Seeking true gospel growth
It is exciting to be part of a growing church and somewhat discouraging if numbers are barely holding steady. But neither scenario tells us nearly enough about true gospel growth, which is what mission areas are all about.
It may be that the growing church is contacting unbelievers and connecting them to Jesus Christ but it may be that all of its new members are believers on the move from other churches (for both good and bad reasons). The church with little growth may be inwardly focused and not mission-minded, or it may have sent its best into Bible college and the mission field, or it may be in an area where people move out of as soon as they get their lives in order. So, one church’s loss is another’s gain (transfers).
However, mission areas step back and ask if there has been overall growth and souls being added to the kingdom. Or to put it another way, are we reaching a greater percentage of the Sydney Diocese?
The role of the senior minister is critical and so, in the past year since mission area leaders have been appointed,
the priority has been building partnership and trust between rectors. This was always going to be a huge challenge because of many factors, including our system of parish rights (a very good thing but it can lead to isolationism), Western individualism and the normal human tendency towards competition.
Although these are still early days, I am extremely encouraged to see a real sense of partnership emerging. Ministers are sharing resources, ideas and strategies. They are looking together at their mission field of 10 to 20 suburbs, identifying opportunities and doing something about them.
In one area, several churches are working together to provide Scripture teaching in a school that had none. In another, the Scripture co-ordinators meet together to share materials. Churches are working together to reach youth. training for lay people is happening across parishes in pastoral care, theology and life skills. Churches are co-operating to plant a new congregation. This and more is happening and it requires a level of trust and a commitment to kingdom growth from all of us, even if our own church may not benefit directly or immediately.
Research and planning is also a major task of mission areas. This happens at the local mission area level and customised strategies are the outcome. In addition there is Diocese-wide research by Anglicare and consultants, and we are identifying priority areas that need attention and developing diagnostic tools and ways forward.
Our small groups and the quality of our common life need refreshment. Although many of us think our churches are welcoming, we manage to hold very few of the hundreds and thousands that visit us. We need to find ways to truly include and integrate people into our fellowship (members of churches in one mission area are busy visiting one another in the form of “mystery worshippers”).
Research shows that past youth and children’s ministry has been a key factor in the strength of our Diocese, yet these ministries are now very weak in the majority of our churches. Cross- cultural and ethnic ministries remain real challenges.
These reality checks should not serve to discourage us but help us identify priorities which, God willing, will result in greater gospel growth as we become much more intentional and focused, learn to work together and become more prayerful and passionate for the lost.
Ivan Lee is Bishop of Western Sydney and Mission Areas co-ordinator.