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The Big Issue

June 12th, 2009

While this year’s General Assembly was dominated by the crisis surrounding the Presbyterian Mutual Society, there were many other issues that were discussed. The presentation of the Youth and Children’s Ministry Board, plus the effective contribution of the SPUD youth delegates, meant that issues relating to the role and contribution of young people in the church were not ignored. There were significant decisions taken with regard to the preparation and training of ministers at Union Theological College, as well as reports on the work of the Board of Mission in Ireland as it encourages presbyteries and congregations to develop strategic plans for mission. pfccfp1

But all of these matters must be seen in the context of the really big issue: the continuing decline in numbers of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. For a number of years now, the statistics reported in the “blue book” of Assembly Reports have made for depressing reading. This past year we lost 1,994 people claiming connection with our church and there were 1,223 fewer contributors to the funds of the church. There were 979 fewer people at communion in 2008 than in 2007, and 731 fewer young people in our Sunday Schools and Bible Classes. I heard no one referring to any of these statistics in our Assembly debates, and yet they provided the background for so much of our discussion.

These statistics cannot be ignored, and there is no end of possible explanations for them. There are changing patterns in terms of demographics, as well as increasing secularisation. There is also a more honest approach where people who have been on the margins of the church no longer claim a nominal connection. In addition, there is a totally different pattern of church life evidenced in the rise of non-denominational churches and fellowships. For all the good work that is going on, we need to recognise that we are working with fewer people, and in many places, as a church, we are not where the action is in terms of the kingdom of God.

One area where this reduction is being felt is with regard to the United Appeal. In 2008, the United Appeal target fell short by over 200,000 pounds and the target for 2010 has been reduced by 5.9%. But that reduced target is set at the same time as the Students’ Bursary Fund has been taken out of the United Appeal and becomes another ministry assessment raised from congregations as a percentage of ministerial stipend. Clearly, if the decline continues, the church will not be able to fund all its central projects as it has in the past.

But are these statistics the best way of assessing the vitality and health of our church?  If not numbers and finances, how should we measure the current state of our denomination? It is clear that numbers of people attending our churches and our congregational finances are key indicators, but they do not tell the whole story. We need to give attention to other factors such as the depth of our fellowship, the quality of our pastoral care, and the sense of God’s presence in our worship. It could be argued that if we get it right in these areas, then the statistics will look after themselves.

The church growth movement which began forty years ago advocated strategies to increase numbers attending churches. While it had much to commend it, one side effect was that it induced guilt and a sense of failure and incompetence in many pastors and congregations when they tried to follow the suggested strategy but saw no significant growth.

In reaction to this, the “faithful, not successful” approach to ministry developed that encouraged pastors and ministers to look to more qualitative aspects of success in ministry such as growth in Christian virtues, the cultivation of the inner life through contemplation and prayer, and the development of an intimate church community. It also advocated the practice of spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer, silence and meditation. But this too left many ministers feeling guilty since the demands of congregational life and a busy church programme prevented them from pursuing these disciplines in any consistent way.

The Bible breaks the tension between the “successful” and “faithful” approaches to ministry by offering another category. We are called to be fruitful (John 15:16). It is this understanding of ministry that does justice to both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of ministry. There is the fruit of new converts to the faith. Paul tells the Roman Christians that he wants to come and preach in Rome “that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles” (Romans 1:13). We should expect people to be added to the church as they respond to the Gospel and come to trust in Christ. But there is also the fruit of godly character that develops among the members of the church. It is called “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), and good deeds of compassion and ministry to the poor are also called “fruit” (Romans 15:28).

This horticultural concept is helpful because it shows how the faithfulness of the gardener is only one factor in the “success” of the garden. The level of fruitfulness varies because of the soil (the heart conditions of the hearers) and the weather (the sovereign work of God’s Spirit). It also takes into account that we minister in different seasons. Some plant, some water, and some reap (I Corinthians 3). We shouldn’t mistake a seed-sowing season for fruitlessness.

It is this model of fruitfulness which leads to what Charles Bridges calls “expectancy as well as patience” in ministry. We must be patient and take the long view of a work or ministry. But we must be deeply concerned by a sustained lack of fruit and success. As a denomination, we must not try to rationalise away our declining numbers. If God has called us to ministry in his church, whether as ministers, elders, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders or church workers, then we should expect to bear fruit.

The big issue, then, is the extent to which the Presbyterian Church in Ireland can contribute to the continued growth and expansion of the kingdom of Christ in Ireland and across the world. God will certainly build his church. The global statistics indicate that God’s kingdom is growing. We are headed for the day when “the knowledge of the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). God has promised that a great and glorious harvest will be gathered in. As history moves towards that day, we need to be what God has called us to be. For me, that goal is summarised in the simple motto “Passion for Christ, Compassion for People”. With that commitment, we should be both patient and expectant, looking for a reversal of some of the downward trends as evidence that we are being the fruitful people God has called us to be.

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