A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to meet with three women testing a vocation to ordination in the Scottish Episcopal Church. All of the women were young, intelligent, and deeply committed to the church. One of them — the one furthest ‘down the line’ towards ordination — said to me, ‘do you believe that the church can grow, or is it inevitable that most congregations are shrinking and dying?’
Her question was passionate and urgent, and her relief palpable when I said ‘of course it can grow. It does grow. We have to believe that, and it is true.’ She and I have both seen congregations growing. It can happen. We know it is true.
But she had begun to fear because so many people claimed otherwise. So many people talk of the church’s failure, or try to bully their way into theological dominance by threatening the inevitability of the church’s demise unless we all choose to share their viewpoint.
The question of church growth is not ultimately about numbers or demographics or annual returns. It is about the shape of what we believe.
Do you believe that Christianity matters?
Do you believe it is true?
If we believe it matters and it is true, then we have to believe that the church can grow.
If we believe that it matters and it is true, then the church will grow, because the passion of our belief will communicate itself. The church will grow because it will be a place of God’s love and compassion and beauty, a place of healing where human life is redeemed.
If I did not believe this, I could not do what I do each day. I could not be a priest, and I doubt whether I could be a Christian.
What we believe matters.
If we believe that it is inevitable that congregations are shrinking and that the church must inevitably die, then it probably will. If we believe that God is irrelevant for most people and Christianity is nothing more than pastime for the curiously minded, then that too will become ‘true’– not because God is irrelevant, but because we will no longer be speaking of God in any meaningful way.
Congregations come and go. Buildings come and go. There is death and resurrection.
But if God is worth believing in, God is worth sharing. And that is all it takes for death to become life, for the church to be healthy and strong — and for young women testing their vocation to sleep well tonight, trusting in God’s future rather than the prophesies of doom.