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Growing and Flourishing: The ecology of church growth, by Stephen Spencer 

31 May 2019

Is it a model for growth, asks David Goodhew

HOW can the Church grow numerically without being trapped into obsessing about numbers? Is there a way of doing evangelism that doesn’t require becoming Evangelical? In Growing and Flourishing, Stephen Spencer has something to offer those who feel this way, but this book has significant weaknesses, too.

Spencer’s book is distinctive for the way in which it seeks an answer from outside the West. He explores the burgeoning diocese of Mara in Tanzania. He argues that it offers lessons for churches in the global North. Rooted in a 30-year-old link between the diocese of Leeds (and its forebears) and Mara, there is richness to the relationship between the Churches. Spencer’s extended quotations from Bishop Akiri of Mara and other leaders give voice to their insights. This is the best part of the book.

Spencer is searching for a way of talking about “growth” in a way that connects with non-Evangelicals. He emphasises integration of numerical growth with growth in personal wholeness, service to the community, and sacramentality. Spencer sees the Tanzanian Church as an example of holistic growth. Drawing on the ecclesiologist Avery Dulles, he sees church growth as having six aspects, starting with community service and working towards growth in the number of committed disciples. This typology could be very useful for parish churches.

Spencer’s book works at first glance. But divinity is lacking in some of the detail. Despite the book’s warm commendation of Tanzanian Anglicanism, readers will find that Mara’s emphasis on rallies, church-planting, and the US-made “Jesus film” is thoroughly “Evangelical” in tone. More seriously, the example of the Church in the UK trying to learn from the Tanzanian experience shows the classic problem of many “middle-of-the-road” Anglican parishes: lots of good outreach into the community, precious few people joining the church.

One leaves Growing and Flourishing with the sense that Spencer is still not wholly convinced of the need for numerical church growth as a theological imperative. There is an urgent need to recover heritage of mission within non-Evangelical traditions in, for example, the slum priests of Victorian Britain or Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar. The theological work to enable contemporary Anglo-Catholic and “middle-of-the-road” Anglican church growth has yet to be done. And, until there is a sense in those traditions that following Jesus is such good news that it necessitates joining a community of believers, the octane for numerical church growth will not be there. C of E parishes are excellent at evading the theological imperative to spread the good news, and often live as practical relativists.

Almost 30 years ago, the Alpha course came into being. It is staggering that there is still no meaningful comparable course from Anglo-Catholic or “middle-of-the-road” Anglicanism (the Emmaus and Pilgrim courses are worthy, but far smaller in impact). Perhaps the lack of a Catholic or broad-church “Alpha” reflects as much a theological deficit as a deficit of know-how?

The Revd Dr David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham.

Growing and Flourishing: The ecology of church growth
Stephen Spencer
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99

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