The issue of Church growth is far too often reduced to that dreadful phrase ‘bums on seats’. Having been involved in Church Leadership over a number of years I am familiar with the reductionist approach taken at a number of conferences and meetings when church leaders get together. It is much rarer for people to compare strengths and weaknesses in the sense of a focus on the Arts, or education, on social engagement or church unity than it is for men (it is almost always men) to swap numbers and percentages, in a manner that suggests that size is almost everything and numerical growth no matter how small is vital. The tragedy is that whilst our Bible implies that a healthy community will regenerate itself, it does not specifically apply this to the size of congregations and indeed almost nothing is said about congregations of believers when compared to the needs of communities and the poor and dispossessed. However if one has the privilege of being part of a worshipping community that experiences sustained numerical growth it must be hard not to get excited, and such excitement can become infectious. The nature of humanity is that sometimes rather than this excitement and encouragement spreading in a dispersed manner, it acts as a magnet and draws the focus onto the one congregation which first experienced the growth.
One congregation that has experienced a significant level of growth in recent years is St Peters Church in Brighton. It began as a result of a meaningful number of people moving into Brighton from outside the city. It is believed that some of them still travel into the City each Sunday. These people moved into a building which was at that time attended by an unsustainably small group of worshippers who had been campaigning for several years to prevent the building from shutting. To these two groups were added a large number of people from many of the nearby congregations and also some whose first experience of Church was through the combined impact of this ‘new’ ministry. It is vital for all of these people to understand their shared heritage and understand the impact they have on city around them including other places of worship some of whom have released members to enable St Peters to be the success it currently is. This morning the usual congregation was joined by the most senior Anglican Bishop in our nation, The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Right Revd Justin Welby, an unusual experience for any local Parish Church. Prior to speaking to the Church Justin Welby tweeted at about 11am “At St Peter’s Brighton, empty & closed 6 years ago, full and thriving today, thanks to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” It is tragic that the Archbishop had jumped to this conclusion or been led to believe the story he was tweeting was the truth. It of course makes a wonderful metaphor for death and resurrection, but there had not been a death at all, although it was inevitable that without a major injection of energy, membership and finances that closure of the church would have occurred. Because of the social media influence of Justin Welby 60 other people retweeted his message during the day and another 151 people favourited the message. I may not have been the only person to point out the mistake in the message, however I have not yet seen a response to myself or anyone else from the Archbishop. Perhaps the closest we will get is a tweet at about 5pm from Nicky Gumbel, the Father of one of the members of staff at St Peters and one of the founders of the Holy Trinity Brompton parent Church. His tweet appears to be a corrected version of the Archbishops tweet “About to be closed 6 years ago @ bursting at the seams this morning! #! #!” his tweet was retweeted by 82 people and favourited by 174.
The natural excitement that many of us experience when the Church grows must not lead to exaggeration or worse, particularly as those who dedicated their time and energy to keeping St Peters open over many years deserve to be honoured, not treated as though they simply passed away!