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Do we believe in the parable of the mustard seed, or not?

4 months ago

In this week's ReSource blog, Christopher Landau reflects on the small beginnings of the work of the kingdom.

Do we believe the parable of the mustard seed, or not? 

That was one question I posed to a group of clergy and lay leaders on a day’s retreat recently. My point was to encourage them to remember that the work of the kingdom (as described in Mark 4 and elsewhere) has always had small beginnings – and so a small church should always be viewed in terms of opportunity, alongside any frank assessment of apparent lack of resources or people.  

In our staff meeting today, as we reflected on the Morning Prayer reading from Luke 1, my colleague Jolyon Trickey reminded us to notice that the angel went to an out-of-the-way place like Nazareth to announce world-changing news. God met Mary in an unlikely, unpromising setting – he doesn’t need shiny places of prominence to achieve his work (even though he works there too!).  

At ReSource, we take Scriptural moments like this as encouragements in our call to serve and support what we often call ‘little, local, ordinary’ churches. And my sense is that there is a growing momentum in relation to addressing the specific needs of such congregations, say of fifty or fewer on a typical Sunday, which are so widespread within the Church of England and beyond.  

I sometimes return to a revealing article in the Church Times from 2019, which reported a candid observation from William Nye, Secretary General to the Archbishops’ Council. He noted that ‘without meaning to, a lot of the time, we, the national church institutions, just default to thinking about bigger churches, because a lot of people’s picture of the norm of the church is a vicar and about 100 people on a Sunday morning. … Lots of staff at Church House, lots of bishops, come up through bigger churches, worship in bigger churches…. We are trying to get away from the idea that we are interested only in planting and replicating churches of 300 people.’ 

One of the great delights of my role with ReSource is visiting a variety of smaller churches and hearing how they reflect on both their present, and their unknown future. Typically an Anglican parish today has some kind of memory of a busier past – when there were more weddings, the choir filled the stalls, and the youth group existed. For such churches, it can be a deep challenge to move beyond a wistful backwards glance into history. But the God whose angel met Mary, and told her not to be afraid, is the same God who sends the same Spirit to bring life to his people.  

Perhaps we need to get better at naming our reality, so that we can ready ourselves to respond to God’s call.  

It is interesting to compare the Church of England admission about overlooking smaller churches with the Baptist Union’s website, which openly points out that ‘in our Union of around 2000 churches, approximately 1000 have under 40 people.’ A suite of resources is available to share best practice for these churches. Of course for Anglican parishes questions of membership and attendance are seldom clear-cut – but no equivalent national resources yet exist, seeking to support smaller parish churches.  

Our day in Telford on Saturday 21st May, ‘Renewing Hope in Smaller Churches’, is about ReSource playing its part in encouraging leaders in such contexts. Our firm belief is that the Holy Spirit who worked miraculously in Mary’s life continues to move in his church – and remains delighted to bless those in smaller, out-of-the-way contexts. If you’re part of a church gathering fifty or fewer (perhaps many fewer!) on a typical Sunday, and would value a day of conversation, worship, prayer and inspiration, we’d love to see you. 

 Testimonial

"I personally liked the moments of prayer, it really felt as if we were collectively being guided in our discussions. I also enjoyed the informal nature where we could draw on our own experiences and open up what was in our hearts."
Attendee at St Martin’s, Herne online retreat