GROWTH is an interesting word. It can mean everything good,
desirable, and natural. We delight in seeing children grow
healthily. We think growing up is a moral requirement.
But "a growth" brings ominous and fearful associations:
uncontrollable, the wrong kind of growth. And, in religious terms,
do we use the word in a spiritual or statistical sense?
It's a happy thing to see a church grow in numbers. The New
Testament celebrates this joy of spreading the good news to all
corners of the world. The phenomenal expansion of Christianity,
however, was seen as a work of the Spirit, not the result of a
successful marketing campaign.
St Paul (like Moses) thought of himself as a weak presenter, not
a highly successful leader. Growth came through the blood of the
martyrs soaking into the grass roots. So important was this sense
of martyrdom to Christian life that, soon after the Church became
respectable, new forms of radical witness were imagined - instead
of the red martyrdom of blood, the white martyrdom of ascetical
renunciation. There is kerygma, but also kenosis:
proclamation, but also self-emptying.
We need to ask what kind of martyrdom or witness is in play
today, because that will identify the kind of growth that is really
LANGUAGE, values, and the metaphors of self-understanding are
intimately related. So often an organisation drifts unwittingly
into an abstract, depersonalised language of metrics, targets,
goals, and, weirdest of all, "sustainability". Once this
management-speak gets a hold, the system of values of the
organisation begin to redefine themselves against these vague but
The first casualty is the spirit of the community; then common
sense; and, next, personal relationships. Soon the whole
organisation is gripped by the need to be sustainable - and, of
course, to "grow". This is the language of the boardroom or
management consultants, but not of the Church or its tradition.
One test of spiritual growth would be how we control this use of
language. If St Paul fired people up, without being a good orator,
he must have succeeded because he spoke directly from the heart and
passionately from personal experience. Language (like silence) is a
key form of witness. It is as easy to hide behind pious, devotional
language as it is to escape into corporate language. Authenticity
makes for authority.
The dialect of management culture leads to a Church
over-committed to belief and action. In this culture, beliefs can
be defined, and members are asked if they believe (yes or no?).
That's one kind of church that is growing in numbers today. Numbers
give a buzz, but do they necessarily lead to metanoia, a
change of mind?
Action is endless. As it was for Martha, action can become an
end in itself - leading to stress, burnout, and ego-invested
TO KEEP a balance, and to make growth spiritual, and good works
good, faith and contemplation need to be understood as the "better
Faith is commitment, endurance, ultimately leading to
transcendence of the ego. It flowers in agape. St Irenaeus
said: "The beginning is faith, the end is love, and the union of
the two is God." Growth in church life, then, simply means God.
Contemplation receives, generally, nominal interest among church
leaders. But I prefer priests who openly dismiss the meditators in
their congregations as "navel gazers", over those who feel it's
just another bandwagon to jump on, or a market need to satisfy.
Belief and action are necessary. Faith and contemplation are
foundational: they preserve the precariousness, riskiness, and
fragility of Christian life.
For many, however, church is associated with security, status
quo, and stability. Church can become a place of refuge - a "second
life" rather than a sacrificial place of witness.
If this is the case, innovation will become repressed, and
radicalism will be suspect. In the past, this mindset preserved the
squire in his box and the labourers in their pews. Today, the
Church is not suited to give this kind of support to social
But it can be deceived into thinking that it is doing its job by
giving people a hint of mystery in a drab, stressed, disenchanted
world, or some reassurance of hope in a world of rapid change and
BUT growth means more. It is surely more than desirable that
those employed by the Church, in education or other ministries, not
only subscribe to "Christian values", but also understand what a
Christian prayer practice means from their own experience. This
will ensure not only successful projects, but a "growing into the
full stature of Christ" - the growth-goal of all Christian
Statistical growth is always reassuring, because it can be
measured. These "outcomes" would be like the cardio-vascular or
psychological "benefits" of meditation. Spiritual growth, however,
is about developing the fruits of the Spirit, which faith and
contemplation generate - including love, joy, peace, and patience.
There is no law, no measurement-scale, dealing with such things as
To be sure that the numerical growth associated with believers
and doers is actually coming from the right place, and producing
these fruits, volume, or market-share, should always be a secondary
objective. The primary goal of the Christian life is the deepening
of faith, and the marriage of contemplation and action.
This is simply the result of the opening the mind of Christ in
us, and streaming the qualities of the Holy Spirit that flow from
this into the world. These are the "values" of inclusiveness,
equality, and a preference for the powerless.
But what if a church is achieving this primary objective, but is
failing to grow in numbers? Should it then be seen as a
"non-performing" part of the organisation, and be shut down?
I think not. Origen said that we "do not pray to get benefits
from God but to become like God. Praying itself is good" (De
Jesus gave Mary the edge on Martha by saying that she had chosen
the better part - meaning not that action is inferior to
contemplation, but that being comes before doing, and the quality
being determines the integrity and outcome of the action. So, even
a smaller congregation that is "successfully" balancing the
contemplative with the active can be justified in receiving
material support disproportionate to its numbers.
The contemplative consciousness is valuable for itself. If we
lose that perspective, we have lost the game. Contemplation is
rarely adequately understood for the actual difference (and
witness) it makes in the life of the Church as a whole. But when
this is actually seen, the Church not only grows spiritually, it
will, in time, touch more lives, more deeply. The life of the
Spirit is not only about growth, but flourishing on all fronts.
SIMONE WEIL called for a "new holiness", and Dietrich Bonhoeffer
for a religionless Christianity with a restored "secret
discipline". To ensure the right kind of growth, the Church needs
to be asking what these two prophets and martyrs of our era meant
by these terms.
They saw that the Church is probably not going to succeed
miraculously in reversing the spiralling of the world into chaos.
And they saw that forms of Christianity will multiply. For some,
this is disquieting. But these forms are unified by faith,
contemplation, action, and belief. The Church can then accompany
the world, and witness to the presence of Christ until the end.
In the mean time it should, as St Benedict did once on a small
scale (before his model became a brand-leader), build small, and
probably not very successful, communities of order, peace, and that
very uncountable commodity that grows in contemplation - love.
Fr Laurence Freeman OSB is a Benedictine monk of Turvey
Abbey, and the Director of The World Community for Christian