must listen carefully, patiently and attentively to the signs from the Spirit and the church emerging, blinking and wailing into life; and of course there are times when she must act decisively and even urgently. There’ll be blood, sweat, tears and screaming in the process of delivery; but it’s not as a result of shaping a church to a leader’s will, but rather a by-product of a new life emerging from the natural rhythms and work of the Spirit. The leader works; oh how she works. But it’s not for her; it’s for the mother.
Like all metaphors, it will break down at some point so mustn’t be pressed or stretched too far. It’s a visual aid, nothing more and nothing less. But we need more of them that are less alpha male, coming from an altogether different place. Those with more knowledge or experience of the process of human birth must correct or add to what I have started here; and we who are men in leadership must allow women in leadership to develop more, newer paradigms of leading a church that allow a new way of being. And we men must be willing to work with those new paradigms ourselves, as for so long we have expected women to work within almost exclusively male paradigms for 2,000 years.
After all, not for nothing does the Bible present the church as the bride of Christ; of course, an exclusively feminine image. It’s almost as if the Spirit planted that in the pages of the Bible, and was waiting for men in leadership to catch-up.
This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.
It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?
The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.
I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.
Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.
The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.
You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.
What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.
I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.
I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.
So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.