A growing community

Good morning, Friends!

Ever since New Year’s, we’ve been talking about different views of what it means to be a spiritual community – a community that prays, a community that lives in unity, a community based on hope. Today I want to talk about spiritual communities that grow.

Numbers are something that churches tend to get anxious and depressed about. We worry about our budget, we blame ourselves, we compare where we are now to the “good old days” of the past. All that church leaders have to do is just say the word “growth” and people tense up.

So, let’s turn down the anxiety dial to begin with. I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and I don’t believe in magic solutions. I’m not going to suggest that we change who we are. I don’t have a 7-point plan to triple our numbers in 90 days. Nothing like that.

What I would like to do is to change our expectations. What I’d really like to do, is feed our faith. I’d like us to remember that God is the one who helps everyone grow. And I’d like to open the door to hope. That’s the really important thing. A lot of churches have stopped hoping. And that’s not a good thing.

Let’s start with the Bible. The place to watch the church really growing is in the book of Acts. That’s where all the exciting stuff takes place. I’ve chosen six short Scriptures, all from Acts, which are printed in your bulletin today.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 )

The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Acts 9:31)

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase. ( Acts 5:12-14)

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:21)

When Barnabas arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:24)

So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily. (Acts 16:5)

Did you notice something that all these stories have in common? The church was growing! Every one of those readings testifies that the church was growing.

They were growing in numbers. They were growing in faith. They were growing in the Spirit. They shared what they had with each other. They got together for meals. They kept learning more and more about Jesus. They saw miracles all around them, every day.

They felt that the hand of the Lord was with them, not against them. They welcomed each other into their homes. They lived in peace with each other. They prayed for each other. They were so filled with life, they couldn’t imagine not coming to worship together.

These were not easy times for Christians. Not at all! But as every one of the Scriptures we read this morning testifies, they kept on growing.

They didn’t have consultants. They didn’t have plans. About the only plan they had was to say, “See you next Sunday, and let’s pray for each other in the mean time!” They knew that Jesus is alive, and they knew that Jesus was beside them, helping them, every day.

There were a few big mass conversions, but mostly when you read the book of Acts, it seems to have been one by one – one person or one family at a time, one small group or one congregation that was hungry for the good news.

So, when I talk about church growth, I’m not interested in some slick, commercial “growth package.” I don’t buy most of the books they sell. I think that growth happens, in the same way that seeds grow. It’s small things, often invisible things, that no one sees.

I told you a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been a part of several Friends meetings which grew tremendously while I was there. Those meetings didn’t have any magic tricks. What they did have, was love and faith, and a willingness to grow. Let me share some growth stories with you.

I

One story I always remember, was a woman who told me why she joined one of the first meetings I worked with. Her name was Agnes, and Agnes was an extremely shy person. She was terrified of crowds, and she was terrified of strangers.

For somebody like Agnes, just walking in the door of a strange church was a near-death experience. She was very young, and lonely, and somehow she found the courage to come to our meeting one Sunday.

And the first person to see her was a woman who was a few years older, who always sat in the back pew. Her name was Minerva. Minerva Bennett. Minerva wasn’t on any committee, and she was pretty shy herself. But Minerva saw how scared Agnes was, and she reached out and touched her hand. And she said, “Come sit here, right by me, dear, and I’ll be your friend.” And Agnes and Minerva sat there next to each other, every Sunday, for the next fifty years.

It may not seem like much. But just by being friends, they doubled the number of people who worshiped in that spot. Reaching out, welcoming, being a friend, is one of the single most effective things we can ever do to grow the church.

People want friends. People like to be liked. It’s pretty simple. But taking the first step to welcome someone is just about the most important thing we can do.

Let me tell you another growth story. Same Friends meeting, different person.

II

When I arrived at Adirondack Friends, we didn’t have any young children. Hadn’t had any for quite a while. Not many young families, either.

But there was one woman, a woman named Bea, who decided to get something started. She didn’t ask anybody. She just showed up one week, with a Sunday lesson, all prepared. She brought along a bright yellow carry box full of scissors and glue and popsicle sticks and felt. She was ready to make all the little figures to tell her Bible story.

No kids were there. Bea wasn’t discouraged. “They’ll come,” she said. No kids came, for six months.

Every week, Bea showed up with a fresh lesson, and more craft supplies. She didn’t bring the stuff she brought the week before. This was a new week, and she was ready.

In the mean time, Bea cleaned the nursery, which was looking pretty tired. We threw out all the broken toys, that might be a hazard to the little ones. We took two car loads of stuff to the dump. I found a few dollars and we painted the nursery. Still no kids. Bea made new curtains. Still no kids.

This went on for half a year, every single week, and a lot of people in the meeting thought Bea was maybe just a little crazy.

But then, one of the families in the meeting had a baby. Then Joyce and I had one. Then there were a couple more. Then people started coming to worship who already had small children. Bea was ready to take them all in. A year or so later, Bea needed a helper. No one could believe it!

This is what I was talking about last week. Hope is believing, when you can’t see the results in front of you. That’s the definition of hope. It’s praying, and working, when the future is out of sight.

Bea herself, was the candle in the darkness. She was the believer, when nobody else in the meeting believed.

