When visiting a minister in England’s north I came across one of the simplest ideas for church growth I have seen. The minister had been at the particular parish for five years. It was a small congregation in a large building when he arrived, and it had grown considerably ever since his arrival.
Upon arrival he had laid before the congregation this simple plan: to pray for a new individual, couple or family to join them each month. So every week he and the congregation were looking to God in prayer for a new individual, couple or family.
They were not only looking to God in prayer but also they were looking to God to answer this prayer. So each week there was a conscious watch for the new person or people that God was bringing to their congregation.
This sense of expectation and looking forward to greeting new members meant the congregation as a whole were welcoming and open to including new people into their relationships and community. As so often with prayer – the people praying became the means God used to answer their own prayer.
I asked the minister why he only prayed for one new person or family per month. Why not ask for one a week or several each month? He replied that he did not think that this church could integrate more newcomers than that when he started praying and encouraging the congregations to join him in this prayer.
We can never dictate to God what he will do as we pray to him. We can be sure that he will give us what he has promised. But we can never be certain that he will give us anything that he has not promised to us, nor can we insist that he do so. There is nowhere in the Bible that God promises to bring a new person to a church each month. So we can ask but never assume that God wishes to grant such a specific request.
However, in their case God did see fit to answer their prayer in just the terms in which they asked. For the last five years every month they have been able to welcome into their congregations one new person, couple or family. Cumulatively this addition of sixty new individuals, couples and families has seen a dramatic growth in congregational life.
The parish where this minor miracle of church growing has taken place is a small almost village suburb on the outskirts of one of England’s non-church going northern cities. Our Cathedral is situated in a very different position geographically, theologically and socially. We have the pleasure of welcoming many visitors every week. Far more than they would see arrive on their doorstep.
Many of our visitors are in our city for a few days as tourists, on business, or at a short conference. But there are many who are Sydneysiders looking for something – be it a new church or some contact with God or some meaning to their lives or something ill-defined that they know is missing in their lives. Some come at the invitation of friends or family some because of illness or a death in their family.
Our task of welcoming people and integrating them into our congregational life is not easy in the context of a city cathedral. However, the prayerful example of our English friends is certainly a starting point. We must be praying that God would bring people to us and enable us to find, welcome and involve them in our life together. Such praying will lead us to make the changes and to take the actions necessary for newcomers to feel at home quickly.
The minister in England thought that the congregation could only cope with one a month, I wonder how many we could cope with? I welcome suggestions.