One of the things that the Search Committee, Vestry, and I all talked about during our time of discernment was church growth. Now church growth is a loaded topic because inherent in the conversation are a lot of assumptions. One assumption is that we can talk about church growth without talking about change. Many churches say they want to grow, but what they mean is that they want to find fresh meat for volunteer positions and new pledgers for the budget. But inherent in church growth are not just bodies to fill out needs: church growth means incorporating new people who will have new ideas, new dreams, and new ways of doing things. The second assumption when we talk about church growth is that we can go about church growth passively. In other words, as long as we have a good website, we have good programs, a shiny new Rector, and we are nice to people once they arrive, we will grow. While those things are important and necessary, those things do not fully address how we get people to step on our property, how we encourage people to come back after a first visit, or how we incorporate newcomers fully into the life and ministry of the church. The final, and my personal favorite, assumption is that church growth is done by the Rector. The Rector can certainly help lay the foundation of a strong system of invitation, welcome, and incorporation. But the primary way that church growth happens is through Church members inviting others to church.
All that is to say that my response to the Search Committee and Vestry went a little like this: I am more than happy to give Hickory Neck all of the infrastructure Hickory Neck needs to grow; but Hickory Neck is going to have to work, be open to change, and get real comfortable with talking about their faith in the neighborhood. Now I know many of you may be sitting here right now, cursing the Search Committee and Vestry for signing you up for some hard, scary work ahead. But let me let you in on a little secret: church growth (or evangelism, if we are feeling really sassy) is not that hard or scary. That is the great thing about the readings from the Acts of the Apostles during Eastertide: they are all about the growth of the church. Last week we heard about how Peter began to understand that God was calling him to share the Good News with the gentiles. Today, we hear about how Paul is diverted to Europe to share the Good News with the people of Macedonia.
Many of us get a little uncomfortable talking about apostles spreading the Good News because the stories about Peter and Paul seem strange and foreign. They involve dreams or visions in which God tells them what to do. They involve going to foreign lands to talk with strangers. And they sometimes involve, as we will hear next week, getting arrested and sent to jail. Most of us hear these familiar stories and assume that the stories do not really apply to us because they are historical, ancient stories. But after the drama of being diverted to a foreign land and searching for a place to join with sympathetic people, what happens to Paul in our text today is not actually all that foreign or unrelatable. The story tells us that on the Sabbath day, Paul and his companions go find where faithful people are gathered and simply start talking. The text does not say that Paul gives a presentation about the merits of converting to Christianity. The text does not say that Paul leads a worship service, with music and the holy meal. The text simply says that Paul sits down among those gathered, and starts talking. While Paul is talking, a woman in the group, Lydia, who we understand from the text is an independent woman of wealth[i], overhears what Paul is saying and is so compelled by what Paul says that she and her household are not only baptized, but insist that Paul and his companions come stay with her during their stay in Philippi.
Soon after I became a rector for the first time, I realized I had a lot to learn about church growth. I read books, poured through research, and talked with experts in the field. One of my favorite conversations about church growth was with a friend who does church consulting on growth. In her formation, she had a professor who insisted as part of her training that she needed to go out into town and just start talking to people about Jesus. She was terrified. For the first few weeks of class, my friend, now a priest, lied to her professor. Each week he would ask her how the project was going, and she would tell him that the project was going well. Finally, the professor called her bluff and insisted that she immediately go somewhere and do her assignment. So my friend went to a coffee shop, wrote on a piece of paper, “Talk to me about Jesus and I will buy you a cup of coffee,” and then set up her laptop in the hopes that no one would take her up on the offer. Much to her chagrin, a patron came up to her and said, “I’ll talk to you about Jesus, but I’ll buy the coffee.” The conversation that ensued was full of the stranger’s story – about how she used to go to church, how she still believes, how the church hurt her, but how she still misses having a church community. My friend listened to the story, honored the stranger by acknowledging how hard her journey had been, and then did the one thing that is key when talking about church growth. My friend acknowledged where she saw the presence of God in this stranger’s journey. And, for good measure, my friend told her that if she ever wanted to try church again, she knew a great place that might just work.
That is the funny thing about church growth. Church growth happens through real people having real conversations in real time. Paul sits down with a bunch of women and starts talking. My friend sat down with a stranger and listened and reflected back on the stranger’s journey. That is the same invitation that I will be giving us to do over and over again in my time here at Hickory Neck: that we start having real conversations with real people in real time. Now I know what some of you may be thinking. First, you may be thinking, “I cannot believe the Search Committee and Vestry decided to hire this priest who is going to make me do this!” Second, you may be thinking, “I have no idea how to have real conversations with real people in real time! What does she expect me to do? Start talking to strangers at the coffee shop, on the golf course, and at the Little League game?”
Before you get too anxious, I want to give you a little piece of comfort from scripture. In Peter’s story last week, in Paul’s story today, and in the texts coming up next week and at Pentecost, we learn that all of these encounters happen with the Holy Spirit going before, making a way for the encounter to happen. In today’s story, Paul has no intention of going to Macedonia. In fact, in the verses we did not read today, Paul and his crew actually had plans and made attempts to go to other places, but their plans were thwarted by the Holy Spirit. Finally, Paul has a vision that he was supposed to go to Macedonia.[ii] Once he and the group decide to follow that vision, everything becomes smooth. Their travel is not thwarted, they easily find their way to Philippi, they stumble onto a group of women who are believers, and out of nowhere, just through conversations about faith, Lydia steps up and not only desires baptism, she demands that Paul and his company accept her hospitality. That is the reality about growth: yes, growth involves putting ourselves out there to have hard conversations, and yes, growth involves being vulnerable and uncomfortable, and yes, growth will even involve change to us personally and to our community as a whole. But God shows us through the story of scripture, that the Holy Spirit is ever before us, making the way smooth. When our intentions are simply to share our story, to listen to the stories of others, and to honor the ways in which God is already active and blessing us, then the rest flows smoothly.
We are probably going to be talking about church growth a lot in the years to come. We will talk about how to grow, we will make changes that will create a strong foundation for invitation, welcome, and incorporation, and we will get out there and talk to our neighbors. But at the heart of all that work is the promise that the Holy Spirit is ever before us, making the way smooth, calming our nerves so that God can work in spite of us, and showing us how our holy conversations will be a source of blessing to us as much as those conversations are a blessing to others.[iii] We will do this work together: you, me, and the Holy Spirit. The work will be hard, scary, and beautiful. The work will be a blessing to us all and allow us to be a blessing to this community. We can do this work together, because the Holy Spirit goes before us. Amen.
[i] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 476.
[ii] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15,” May 5, 2013, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627 on April 27, 2016.