‘It’s just an unspiritual bigging yourself up.” This was the acerbic verdict of one Durham ordinand on the subject of church growth.
His hostility to talking of growing churches is widely shared, at least in the Global North. When two or three clerics are gathered together and the subject of church growth comes up, a multitude of theological objections rapidly appear: It’s the kingdom that matters, not numerical growth; It’s an ungodly sidelining of the need to love one’s neighbor; Isn’t church growth just something those uncouth schismatics obsess about?
These are serious objections, but beyond them, there is often a lurking sense of other fears. For many parish priests in North America, Britain, and much of the West there is a troubling worry that looking for numerical church growth is not only theologically dodgy but also practically futile. In the Western world, nearly every media and academic outlet trumpets the decline of Christianity. When many parishes and even whole dioceses are being spliced together because of their decline, looking to expand congregations can seem like wishful thinking.
There is some value in wariness of church growth. It can be an unspiritual bigging yourself up. But the reverse is also true. When Anglicans in the United States and Britain disdain “mere” numerical growth, as attendance in many dioceses drops, there is a certain convenience in the assumption that decline is inevitable. Anglican disdain for church growth is ecclesiological palliative care.
I want to sketch the outline of a possible theology for Anglican church growth. It is not original, being drawn largely on the work of others. A nuanced theology of church growth is possible but also necessary. The growth that churches in the Global North so urgently need cannot come unless there is a robust theology beneath it.
Church growth is biblical
If, just for a moment, we move the Gospel of Luke after the Gospel of John, we see immediately the nature of Luke’s two-part work. At its heart is the resurrection of Jesus: the end point of Luke’s Gospel and the starting point of Acts. The first part of Luke’s work is suffused with talk of the kingdom; yet in the book of Acts, kingdom is mentioned relatively rarely. This does not mean that the theme is eclipsed, but the primary way in which the kingdom is expressed in the world after the Ascension of Jesus is by the formation of local churches.
More than a few theologians downplay the local church as something second-rate compared to the kingdom. The New Testament knows nothing of this. Indeed, the Book of Acts is punctuated by a series of summaries by Luke that note the numerical growth of the Church (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). Most moving of all are those points when the apostles arrive at places like Tyre and Puteoli and find a community of believers already there. The obvious inference is that unnamed Christians carried the gospel there. These unnamed Christians were quite possibly not apostles, but they were acting apostolically. They challenge us to go and do likewise.
Church growth is doctrinally necessary
A theological basis for seeking numerical church growth is readily to hand in Scripture. But it is not quite so obvious when we turn to doctrine. Here the work of writers such as professors Alister McGrath and Ivor Davidson and of Bishop Graham Tomlin is immensely helpful. They point us to how the fundamental doctrines of Incarnation, Atonement, and Trinity call us to an extrovert faith, which seeks the growth and proliferation of communities that incarnate the gospel in every community.
Graham Tomlin argues that when we look at the Spirit, we see a God whose essence is sending:
Theologically speaking, mission and the consequent growth of the church begin with the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Father. It starts with the Trinitarian life of God before it ever involves the creation, let alone the human part of that creation.
In saying this, Tomlin commends the importance of a full-blooded pneumatology. But he is also alert to the way we can sometimes fall into an idolatrous assumption that the Spirit can be controlled by humans. Tomlin sees the tension in seeing the Holy Spirit as free from human control yet given freely by God as akin to the tension between seeing church growth as in the hands of God yet requiring committed human effort if it is to come to pass. For Tomlin, the practice of invoking the Holy Spirit is the way of managing this tension. By asking continually for the Holy Spirit we have access to him, but our need to ask means we cannot ever control him.
Tomlin also stresses that suffering is intrinsic to such a ministry. Any pneumatology has to be a pneumatologia crucis. This is the crucial underpinning for growing churches. This is cross-shaped ministry, rooted in suffering, not in neo-liberal paradigms of what constitutes success. Growing churches means taking up the cross.
Emphasis on the Holy Spirit requires that emphasis on numerical growth be balanced by desire to grow in personal holiness and in service to society. The Holy Spirit grows congregations, but also grows people by maturing them and by healing them.
That is why church growth matters. Healthy well-functioning churches are places where people can be restored and become agents of change and renewal within the world beyond the church. The reason we need churches to grow is not to pay the bills, or to feel good about ourselves. It is to enable humanity, in tune with the Spirit of God, to fulfil its divine calling to care for and nurture the world which God has created.
And to say this is to challenge Anglicans on whether our tendency to shrink may be linked to our failure to invoke the Holy Spirit and our general tendency, like many Western Christians, to downplay the third person of the Trinity.