Growth happens, when you build on hope, not fear. God sent the people. But Bea was ready for them, when they came. And she believed, with all her heart, that Jesus loves the little children. She wanted to there for the party, whenever it happened.

In five years, the meeting had doubled in size. It wasn’t a flood. It was one by one, one person or one family being loved as they came.

I love growth stories! I love hearing them. I love being a part of them. Here’s another:

III

The very first Friends meeting I worked with, we went from 12 people at worship every Sunday, to 90 people, in just two years. It was in the heart of the city, and today I think I’d call it a hipster congregation.

They had been worshiping every Sunday for more than 20 years without growing. They were satisfied with staying a tiny little group. But somehow, it became the right place at the right time for a lot of people to start coming there.

One of the things I remember best about that meeting, was its diversity. There was a Chinese doctor. There was an African-American guy, who was a florist. For a while, there was a Japanese Buddhist monk. He didn’t speak much English, but he radiated love for the whole human race. You just felt better when this guy walked in the room.

There was a professional guitar builder, teachers, and some computer people. It was not a family type of meeting. For a while, Joyce and I were one of only two married couples in the entire congregation. The only other couple were in their 70’s, and had spent many years working as diplomats in Switzerland.

There were people from all over the place. And it was really exciting! People talk about being accepting and diverse, but this was the real deal. And we all loved it.

We had fun together. Three of them put on an opera by Mozart, and we filled the place. We had folk dances, four or five times a year.

But the worship was what really drew everyone. Every now and then here at Springfield, we have special moments where the Holy Spirit feels really present. The folks at this meeting felt it all the time. The reason people came was to feel the Spirit and to hear the ministry. That was their expectation!

And it was so real. Like some Friends meetings of this type, there were leaders, but there was no pastor. Everyone was truly a minister!

People would pray, or share something from the Bible, or ask a question, and then leave it up to the whole group to respond. We expected ministry!

We filled every seat in every pew, and every folding chair we had. There were people sitting in corners and on the floor, and all the way up the stairs, because they wanted to worship there.

It didn’t happen overnight. People came week by week. But we went from 12 people, to over 90 people, simply by being a place of prayer and ministry. It was amazing!

One more growth story. I’m sharing this, because I have seen this stuff happen, with my own eyes. This is not just stuff from Bible times, a couple of thousand years ago. I can’t predict or control when growth happens in a congregation, but I have witnessed it.

IV

The meeting I served before I came here to High Point was in a college town. There were two seminaries nearby, so that was a big advantage. Every year, the whole time I served there, we had a huge turnover. Every year, 20% of the people who were there, hadn’t been there the year before.

But completely apart from that college-crowd turnover, in addition to it, we added a lot of permanent people to the meeting – folks who stayed for five years or more. And when I think about the keys that unlocked that meeting and helped us grow, I remember two things.

The first thing was accessibility. We got really serious about including everybody, and about tearing down any barriers to people’s full participation in everything.

We started out with large-print Bibles and large-print bulletins for people who needed them. We bought a special hearing system, so that everyone could hear everything that was said.

We tore out a couple of pews and shortened them, to create special places in the worship room for people who lived in wheelchairs. We put grab bars in all the bathrooms, and remodeled one bathroom to make it fully wheelchair accessible.

The meeting was built on a split level, and you had to go up 13 steps to reach the worship room. There was a stair lift to help people up to the worship level, but it took two people to operate it and it was scary to ride on.

One of our members, whose wife had to use a walker, hated the stair life, and gave the meeting a challenge grant to put in an elevator. We raised the rest of the money in three months.

It was expensive, and a lot of people in the meeting said it wasn’t worth it. I was one of those people at first. We thought that only one or two people a week would use the elevator. But within a year, at least 10 or 15 people were using it every Sunday, and half of them hadn’t been coming to our meeting before.

The elevator was also really handy for moving tables and chairs and food and Christmas decorations from one floor level to another.

I think that everybody in the meeting finally realized that we were serious about accessibility, the Sunday we added a ramp to the platform in the worship room, and the presiding elder was in a wheelchair. She had one of the strongest prayer lives of anyone in the meeting, and we realized that we needed her there to help lead us. We realized we’d been held back, because we limited who could lead us. We grew, when we took down the barriers to everyone.

What’s my point? Growth is different in every congregation. But it happens. I’ve seen it happen in every meeting that I’ve ever worked with.

Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it happens pretty suddenly. But I know, I am a witness, that God can open up doors unexpectedly.

I don’t take credit for most of that growth. The apostle Paul once said, “I planted, my friend Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” (I Corinthians 3:6)

That’s the way it works.

Here at Springfield, I haven’t seen that kind of remarkable growth yet. I’m not worried. I’ve seen what God can do in many other places. You’re wonderful people! I love you all, I respect your experience and your faith. You work hard, and you support the meeting, and you love these people and this place.

But I know – because I’ve seen it many times before – that God can do much more, at the right time and when everything comes together. If you feel me poking now and then, it’s because I’m planting seeds, all the time. Planting seeds is my job!

I want people to grow, I want Springfield to grow, because I believe with all my heart that God wants us to grow. I have seen God at work in many other places, and I have faith that God can make things grow here, in our generation, in ways we would never expect.
I believe in God. And I believe in you. That’s the bottom line.

Let’s pray for a few minutes more together.

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