Over the past few months our family has developed a keen interest in growth charts. Our baby son, born 3 months prematurely, has at last begun to climb into the right zone, the fruit of my wife’s patient dedication to his well-being, aided in various ways by kind friends, relatives and experts. Growth often needs to be nurtured.
Failure to grow at the expected rate is a sign of poor health, and not just in children. Many people are – albeit cautiously – breathing sighs of relief as the British economy at last appears to be growing (1); economic health is vital to the flourishing of a nation. It is no less true of the Church, either. A healthy church is a growing church.
Jesus told his followers to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20), and the biblical book of Acts describes the early church growing dramatically over a short period of time. Even under the persecution of the Roman Empire, the Church continued to grow, and there are now over two billion Christians around the world, the number having nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years (2).
Whilst Christianity has grown enormously in some parts of the world in recent years, notably in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, amongst some groups it is apparently in decline. The Church of England, for example, has in general not done well in keeping young people. But there are significant exceptions to this and many areas of healthy growth.
Recent research has identified a number of factors in the churches which are growing (3). These include consciously prioritising growth, being prepared to change and experiment, sharing leadership, and emphasising welcome and nurture. But another key factor is a focus on and investment in outreach to children and young people – the ‘missing generation’ – and youth and children’s workers are particularly effective. The Christian faith is for all ages, and it provides, amongst other things, identity, purpose and values. A large body of research shows that it is correlated with greater happiness and a reduced risk of mental health problems, substance abuse, delinquency and marital instability (4). The Christian faith is good news for young people and for wider society.
Our churches have just embarked on raising funds to employ someone to work with children and families across Harwell and Chilton, giving leadership to the work, and providing groups, activities and support to the children and families of our villages. This is a significant investment, but one that we are confident will be worthwhile. It is vital that our children grow – it is a sign of good health – but we know that growth often needs to be nurtured; it is our prayer that this initiative will enable that to happen. Further information about this project can be found here.