Church growth is central to fidelity to tradition
In 1800 the population of London was around 1 million. By 1900 it was around 6 million. During the 19th century, huge numbers of Anglican churches were planted by Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals alike. Anglicans have often stood by as modern cities in the United States and Britain rapidly expanded in recent decades, in ways as dramatic as anything the Victorians saw, and failed to emulate our forebears by founding new churches. In our inaction, we are being unfaithful to tradition. Indeed, we engage in a decidedly postmodern worship of the individual, which sees sharing faith as arrogant (although promulgating individualism, for some reason, is never arrogant).
As we look more widely across the Christian tradition, we discover that enthusiasm for church growth was evidenced by some surprising figures. Living in the northeast of England, I rejoice in ancient saints like the seventh-century St. Cuthbert. He is usually depicted as a man of prayer who had a deep communion with nature. This is true, but not the whole truth. Bede tells us how Cuthbert “often did the rounds of the villages, sometimes on horseback, more often on foot, preaching the way of truth to those who had gone astray.” Cuthbert sought to grow the Church.
Likewise, St. Francis is portrayed as a man who profoundly loved the poor and God’s creation. And he did, but he also loved to share the gospel and build up the Church. The aphorism attributed to St. Francis that one should always preach the gospel but only use words “if necessary” — with its implication that the verbal proclamation of faith is secondary — has become an ecclesial cliché. But the practice of St. Francis points in the opposite direction. He and the friars were at the center of intentional Church growth in the Middle Ages.
It is well known that St Francis invented the concept of the Christmas crib: but it is less frequently appreciated that he did so precisely because there was a pressing need for new ways to teach the story of Jesus’ nativity to an ill-educated population that knew nothing of the Christian story. The work of evangelism was foundational to the friars. Chapter 12 of St Francis 1223 Rule was devoted to ‘regulating and promoting missionary activity’.
Thomas Cranmer was deeply concerned that the local church connect with its locality. This was expressed by his passion for liturgy in the language of the people and pastoral use of Scripture to draw people closer to God; hence the role of the “comfortable words” in the prayer book’s communion. The power of scriptural rumination and cultural contextualization has much to teach Anglicans today.
Church growth is required by reason and experience
Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann of Stanford University writes:
What one might call an avalanche of medical data has demonstrated that, for reasons still poorly understood, those who attend church and believe in God are healthier and happier and live longer that those who do not.
A recent research report details the full extent of this avalanche. It is academically proven that joining a congregation is connected to marked improvement in physical, mental, and relational well-being. In an age when attending church can be seen as a quasi-pathological disorder or optional lifestyle choice, this needs saying. In an age when people love their phones and computers but forget that their phones and computers never love them back, Christian congregations are deeply good news, so their growth and proliferation is deeply good news too.
Church growth is not peripheral and it is not optional. When we look outside the Western world, it becomes clear that such growth is also eminently possible.
This raises the crucial and disturbing question of whether the decline of many Western churches, not least Anglicanism in the United States and Britain, has some theological roots. When we understand Scripture, doctrine, and tradition as if growing local churches were a side issue, or even something to disdained in favor of supposedly higher kingdom goals, we are not only distorting Scripture, reason, and tradition. We are, arguably, buying into the secular mindset that is the air we breathe.
More and more, I find myself turning to Charles Taylor’s bracing diagnosis of our condition. Taylor sees us as living in a secular age. Part of living in a secular age is to assume growing churches is unnecessary or impossible or both. It will take deliberate act, a kind of exodus, to let go of such decline theology. Much of Anglicanism in the Global North suffers from this decline theology, in which the growth of congregations is sidelined or even looked down upon. My friends from the Global South find this a bizarre way in which to understand the world. I think they are right.
A range of research shows that churches that intend to grow tend to grow. And intentionality only comes through theology. Having a nuanced theology of church growth will assist churches in growing numerically, but doing so in a godly way. Such a theology will also inoculate us from the hopeless horizon of secularity that assumes this world is all there is. A theology of Anglican church growth, rooted in the hope of the resurrection, shows us what treasure we have to offer a world of aching loneliness: a community of thoroughly fallible people made strong by the hope of the risen Jesus.
 These writers, alongside other key scholars, discuss what constitutes a nuanced theology of church growth in David Goodhew (ed.), Towards a Theology of Church Growth, (Routledge 2015).
 Graham Tomlin, ‘The Prodigal Spirit and Church Growth’, Ibid., p. 136.
 Ibid., p. 141.
 Anglicanism in recent decades has sought a greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit, but it may be questioned whether modern Anglicanism in the Global North has yet arrived at a truly robust pneumatology.
 Bede, Life of Cuthbert, chapter 9.
 Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, “Growing the Mediaeval Church,” in Goodhew (ed.), Towards a Theology of Church Growth, pp. 188-89.
 See Ashley Null, “Divine Allurement: Thomas Cranmer and Tudor Church Growth,” Ibid.
 Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage Books, 2012), p. 331.
 Nick Spencer et al., Religion and Well Being (Theos, 2016).
 I take this phrase from Kallistos Ware’s Orthodox Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Geneva, 2012), p. 26.