Increasingly, church bureaucracy is designed to assess the success, or otherwise, of a church. But I wonder what a ‘successful’ church actually looks like?
At first sight, a successful church will be big, with an ever-increasing congregation. But look at the vast churches in America (they're often called ‘mega-churches’) that can number 100,000 at a time. Are they successful? There is much evidence to suggest that they are successful insofar as they grow, are financially solvent, but it’s clearly impossible for all members to know all other members. Or then again, look at the huge churches growing in Africa. People join them in their tens of thousands, but why do they join? Often, they’re told that if they do join, they’ll receive health and wealth. It may be a cliché, but Christianity in Africa is a mile wide but an inch deep.
So numbers aren’t the sign of success. Or look at influence in a community. A simple look at the way the community in Northern Ireland has been polarised by the churches is enough to show that influence alone is no criterion of success.
Look at St Paul’s letter to the church he formed in the town of Colossi. It operated within an altogether different mindset. Early in the letter, Paul has framed his arguments in terms of judgement; in other words, what happens when we die. So Paul has gone in at the deep end: for him, it’s the serious matter of what we’ve got right and where we’ve gone off track. As happens so often, the collect puts the situation in a nutshell. It’s about true religion.
So much for context. The substance of the matter says that the church, when true to itself, has Christ as its head. Like a human body, the church (the Body of Christ) listens to the head, and does what the head says. A human body that does not obey the impulses of the brain is clearly diseased, and needs mending. In just the same way, any church (however successful it may look in worldly terms) when it refuses to listen to God has got it wrong.
St Paul makes this point explicit when he says of the church he wants, ‘Christ has first place.’ So a superior test of whether a church is successful — in God’s eyes — is whether is obeys Jesus or not. If Jesus is first, the church has started on the road that leads to God’s heart. If Jesus if not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all, and the church has got it wrong.
So a church —our Church — is successful insofar as it puts Jesus first. That phrase surely begs many questions. How in practice do we put Jesus first? Simple: we listen to what he says and then do it. That is what today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is all about. Martha is doing worthy work, probably cleaning and cooking. And in her own mind, no doubt it’s Kingdom work. It has to be done. But Jesus tells her to stop because it’s not the work he wants done now. He wants her to listen to his ideas about doing his work in his time.
Secondly, churches are successful insofar as they teach the story of Jesus, and make him known to those who cannot be expected to know about him. In the passage, those people are the Gentiles — non-Jews who would have had known none of the Jewish tradition, no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, although they will certainly have heard the odd snippet. In today’s society, there are tens of millions of folk who do not know about Jesus, although (in the same way as the Jews) they will know the odd names, part of the Christmas story, and so on. So the church needs to engage with them all. That means telling them in such a way as touches their lives, in their times of need. So our church is successful insofar as it transmits a love of Jesus.
And thirdly, St Paul says that a church is successful if its members can present themselves as mature at the time of judgement. Forget the numbers or the statistics. We, as a church, are being called to maturity in our faith. So forget quantity: look for quality. That means an increasing awareness that we rely on God rather than ourselves. It means that we learn how to pray, how to read the scriptures, how to wait on God … which is why Mary in the Gospel reading is commended.