It was as we were travelling home from our Sunday morning gathering last weekend that my eldest daughter, Elen, told us that she was starting to find Hill City Church too big. This was the first time, as far as I’m aware, that the growth of Hill City Church has affected any of my kids in a negative way.
I guess if any of the Hankey crew has a right to be feeling speed-wobble at the moment, it would be Elen. After all, she’s one of only three people (myself and Michelle being the other two) who has been part of the Hill City adventure since its inception back in 2007. When we planted Hill City we literally spent the first 5 months doing proper church services (just the three of us…and our dog) in our living room, and I’m talking a full worship session and a 45 minute preach! My reason for kicking off the church plant in such a crazy tiny way was the thought that, barring death or divorce, the church could only grow!!
And grown it has!
The house church phase lasted for about 12 months, peaking at around 20 people before we moved into our local community centre. We experienced both rapid growth and painful decline during our 5 years at that centre, and when we responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to relocate to Pontypool Active Living Centre last year, we were at around 50 people. Then came the most recent move to Pontnewynydd Chapel last month – a venue that is currently set up to seat around 75 people…and we are already bursting out of it.
Amazingly Elen is the only member of the church who has been with us through every single stage of the journey so far, and in fairness to her, she’s not the only one who is struggling to get to grips with the current growth spurt (we’ve had new faces and a growing congregation pretty much every Sunday for the last few months). Myself and Michelle, as well as many others in the church, are hard-wired for deep, meaningful relationship and it’s fair to say that this is currently becoming increasingly difficult to experience at the Sunday gathering. It’s not as cosy or familiar as it used to be! A growing congregation is certainly not a bad thing, but if it becomes the main thing then that is a problem! Anyway, by God’s grace, Hill City is about a lot more than just the Sunday event and we are blessed to be able to enjoy more intimate life-on-life relationships in our local gospel communities and through various other friendships that we invest in during the week. But we also feel what Elen felt – that there’s loads of new people and there seems to be more of them every week. (This also presents pastoral issues that the elders are working through!) Following our launch service on Easter Sunday (when we’d had to put out extra seats out for all the people who had come) we joked as elders that it was already time to start looking for a new venue (again!) Now, while that’s not necessarily true, in reality if we keep growing at the rate we are then something will have to happen, and soon.
Which brings me on to sunflowers…
She had recently planted some sunflower seeds in the garden with the kids. The adventure had started with them all planting tiny seeds in their tiny colour-coded pots a few weeks ago…
It wasn’t long before the seeds started to sprout and shoot and grow until yesterday the little plants needed to be re-potted into larger pots. Michelle beautifully explained to the kids that this re-potting was vital if the sunflowers were going to continue to flourish and grow. She explained that as the shoots got thicker and taller we may need to start putting sticks in the soil to support the weight of the head and that those sticks might need to be replaced by garden canes as growth continued. She then brilliantly applied this sunflower analogy to church planting, or more specifically, our current situation at Hill City. Just like no one one plants sunflower seeds without expecting them to grow, neither does anyone plant a church without the same desire and expectation. However, just like a growing sunflower requires structural and environmental changes to support its growth, the same is true of church plants. Suffice to say that much of our “re-potting” at Hill City Church has been in order to continue to grow by God’s grace. However, if I left the analogy there I would be doing Michelle a disservice as her conclusion was the best part!
“At some point,” she explained to the kids, “your sunflowers will stop growing. They won’t get any bigger. They will have reached the size that God wants them to reach and they will die. But what will happen then?” She asked them?
“Seeds!” Came the excited response.
In fairness to my wife, she is a genius! She had just managed to articulate to my kids (aged 3-7) something that I have been wrestling with for weeks – sunflowers are brilliant and beautiful and it’s bonkers how big they get – but it’s about so much more than just that sunflower! The bigger the sunflower gets, the more seeds it possesses which means the more fruitful it will become.
What matters for us at Hill City is not so much our size as our fruitfulness. It is possible to be a huge gathering of excitable people, but if we are not all loaded with gospel-goodness, filled with Spiritual vitality and ready (when the time is right ) to be ejected onto the mission-field, then we are doing something very wrong and Hill City Church church will die when we die. However, if as we grow we manage to retain, and even enhance, our missional DNA, and if we allow God to fill us with His Holy Spirit and load us with evangelistic zeal then who knows how fruitful this church could be?! We would all be on mission – some of us at home, some in work and in our communities. Some of us planting churches or serving as missionaries overseas. One thing is certain – Hill City will certainly live on beyond this generation and bear fruit beyond this valley – and that’s a compelling thought!
So as I listened in to Michelle’s mind-blowing sunflower sermon last night I found myself excited and energised and emboldened. I looked into the eyes of my kids, not least Elen, whose moment of raw honesty had triggered this epic little teaching moment, and I found myself praying for them. I prayed that God would make each of them fantastic, fruitful, faith-filled ‘seeds’ who (at the right time) will be propelled by the gospel into whatever mission-field He has prepared for them. And I prayed that they would experience for themselves the roller-coaster of passion, pain, challenge and joy of living large and dying daily for the glory of King Jesus.
I have no greater desire for them than that.
And I have no greater desire for Hill City than that.