There has been a lot of debate with the CofE over the past few months that orbits around the agenda of church growth. The Green Report which was made public earlier in the year, though not primarily about church growth but about preparing people for senior leadership and responsibility, drew a huge amount of criticism for what was thought to be an unhealthy emphasis on the language and techniques of enterprise and business.
More recently there was been a significant debate on the nature of church growth and the role of leadership to bring it about. On my own Twitter feed I was able to witness a sharp disagreement between Ian Paul and Giles Fraser on the relative roles of church, vicar and God in bringing about/or not bringing about growth.
One common response to the Green Report was to criticise its lack of theology. It was in my view unfairly accused of jettisoning theology in favour of the techniques of enterprise simply because the document contained little out and out theology. Defenders of the report replied that it did not set out to be a piece of reflective theology but a contribution to a conversation in which theology was clearly an inportant partner.
Theological reflection on these issues is precisely about dialoguing theologically with experiences learnt in other fields. That is one thing the church does so well, and Justin Welby’s leadership experience in the oil industry, which has been subtly maligned by some in the light of the Green Report, is something we should welcome at a strategically critical time.
But theologies can overreach themselves and become deaf to realities and experience, particularly when these threaten a strongly held position or expose a weakness or a wound. Whilst Giles Fraser’s piece on the theology of failure was a powerful and brilliant re-emphasis of the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not the whole story. Success and growth in the Kingdom have a gospel trajectory of downward mobility and resurrection. Success is not necessarily an empty church, with the weeds growing through the floor. Success is a church that has experienced failure, perhaps even emptiness, with courage, faith and the gospel of the cross and resurrection. Success is a church on a journey through the cross and the grave and out the other side (perhaps over and over again).
I would want to add another theme to the debate however. As well as good entrepreneurial leadership, and good theology we desperately need good spirituality, good Christian spirituality. This will be a many faceted thing. It will however be something unique, something particular to the nature of church leadership. In light of the current debates there is one aspect of this I would want to try and describe.
The church growth agenda does throw up huge challenges for church leaders. Not least the question – what might I do to enable my church to grow? There are no end of recent books written advising the church leader on what he or she might do. At the same time we are fond of praying in the light of Psalm 127:1 ‘unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain’. Work hard. Pray hard. Work and pray hard. And what will be the end result? Growth? Perhaps? But at what cost? Exhaustion, burnout, depression, disillusionment? A generation of church leaders who can produce results but no-one wants to imitate?
Much of the current language of growth errs far too much on our natural inclination to do something. To be the architects of our own success. We might give the nod to God for doing it all, but as something of an afterthought. Eugene Peterson explores this same dilemma through an insight from the nature of Greek verbs (well he would wouldn’t he!). Greek has passive and active tenses. But it also has a tense that is lacking in English, the active-passive tense. It is what you might call a ‘middle voice’. The middle voice describes activity where ‘I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates’
Actively participating in the results of an action initiated by another – that sounds a lot like ministry!? Ministry earthed in good theology. It is Christ’s Kingdom and Christ’s church which he has founded but which we are graciously invited to actively participate in. We therefore minister with a healthy scepticism toward too much activity rooted in the active tense, where it is ourselves constantly initiating. We are also not inclined to embrace a theology of complete passivity, for God’s grace suggests an invitation to join in. He has something for us to do! We therefore seek to practise an active-passivity, a ‘middle voice ministry’, that encourages us to hold our initiatives lightly, reflectively, humbly and honours the initiative of God highly and reverently.
For me the key to practising this active-passivity is prayer, not so much prayer of the intercessory kind, though that is important too. No, prayer of the contemplative kind. Prayer whereby we are predominantly in listening mode, listening for God’s initiative so that in hearing it we might more confidently participate.
Bishop John V Taylor wrote a generation ago, ‘we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned divine initiative into a human enterprise’.
There is nothing wrong with human enterprise, but everything wrong with it in terms of Christian leadership when it becomes untethered from or outpaces divine initiative. To guard against this happening we must rediscover our middle voice. We must become contemplative leaders, able to lead in an enterprising fashion, but from a place of deep listening.