Reflections on Discipleship – The things the church normally does

My heart went out to the old gentleman. I was at one of my many visits to Church Councils, trying to sell them our Diocesan Developing Discipleship Programme, which is basically Mission Action Planning, but we’re not allowed to call it that. I’d done a reasonable job, I’d thought, but he stood up to speak with despair in his voice. He told us he was from a tiny village church, with a congregation of about three, all in their 70s, and over the years they had tried everything to get people into the church. What hope could the Diocese possibly offer them? Never mind about five-year goals: they were unlikely to be there at all in five years’ time.

He told us in particular about a mass leafleting of every house in the village to invite people to their Easter Sunday service, to which the response was one newcomer, a member of a larger church nearby, for whom the service time was more convenient on that day. My heart went out to him because I have heard his story again and again around the Diocese, from people who, like him, were at rock bottom because they had tried everything and still they were declining and dying. People out there feel alone and unsupported, and the new attempts by the Diocese to try to bring help and support seem far too little too late.

But what particularly struck me on this occasion was a phrase he used. They had tried everything, he said. They had invited people to coffee mornings, bring and buy sales: ‘all the things the church normally does’. And no-one was interested. I knew exactly how he felt, but in his dejection he did not seem to have drawn the obvious conclusion: nobody wants the things the church normally does. We need to start doing some things we don’t normally do instead.

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This thought was taken further in another parish where another elderly gentleman was telling with great enthusiasm about their attempts to do just that. Every time they held anything special, people would come. Christingles, Pet services, Remembrance Sunday, you name it and people would be queuing at the door. But their normal Sunday services continued to dwindle. So now they make sure they do something special regularly, every time there’s a fifth Sunday. I wanted to ask ‘Why keep on doing the stuff no-one likes at all?’ I know that doing something special every week robs it of its ‘specialness’, but the big question was the same in the two different parishes: why do we just keep doing things which all the evidence suggests nobody but us wants to do, the things the church normally does?

At the other end of the age spectrum my son wrote an article where he asks the same question with regard to young people. He suggests that

If young people find church boring, irrelevant or alien, then there is of course the possibility that it’s because church is boring, irrelevant and alien.

You can read the full article here, but essentially the questions are very close to each other. I know, of course, that in many places the point of no return may already have been reached, and three people in their seventies have neither the time, the energy nor the ability to do much in terms of innovation. Perhaps there needs to be some more death before new life can emerge in a very different form.

Image: Thomas Nugent [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Big Business’

Is the Church a business? That’s a question which is asked from time to time, usually expecting the answer ‘No!’, and often in response to calls to become a bit more efficient in what we do. My boss when I was a member of Bishop’s Senior Staff in one diocese used to say to clergy that if they expected to get a pay cheque at the end of each month then Church was indeed a business! My answer is that church is certainly more than just a business, but that it cannot be less. So let’s have a look at this question, and what lies beneath it.


We do have a bit of an aversion to thinking of Church in these terms. Whilst the C of E, with its sheer weight of bureaucracy and its establishment as the state church is probably a bit less nervous about this, other denominations would resist the idea strongly. I suspect that this is due to the image of the commercial world in which businesses are there solely to make money, where no-one cares about anyone else, where the art is to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible, never mind who you have to trample on to do so … you know all the caricatures. If that’s what business really is, then clearly the Church has a completely different set of values. But there may be other ways of looking at the commercial world, which can speak a lot more positively to the Church.

It may be that business is about getting the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible. It may be about requiring the right kinds of behaviour in order to get it done, and holding to account those who fail to act in the right ways. It may be about having such a firm belief in your product that you can’t help but sell it to those to whom it would be of benefit. And it may be about investing in employees so that they are mentored and coached to reach their full potential as members of the company. In that case Christians might not feel quite so negative about the idea that Church ought to look a bit more like this.

But it is my conviction that there is an even more compelling reason why Church ought at the very least to be businesslike. Quite simply, the bumbling inefficiency with which many churches run will in the end inhibit growth. We may put a high value on being a ‘happy family’ where relationships count for far more than effectiveness does (see my blog on ‘Church as Family’ here: but that approach is unlikely to grow the church beyond around 65 members. (It is worth saying that I am an unapologetic fan of numerical church growth: the only reason a church should be small is that it is constantly planting out new congregations.) Show me a seriously large church, and I’ll show you a church which takes seriously the business side of running itself. Somewhere like Holy Trinity Brompton is, with its ‘Alpha’ franchise, is a multi-million pound business, and as a result hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been touched by, and benefitted from, its ministry. That quite simply couldn’t have happened if it was run from a corner of the church hall by an administrator who could only just use a computer. With hundreds of employees (and the last I heard an HR department of four staff), there is a lot of business to take care of, and yet this church has not ceased being at its heart a parish church where the gospel is faithfully preached, the people are discipled, and God is worshipped.

Most local churches aren’t HTB, of course, but I can’t help but think that a more businesslike approach might do us all good. We have a product to ‘sell’ (faith in Jesus Christ), a workforce to sell it (the congregation), bills to pay, and a choice about whether we’re going to try to reach a greater proportion of the marketplace, or stay content with the ones we’ve got. So to invest in our image, our advertising, our buildings, our people, isn’t, surely, to sell our soul to the god of Mammon? Thinking like a business, of course, is not the magic ingredient to bring revival to our land, but I certainly reckon it could help.
What do you think?

OT Lectionary April 6th Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14

As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.

Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’

Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.


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Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.

This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.