In lots of ways we have had a really encouraging couple of years as a church. We have had more baptisms in the past two years than any of us can remember and we have grown in our membership and congregation on a Sunday. Particularly on a Sunday morning in school term time there is a delightful energy about a room full of people from different backgrounds, generations and nationalities meeting to praise God and hear from Him. All of which makes me somewhat nervous of the fact that we are currently thinking and praying about changing everything in a year’s time.
The reason for change is our capacity on a Sunday morning. We can seat two hundred and are regularly around the 160 mark. That means there is space- if you are arrive in Oxford and are looking for a church then please join us- but it is decreasing. We need to make changes. That can lead to a certain wistfulness on my part. I like the way it is now. It seems to work. By its very nature, change is unpredictable and uncertain. What might we lose of what we enjoy now?
And yet there is part of me that is glad that we have to wrestle with this. Last summer I read Ray Evans’ book Ready Steady Grow. It is particularly interesting in addressing some of the challenges faced by medium sized churches, which is the category that we fall into. Ray is pointed at times- “Medium sized churches become stuck in their comfortable ways, adopt a conservative attitude to change and can lose their sense of what brought them together in the first place.” The result of this is what he describes as the plateau effect- “The place where success and comfort combine to prevent the church taking risks and making changes to keep reaching out with the Gospel.”
I think he is right. Churches like ours have potential dangers as they drift along in a vaguely encouraging way. We can fail to see the need to reach out boldly with the Gospel. Smaller churches have to reach out- they know that their building is half empty and that people need the Gospel. It is easy for churches like ours not to sense that need. Likewise it can be easy for medium sized churches to lose a sense of dependence on the Lord as things run along fairly smoothly. To be honest I have always been quite keen to introduce a degree of discomfort into the life of the church so that we might be forced to depend on God. In addition it is easy for us to forget that God blesses churches for a purpose- namely that they might bless others rather than simply relax and enjoy it. God has done great good to us over these past couple of years. But from those to whom much is given much will be demanded.
In other words I am glad that our capacity challenges are forcing us to think and depend upon the Lord that we might work out how we can move forward for His glory. Throughout history the Lord has a great way of providentially moving His people on. I was struck by that recently when I was considering Acts. The great issue of the book is how the message of the risen Jesus will go to the ends of the earth. There are lots of encouragements in the first seven chapters but not a lot of movement outwards. It would have been easy for the early believers to enjoy to fellowship in Jerusalem. But then great persecution arrives which ironically led to Christians fleeing Jerusalem and spreading the Gospel as they went. As the story winds on you find the Lord providentially directing His mission- putting burdens on people’s hearts about particular places, closing some doors and opening others and giving wisdom to the people as they make plans. The Lord ensures that His mission brings in a variety of new believers- a trader, a slave girl and a prison guard being the first people reached in Philippi. Overall, the Lord doesn’t let His people stop: He is constantly moving His great mission forward.
I have found it helpful to reflect on this whilst thinking about possible changes. In part it defeats the wistfulness of wanting things to remain the same. The Lord doesn’t allow that for He has a greater purpose than our comfort in mind. It also makes the issue bigger than simply thinking about timings of services, whether we have lunch and so on. The Lord is moving us on in the great work of His Gospel going to the nations and reaching a variety of people. That should excite us and govern how we think through what changes could be made. And we can be confident that the Sovereign Lord can open and close the right doors as we move forward.
There are two applications I have in mind. Firstly, we need consciously to depend upon our Sovereign Lord and ask that He might lead us forward. I genuinely don’t know the right way forward but that is not a bad place to be in. Secondly, we need to have His priorities as we think about this. There are reasons why the questionnaire that has gone out to the church starts with the question- “What will help us to reach out with the Gospel?” as opposed to “What do you prefer?” We are still in the period when the great work of God is to lead His people in the spread of the Gospel. Whatever conclusion we come to it needs to be marked by a Gospel vision. One of the options would be to plant a church service elsewhere- this has quite clear Gospel benefits. The Lord may close that door in which case a decision to stay solely in our current base needs to be made with a Gospel vision in mind. Perhaps that might be to pray that with additional space created we grow so that we can send out more missionaries to less reached harvest fields or perhaps employ somebody whose main focus will be to help us to reach out into the local community. Those are just vague thoughts (don’t read a great plan into them!) but what matters is that we have a heart for the kind of thing that Acts shows us are central to the Lord’s purpose- the risen Jesus being proclaimed.
There are big decisions ahead for us. I am glad we have to make them for it forces us to depend on the Lord. And I am praying that whatever happens would involve the Lord leading us forward for the glory of His name through the spread of the Gospel to all groups of people.