How Does Our Church Grow?
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Galatians 1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Galatians 2:7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
This morning at Trinity, we’re kicking off our fall stewardship campaign entitled Growing to Serve. Growth is appealing, isn’t it? We like to see our retirement savings grow. We like to see our paychecks grow. If we own a business, we like to see our clientele and our profits grow. Churches talk a lot about growth… maybe because data and statistics tell us we’re not doing very well at it. Across America, over the past couple of decades, churches are shrinking: shrinking in their membership, participation and giving.
But perhaps, to some degree, because we haven’t thought enough about what growth means. After all, not all growth is good. Consider weeds and cancer cells. No one wants to see those grow. So, indiscriminate growth is not necessarily a good thing.
Six months after I arrived at Trinity, in January of 2015, we brought in a church growth consultant, Rev. Dr. Dan Bonner of the Center for Urban Congregational Renewal. During his consultation time with us, Rev. Bonner challenged us to develop a vision statement and we did. It is the vision statement on your bulletin this morning. Will you read it with me: Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.
In discerning and developing that vision statement, Trinity named what growth would look like and how it would happen. Let me say that again: through that vision statement, we named what growth would look like AND how it would happen.
But before I say more about that, I want to take a moment to look at this morning’s scripture passage and what it tells us about the distinctive vision of the Apostle Paul’s ministry. Paul’s emotions run high in this letter to the church in Galatia because they have so tragically failed to comprehend and embrace Paul’s vision. You see, from the Book of Acts and onward, our New Testament reveals how Paul had been chosen by God for a very specific purpose: to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, those who were not Jews. Christianity began as a Jewish movement. But, it didn’t stay that way for long, to a large degree because of Paul. Paul hears a clear call from God to this distinctive ministry. In fact, he opens this letter to the Galatians with these words: Paul an apostle-- sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. In this morning’s portion of scripture, Paul elaborates on how God set him apart before birth; how he called Paul and revealed his Son to Paul, so that he might proclaim him among the Gentiles.
So Paul had a clear vision and a clear strategy. Yet not everyone agreed with it. You see, as an apostle to the Gentiles, Paul came to the conclusion that some Jewish laws or commandments were only cultural and not essential for salvation, things like circumcision and dietary laws. Other early apostles disagreed or were, at least, uncertain and uncomfortable with the change. But Paul remains firm. His is a distinctive call to a distinctive community with distinctive concerns. And Paul responded with faithfulness to God’s call over his life.
Paul has a lot to teach us. We are called to hold fast to the vision God has given us and to respond with faithfulness to God’s call. We, too, have a distinctive call to a distinctive community with distinctive concerns. Through the vision God has given us, we have identified what growth means for us and how that growth will happen. We have affirmed that the growth we are called to pursue is that of love and service; and that is certainly biblical. Numerous are the New Testament scriptures that emphasize that love, made visible through service, are the primary identifiers of disciples of Jesus: 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter; Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan; Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The writer of 1st John tells us that God is love and that we are to love “in truth and action.”
Although we always want to see our attendance grow, although we’d like to have more baptisms and new members, although we’d like to see pledges and giving increase, Trinity – through our vision statement – has affirmed that those are not our primary growth goal. Our primary growth goal is growing in love and service.
But how does that happen? The best goals are meaningless if there is no strategy to get you there. So we have proclaimed that this growth in love and service occurs through relationships; relationships with God and community. And so, since that vision statement was first crafted back in 2015, we have engaged in multiple initiatives to deepen our relationships with God and one another. Let me quickly name just a few of those:
Friends: I am ever amazed at how easy it has been to get our church to mask on Sunday morning. I listen to pastors whose congregations have and are still being ravaged by COVID and whose members refuse to vaccinate or mask. I know not all of you like masking. Frankly, I don’t either. It’s annoying. But, it is our compassion toward one another that has allowed us to endure something annoying and uncomfortable because our vision isn’t to be comfortable or assert our personal liberty. Our vision is to grow in love and service through relationships with God and community and we are doing that well.
So you all know, I wind up meeting with about 40% of the people who visit our church and, when I do, I generally ask them about their experience worshiping or engaging with us and I often hear a very common theme that, even with just one visit, they can detect that Trinity is a place that loves and serves and welcomes everyone. And that is a big deal. Perhaps congregational theologian, Susie Riley, put it best in her blog you received via email on Friday when she wrote: “Through Trinity’s outreach we have demonstrated God’s grace and love to people who don’t often feel welcomed or included in other faith communities.”
Our commitment to relationships with God and community has led to growth in love and service. And that is, finally, what our stewardship campaign is all about. We have bills and we have a budget…both of which are very important. But ultimately, we’re not funding budgets or bills. We are funding relationships; relationships with God and community that grow our love and our service.
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