2017 was a gospel year.
I suppose that I could mean many different things by that (the gospel was, for example, proclaimed and received, it was
also studied and applied) but what I’m referring to is the ‘gospel way’ that God so often does the opposite of what we might expect.
Really, we ought to be looking back at 2017 as a horrible year—glad to see the back of it. Most of the members of the staff team went through something truly awful in 2017: recovery from serious injury; sickness; near death experiences; pain; surgeries (both successful and failed); tests; bereavements; and other more personal hardships often including a combination of these things at the same time and then a bill at the end. Our parents got sick too, sometimes really sick and we worried about our children. But we are not unique; there were plenty of similar stories in the wider body and as pastors it was our privilege and honor to walk with some of you through those times as fellow sufferers.
Yet, in 2017 the unexpected happened. We seemed to grow together more intimately, we seemed to feel closer to God, more hopeful, less fearful. We all seemed… happier. And the reason for this is Jesus.
As we said many times in our three-sermon series last year (on mission, encountering Jesus, and doubt), God uses our weakness to reveal his strength and so the things that ought to defeat us, often draw us closer to him.
In God’s economy, even the worst of things, even death, ultimately leads to life and the greatest gospel example of this is Christ himself who died and rose for us.
In the midst of our suffering, therefore, we should not forget some real gospel times. It was wonderful to see the choir and band stepping in to lead our music so powerfully when Robert was in the hospital. It was great to see people caring for one another, studying, serving, worshiping, confessing, converting, giving testimony, sharing prophecy, calling prayer meetings and providing practical care. As Brad Root said this Summer, in over 20 years in this church, he’s never known a time quite like it.
Because we are a gospel church, perhaps the opposite of what we might expect, is to be expected!
In 2017, we continued to grow, numerically, financially and spiritually on the weekend and in our mid-week groups.
We even took some major strides towards resolving a long-running property dispute with our former denomination and we were blessed to have more lawyers in our congregation than some law firms have in their partnership, all of whom reviewed the papers and gave their recommendations to us. I am not aware of any other churches who have been able to settle denominational lawsuits, out of court, like this in the entire USA and it feels like a move of God to me.
Why has God chosen to be so good to us? What did we do to deserve it? Nothing! That’s why we call it the gospel; the unmerited grace of God is good news indeed.
Simply put, 2017 was a gospel year and this all provides us with a great platform for 2018.
We are also a comeback church. Large deficits and decline have turned to modest growth. Our building only sprung two leaks last year and neither of them ran through a fuse box! The ABCs of attendance, buildings and cash are good as we ask the hard questions of what our future members might need not what our former members used to like. Statistically, this hardly ever happens and spiritually, without the gospel, it never happens.
Perhaps my favorite feature of this church is how you are able to welcome anyone. To house four generations under one roof and to attract new members from each of them at the same time is quite a thing and I love that time of laughter after church each weekend as we gather together, across the generations, united in Christ.
I also love the leadership of this church. The staff team, vestry and others leading groups and teams here are humble, wise, gospel-focused servants of God and in 2018 they’ll have a big job to do.
Although we are growing, growth brings a whole new set of challenges. If you look closely, the rate of growth is starting to taper off. It is likely that our location, buildings (especially worship space) and staffing will soon prove to be inadequate if we are to continue to grow. And we need to grow because quite a large portion of our income still comes from just a few deeply committed people, who, as Archbishop Cranmer would say, are of riper years.
It will take quite a few younger, less well off, or less mature, new members to finance the church. The good news is that they are doing so, (once more we are seeing some substantial increases in giving and many new pledges) but larger numbers require larger spaces, or more services, and those require more staff, which costs more money… and so the challenge of managing the growth that we need will be an interesting one.
In February, I’ll be taking the vestry away and we’ll be looking at these risks and challenges and then considering every conceivable option before presenting a coherent set of plans to the congregation mid-year. Then, as usual, through prayer and discussion, as a body, we’ll decide what the Lord is calling us to do next.
Yours in Christ,