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Ecclesia and Growth: What is the growth God is really looking for?

Date: 25/07/2021/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

When the words “church growth” is mentioned, there will be a variety of opinions from different people — what growing the church means as well as how to go about it. What do you think constitutes “church growth”?  

*Question 1 (Multiple Choice) 

What is church growth to you?  

  1. Increase in attendance 
  1. Increase in giving  
  1. Increase in membership 
  1. Increase in cell groups 
  1. All of the above 
  1. Something more! 

It is this “something more” that I want to focus on in this sermon. Not that numbers are not important. In fact, we do rely on these quantitative markers to help us have a sense of how we are doing as a church. But we all know deep inside that growing a church is something much more than just numbers. It is this intangible yet extremely important part that I want to spend some time reflecting on together with you this morning.   

Is “church growth” about adopting the right strategies and tactics to reach the right people? Is it about relying on God to make the growth happen? Or is it a both-and approach?  

Jesus teaches us about growth in Mark 4:26-29 (NRSV) with this metaphor: 

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 

Many of us grew up in the city and we don’t have much exposure to farming. Yet Jesus in the gospels often used farming analogies because that was very familiar to the people then. I grew up in Singapore but I’m very thankful that I got to live in some of the more rural areas in Japan when I was serving there. *One year I was living in Nagano, in this beautiful place that was surrounded by mountains and across from the house that I was living in was a paddy field – a field where they grew rice. So I got the chance to witness how rice was grown through the months. In June, the farmer would start tilling the soil so that the seeds could be scattered in rows. Then I saw how the seeds would grow into saplings and then grow into stalks, and finally form kernels and ripen over time. *In June, the fields would be green but by October, the fields would have turned golden. And that was harvest time!  

In the passage we read earlier, Jesus used a farming analogy to explain how the kingdom of God grows. Once the farmer plants the seed, it grows by itself. The farmer isn’t in control of that process, and doesn’t even fully understand it. *Growth happens naturally but the farmer also needs to do the hard work necessary to create the best conditions for the rice to grow. They are in the fields everyday preparing the soil, irrigating the field, protecting the saplings and rice kernels from bugs, and harvesting when the time is ready.  

That’s how church growth works. We do the hard work necessary to create the best conditions for growth to happen. But we are not in control of the process and we don’t even fully understand what causes growth. What we do know is that God takes care of that part and sometimes even when we don’t realize it, God is causing growth within us and amongst us. A combination of divine conception and human endeavour.     

Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 3:6. He said he planted the churches, Apollos came along and watered the seed, but it was God who gave the increase. In a sense, the growth of a church is all up to God but we humans have our part to play too. It’s a both/and approach, as with many things of God. God is always wanting to co-create with us.   

In previous years, we did annual pulse surveys at FCC to find out how our congregation is doing spiritually and relationally, and to understand better what the gaps and needs are. We had many people respond by saying they wanted more spiritual growth. That’s wonderful, isn’t it? I’m encouraged that people in our community want to grow spiritually. But what does growing spiritually really mean?   

*Question 2 (Open Question) 

What does growing spiritually mean to you?  

*I think spiritual growth begins with first being rooted and grounded in God’s love as we are deeply formed and transformed in Christ. In the process, we are filled with the fullness of God for the fulfilment of God’s plan in and through us.   

This sounds nice in theory, right? But have you ever felt disillusioned about this promise of spiritual transformation? People often say they want to see growth and transformation but then we look around and we look at ourselves, and we realize nothing much seems to be changing. Maybe we are a bit better at controlling our negative behaviour or hiding our bad attitudes but how many of us are being transformed at the deepest levels of our being? 

It is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community, but not change at all in ways that count. The troubling reality is that believers can be deeply committed to being Christian without ever being deeply formed in Christ. This is sadly true of many churches, not just here.  

 
We need to restore depth, focus, and meaning for our souls. If not, spiritual growth will always seem like an abstract concept and stay out of reach.  

Ironically, I think the real growth that creates and sustainably supports the growth of a church in tangible forms (such as numbers and funding) is the intangible growth that happens within us and amongst us. And that’s why focusing on the “something more” is important.  

*Ruth Haley Barton wrote about spiritual transformation and she said: 

“Spiritual transformation is the process by which Christ is formed in us – for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others; it results in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God. Spiritual transformation in the lives of redeemed people is a testimony to the power of the gospel; indeed, it is an act of worship…For all these reasons and more, spiritual transformation is central to the message of the gospel and therefore central to the mission of the church.” 

Ruth Haley Barton, Living Together In Christ: Experiencing Transformation In Community    

Our transformation really is for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, AND for the sake of others. How could it not be? If the heart of Christ is really being formed in us, how could it not result in a heart for the world? 

