Incarnational Church – UK Context FOUR Growing Pains

Growing Pains

‘Numbers are not important’. How many times I have heard that statement in connection with church growth? At one level I agree with the sentiment but not as an excuse for stagnation. I speak from experience because not everything we have done in our local church has produced numerical growth.

Growth, of course, is far more involved than merely the numbers of people who attend. There is a breadth to growth than needs to be seen in every area of the life of the people.
If we again take the life and ministry of Jesus as our example we can understand more of the implications of growth. There is a core of mystery as to why God sent the Son in the way that he did. Why did he come as a baby? Why did he live for over thirty years?
It seems to me that the context of the incarnation has significance. I am struck by the words of Hebrews chapter 13, verse 8 that describe Jesus as being the same ‘yesterday, today and forever’. At first glance it seems that change is out of the question.
Yet we also know that change took place. The Word ‘became’ flesh.[1]
The unchangingness of Jesus is to be seen in his essential character. His goodness, his truth and his faithfulness are all undiminished by the passage of time. In fact he is completely unaffected by the constraints of time other than in his own choice to be self-limited by it. The Kenosis[2] is the expression of this absolute commitment to his mission. The act of ‘becoming’ is the important factor for us here. God is showing to us in graphic and eternal terms how we are to ‘become’. The eternal, creative Word has become flesh in order to fulfil the will of God. We, the church, are to follow a similar path. We are to be unchanging in the essential nature of what God has made us to be yet, at the same time, we are to become a willing vessel for God.
The development of Jesus the man is shown to follow a similar pattern to that of other human beings. He is shown to learn, grow, hunger, cry and feel fatigue: the full range of humanities experiences. This means that the incarnation was not merely some singular event but a pilgrimage.
It is in this context that we in the Pentecostal church can learn a great deal about church growth. Pilgrimage is essential. We expect if of our natural children when we encourage them to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them. Parents and teachers consider the appropriate lessons that need to be learned at each stage of the growing process. So it is with those who come to faith and begin a journey within the community of the church. Richter and Francis speak of the importance of journey in their writings dealing with those who leave the church. ‘The church that is best at retaining its members is one that presupposes that individuals grow in faith, in their own time and in their own way.’[3] This is often a difficulty for Pentecostal churches. As with other revival movements a great deal of emphasis is made upon the crisis of conversion. Even where there is talk and consideration given to discipleship it is often done in very narrow terms with them emphasis placed heavily on conformity of belief. People find acceptance when they jump through a series of evangelical hoops and so even where doubt exists there is a pressure to conform.
Pilgrimage, however, is a life giving experience. It is possible to both hold to the idea of a cross encounter whilst encouraging an Emmaus Road journey.

[1] John 1:14
[2] Philippians 2:7
[3] ‘Gone but not Forgotten’ Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis Darton, Longman and Todd 1998

Incarnational Church – UK Context FOUR The Way You Start.......

My wife is a qualified midwife and when she was training I spent many hours listening to her descriptions of the birthing process. She always used to remind me that pregnancy was not an illness but a beautiful experience. I have to say that much of it sounded like an illness to my inexperienced mind. Some years later, at the birth of our first child, I saw the beauty for myself. Amazed to see this human being who previously ‘wasn’t’ now taking her first breaths. Now, four amazing daughters later, I am still completely in awe at the birth of baby.

We know, of course, that the birthing process can be problematic and every health care professional watches for the tell tale signs of danger.

The birth of a church should be watched in a similar way. Yet ultimately it is not the possibility of danger that should occupy our minds. This is a wonderful and awesome event as God breathes new life into the lungs of an infant church family. Its birth has to be inspired and managed by the Holy Spirit who blows wherever he wills. If a church begins for any other reason than the will of the Spirit then the results can be quite horrendous. A group of people might start to meet together after separating from another church. There may have been hurt and disappointment during the birthing process. Although this is not always the case the group can end up congregating around their disaffection for the previous group. Many of these people might have very little else in common: they may not have received prophetic input into their new situation. They are simply together because they no longer want to be with the previous church. This cannot be an acceptable birth and quite often groups like this either fold or they have to revisit the issues raised by the events of their beginnings. It must be an act of God that births a church. Schillebeeckx highlights the importance of the work of the Spirit even above an actually confrontation with the historical Jesus. His point is valid because only the very first churches were directly influenced by those who had seen Jesus in his physicality. One would expect that seeing Jesus would be the ideal beginning for any new group, but the plan of God did not contain this component.

In a similar way some of the things that we value most within our church communities can seem to be non-negotiable when it comes to forming churches. There is a heavy sense of value given to a particular style of corporate worship within the Pentecostal and charismatic movement. No doubt most Pentecostal worshippers would include this in what they consider to be an effective church. However a church that is conceived of by the Holy Spirit can be birthed and established even if there is a paucity of skilled musicians. On the other hand a church with the highest standard of musical expertise can flounder because it is not built on the right foundation.

I am committed to finding ways of raising the standard of the functions of the church but that in itself will not determine its success.

Incarnational Church – UK Context THREE A Genius Genesis


As soon as we begin our new-life journey we are faced with the frightening concept that we are joined together with a group of other people; the church. The moment I call God my Father I have to accept others as my sisters and brothers. Our union is as complete as our belonging to God.

Belonging is, in fact, a key mark of the New Birth event. Our sin, having separated us from our creator, has been defeated and the spoils of this cosmic war are that I am now re-connected to God. Not merely in a creator-creature relationship or a master-servant contract but as Father and beloved child. The cross, the greatest equaliser of all, demands that everyone who dares approach should bend the knee to the one Lord. Our self-sufficiency, our abilities, our wealth, our depravity, they are now neither aid nor hindrance to us. We all come through the same door, Christ Jesus.

As we embrace the Christ we have to embrace the idea that the church is a conception of God. It is often so easy, whether through disappointment or fear, to see the church as an optional extra in the plan and purposes of God. No matter how many times we experience the failure of the church we have to face the unending reality that it is God’s idea.

There is no ecclesiological failsafe on offer. This is not in anyway to excuse the church, including my own, from past errors and faults. It is just that we must begin our journey with this knowledge in our minds to ever have enough strength to allow God to finish the work he has started. If we believe that the church is somehow inferior to our own experiences and relationship to God then we will all to readily give up when difficult times appear. It is my continual sadness to meet Christians who have embraced the idea of personal salvation only to reject the church in response to the pain of rejection that they themselves have felt.

This in no way excuses those who have given up ‘meeting together’, but those of us in church leadership have to face the fact that we have often left a wake of disappointed and disconnected sisters and brothers behind us in our search for the holy grail of visionary success. I face the same question every time I think of those who have left our church feeling hurt and bruised. We pray for them often that they might know the blessing of God in a church family that can offer them what they need at that time.

What ever our experience of the church, the body of Christ, it was conceived of by God.