Focus on growth

31 Jan 2020 by Jonathan Foye in: Features

In July 2019, the NSW and ACT Synod adopted a proposal to prioritise growth in churches. While it is early days, the Synod is turning its’ focus toward growth across the Synod – in discipleship, relationship, number and impact.

“In my view it would be constructive for all congregations and church councils to consider the Focus on Growth report to Synod 2019 and the resolution and to respond in ways that are relevant to the community in which they are called to witness,” the General Secretary, Rev. Jane Fry has said of the strategy. “This strategy promotes growth in discipleship, relationship, number and impact – all the areas upon which we as a Synod committed to focus ourselves.”

Rev. Kent Crawford was one of the group who introduced the proposal to Synod. He told Insights that it was important that the Uniting Church prioritise growth.

“The first point I’d make is that prioritising growth gives us an orientation,” Rev. Crawford said.

“Some of our Presbytery leaders, myself included, put together the Growth Proposal in order to help orient our life and work together as a Synod and across our Presbyteries towards enabling flourishing within and through our Congregations. Another way to say this might be, that if we do our work faithfully and well in the Synod and Presbyteries, that our Congregations will be known, loved, fed, nourished and built up; our congregations will be growing.

“The Synod and Presbyteries can’t grow the Church; only local communities of faith like Congregations, Faith Communities and Parish Missions can be the locations of the growth that God continues to bring. The second, and more important point, is that growth is something God is about, so the Church prioritising it should have always been a no-brainer, as they say.

“It’s important to acknowledge that often God’s dreams and promises around growth stand in contrast to the way in which growth, as a concept, is used and prioritised in a market economy and in much of our political discourse. Uniting Justice’s An Economy of Life: Re-Imagining Human Progress for a Flourishing World is a good document for us to keep wrestling with as it asks: “How could the dominant cultural values of acquisitiveness and greed, materialism, competition, consumerism and individualism be challenged by Christian values such as justice, peace, compassion, community, hospitality, generosity, truth and grace?”

“When Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” he was expressing an understanding of God and God’s goal for life as wholeness, fullness, the flourishing of all Creation.

“Growing in discipleship, relationship, number and impact is a priority for us as we need to urge and support one another to further and deepen our walk with Christ towards that wholeness, that fullness, that flourishing, for the sake of all Creation.”

How will the Church grow?

Through the Synod decision, the NSW and ACT Synod has decided to prioritise growth, but what now? How will the church go about bringing about this growth?

“It’s still early days…but the Synod Leadership Team and all of the Synod boards have been asked to give some thought to how they might – individually and collectively – respond to the Synod 2019 resolution,” Rev. Fry explained.

“In addition, one of the priorities will be the creation of a Synod Mission Resourcing strategy in response to the proposal.”

​“The Focus on Growth resolution was framed to reflect the shared responsibilities of all the Councils of the church (Congregation, Church Council, Presbytery, and Synod) in being church creatively and hopefully into the future. This effectively means that all the councils of the church in this Synod are being asked to orientate themselves towards the future and prioritise growth initiatives.”

“The Synod Standing Committee has (re)instituted a process to meet with representatives of each Presbytery at its meetings over the next 12 months,” Rev. Crawford said.

“One of the topics in those conversations will be asking how Presbyteries are currently set up in their context to resource and support Congregational growth and to identify opportunities and gaps in our capacity to support growth across the Synod. What help do Presbyteries and Congregations need in order to grow in discipleship, to grow in relationship, to grow in number and grow in impact? This is crucial and contextually-relevant information that the Synod Standing Committee needs to know.”

Tertiary ministry could be a key to growth

Rev. Crawford is the presbytery minister for Sydney Presbytery. He nominated tertiary ministry across UNSW, UTS and Sydney University as one particular avenue through which Sydney would be working to prioritise growth.

“When we engage students on campus around questions of vocation, and values and the compelling story of discipleship, and when we connect them with worshipping communities nearby and provide them affordable housing, we see young people make a commitment to live their lives within and through the Church as the Body of Christ in and for the world,” he said.

The congregations that grow

Congregations that are wanting to experience growth can take note of a few key observations, notes Rev. Crawford.

“The Congregations that are growing in our Presbytery exhibit a few different traits.” he said.

“Some congregations exhibit a strong capacity to include newcomers. Beyond welcoming, which is always the best start, is to make people feel included by connecting them relationally and organisationally into the Congregation. Some of our smaller Congregations like Balmain and Mustard Seed, for example, do this really well. The NCLS data shows that 24 per cent of congregants in our Presbytery want to be more involved; our growing churches make opportunities for this to happen.

“Some congregations have clarified their part in God’s mission in such a clear way that it attracts people looking to express their faith within and through their life and activity. Wayside attracts 800 volunteers to their local activities in Kings Cross and Bondi who want to participate in ‘creating community with no Us and Them’. Newtown Mission’s passion for following Jesus, walking alongside the vulnerable and living God’s good news story with creativity and love sees people connecting with their Jordan Café as well as their Creative Arts Centre. Wesley Mission’s Word and Deed ministries continue to flourish as they disciple people in the Wesleyan way: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

“Congregations that grow have, in some small or large way, figured out how to make disciples who make disciples. Making disciples is one thing, but it can too easily become making consumers of our discipleship-flavoured offerings. Making disciples who make disciples is the whole game.

The National Church Life Survey has developed a model of church vitality associated with growing churches. According to the NCLS, congregations that grow have a number of similar traits.

These include:

  • Internal Core Qualities (Alive and growing faith, Vital and nurturing worship, Strong and growing belonging),
  • Inspirational Core Qualities (Clear and owned vision, Inspiring and empowering leadership culture, Imaginative and flexible innovation.) and
  • Outward Core Qualities (Practical and diverse service, Willing and effective faith sharing, Intentional and welcoming inclusion.)

David Cornford, Head of Mission Strategy at Uniting Mission and Education, was one of the Synod members who introduced the growth proposal.

“It’s easy to imagine that churches … that are doing well across these dimensions are more likely to grow,” he said.

“One thing I’d add – churches that grow are willing to change. Everyone God sends is a gift, helping us to change to become the church God is calling us to be. A church that has grown in discipleship, relationship, number and impact will be different to how it was before.”