This is what leads to transforming communities. 

But let’s start with baby steps. Some of us may not feel like we know what it means to be deeply formed in Christ but we have all definitely experienced growth in various ways. And I believe that often growth happens in the valleys. In the past year of challenges and uncertainties, perhaps there are aspects of your life where you have seen growth, and I want to honour and celebrate that too.  

*Question 3 (Open Question) 

In what ways have you grown in this past year?  

For me, one of the goals I had in the beginning of this year was to grow in the area of pastoral leadership. Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize more and more that pastoring a church requires a lot of internal work as well as organizational leadership skills. When we go to seminary or bible college, they prepare you for many things but often, organizational leadership is not one of them. Yet, this is one area many pastors need in order to lead and pastor a church. And I realized there were gaps in this area that I needed to grow in.   

So I intentionally set aside time to read books and listen to podcasts on leadership and on my own spiritual formation as a Christ follower. I still have a long way to go but I have been greatly enriched and gained much in the process. And I hope it helps me be a better pastor and leader along the way.      

*As I was reflecting, I realized that desire is the beginning of the spiritual journey. What do you long for? Do you feel a longing for love, a longing for God, a longing to live your life as it is meant to be lived in God? When was the last time you felt a longing for healing and transformation within you? This is actually one of the most important questions we could ever ask.  

Barton said, “In the Church, we are more accustomed to talking about suppressing our desire and focus on things that are more selfless and spiritual. We are afraid of desire because it seems dangerous and unpredictable. What if my desires lead me down the wrong path? Or worse, what if I uncover the longing and desire deep within me only to discover that these desires cannot be met? How will I live with desire that is awake and alive rather than asleep and repressed? These are some of the deepest questions of the human soul and Jesus often asked people questions that helped them to get in touch with their desire and name it in his presence. He brought focus and clarity to those who were spiritually hungry by asking them, *“What do you want? What do you want me to do for you?” 

One example is Jesus’ encounter with blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) where the question about desire is the turning point in this story. *Bartimaeus had been begging by the roadside for some time though we don’t know how long. He heard that Jesus was passing by and somehow he had the sense that Jesus could do something for him that no one else had been able to do. But it was noisy and crowded in Jericho that day and in order to get Jesus’ attention, Bartimaeus had to reach deep within and from that place of need and desire, cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” *And Jesus heard him that day, above all the other voices that were clamoring for his attention. In that crowd, Bartimaeus couldn’t have been the only one asking for Jesus’ attention but the honesty and desperation in his cry stopped Jesus in his tracks. In fact, the people around him were embarrassed by such an honest expression of need and tried to silence him. But Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” His soul cry captured Jesus’ attention and Jesus called him over. As they stood face to face, Jesus asked him the question that required Bartimaeus to name his desire: “What do you want me to do for you?” And he said, “I want to see!” 

Miak has preached on this passage before and he would often say, “Isn’t the answer obvious? Surely blind Bartimaeus wanted to see.” Then he shares that the lesson in this story is that we can’t assume we know what people want and also, there is power in people recognizing and naming what they want and need. And this is so true. Are you able to name what you want and need? There is another level to this question Jesus asked. For someone whose spiritual journey is unfolding, this question penetrates to the very core of our being. And it is a very personal question. Imagine Jesus asking you, “What do you want me to do for you?” It brings us face to face with our humanity, our vulnerability, our need. “Beyond the superficial things of this life, what do you really want me to do for you?”    

*Growth actually begins with desire.  

Your desire for more of God, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you. You might think that your woundedness or your sinfulness is the truest thing about you or that your giftedness or your personality type or your job title or your identity as partner, parent or child somehow defines you.  

*“But in reality, it is your desire for God and your capacity to reach for more of God than you have right now that is the deepest essence of who you are. There is a place within each one of us that is spiritual in nature, the place where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit about our truest identity. Here God’s Spirit dwells with our spirit, and here our truest desires make themselves known. 

The stirring of spiritual desire indicates that God’s Spirit is already at work within us, drawing us to God’s self. We love God because God first loved us. We long for God because God first longed for us. We reach for God because God first reached for us. Nothing in the spiritual life originates with us. It all originates with God.”  

Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our lives for spiritual transformation 

So we know that growth begins with desire. And I would like to assume that all of you who are attending this service have some level of desire to grow spiritually. If not, you wouldn’t be here. We know we cannot transform ourselves – God is the one who changes us – but there is something we can do: we can create the conditions in which spiritual transformation takes place. Just like the farmer creates the best conditions for the rice to grow, we can exercise spiritual disciplines that help us grow. Some of these disciplines take place when we are alone with God in solitude. Others take place in community with other Christ-followers. Still others take place outside this community when we do the work of compassion, justice and reconciliation.  

*Question 4 (Multiple choice) 

What kind of spiritual disciplines would you like to focus on in this season?  

  1. Those where I am alone with God in solitude 
  1. Those where I am together in community with others 
  1. Those where I am engaged with work outside this community  
  1. All of the above 

*Growth begins with desire but we can’t do it alone. Growth can only continue when we participate meaningfully in a transforming community. “As iron sharpens iron,  one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  

In my life, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing what it’s like to be a part of a transforming community. FCC is a transforming community is some ways but I would say we’re still at the beginning stages. And I hope we can grow together to truly be a transforming community. In order to do so, we need to firstly have a shared understanding of what spiritual transformation is. We also need a shared language for talking about and encouraging one another in the process, and a shared commitment to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation.  

In the past year, one thing I have been especially thankful for is for like-minded female pastor friends. There are four of us and we have a shared understanding of what spiritual transformation is, and we have a shared language for talking about and encouraging one another in the process. We share our stories and our struggles. We seek each other for help and input, and together we also plot to bring down the patriarchy. J And our conversations are often long, filled with laughter and truly life-giving. I would say I’m a better person and pastor because of them. You will all get to meet and hear from one of them soon because Pastor Charmaine Nah will be preaching at our church next Sunday.  

This group of friends helped me see what a transformative community can do and I am thankful we already have elements of this here in FCC. We do have a lot of potential to grow in this area and I believe we can do so if each of us is willing. I want to pause here to invite those of you who are not yet members of FCC to prayerfully consider if this community is where you want to grow together with others. There is something about committing to one another and that is what membership is really about. It’s saying, “I am all in. I want to help you to grow and I want you to help me to grow. This is where I feel safe and supported to grow spiritually.” If membership is something you are considering or have questions about, please reach out to us at info@freecomchurch.org. If you are already a member, I hope we can work together to create a more transformative community.     

As we are changed into more loving, willing Christ-followers, we become the presence of Christ in this world that God loves. Christian spiritual formation is for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others.  

In his article, Four Shapes of Transformation, Richard Rohr said that as our understanding of God evolves and deepens, our moral and spiritual development evolves as well. *He breaks it down to for major stages: Cleaning Up, Growing Up, Waking Up and Showing Up.  

He says pastors and ministers tend to preach about Cleaning Up the most and we don’t do it very well. We largely reflected the moral preoccupations of the dominant culture in every age and every denomination. Our understanding of morality was very superficial and reflected our not-so-grown-up culture’s values of various “purity codes”. These were bound to our time in history and seldom driven by the brilliance of Jesus’ moral ideals, which have to do, first of all, with our inner attitudes. Mature morality is largely a series of religious encounters leading to a deep transformation of consciousness. Any preoccupation with our private moral perfection keeps our eyes on ourselves and not on God or grace or love. Cleaning up is mostly about the need for early impulse control and creating necessary ego boundaries.   

Growing Up refers to the process of psychological and emotional maturity that people undergo both personally and culturally. We all grow up, even if inside our own bubbles. The social structures that surround us highly color, strengthen, and also limit how much we can grow up and how much of our own shadow self we will be able to face and integrate. 

Waking Up refers to any spiritual experience which overcomes our experience of the self as separate from God. It should be the goal of all spiritual work, including prayer, Bible study, and religious services of any type. The purpose of waking up is not personal or private perfection, but surrender, love, and union with God. This is the Christian meaning of salvation or enlightenment. 

Showing Upmeans bringing our heart and mind into the actual suffering and problems of the world. It means engagement, social presence, and a sincere concern for justice and peace for others beyond ourselves. If we do not have a lot of people showing up in the suffering trenches of the world, it is probably because those of us in the world of religion have merely focused on either cleaning up, growing up, or waking up. Showing up is the full and final result of the prior three stages.  

Personally, I think these stages are helpful to us in thinking about growth but I don’t think it’s a linear progression. I think we all continue to grow up, wake up and show up at various points. This is God’s work of continual transformation in our lives.  

*Question 5 (Word Cloud) 

What resonated with you about growth today?  

As we wrap up the sermon today, I want to leave you with this prayer. This was Paul’s prayer for the spiritual growth of the Ephesians and it is my prayer for you.  

*Ephesians 3:15-21 (The Inclusive Bible) 

That is why I kneel before Abba God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. And I pray that God, out of the riches of divine glory, will strengthen you inwardly with power through the working of the Spirit. May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To God—whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine— to God be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.