Yesterday, I exchanged pulpits with Rev. Ellen Spero, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts — she preached here in New Bedford while I preached up in the Chelmsford church. I like pulpit exchanges because I get to check out another church, to see what’s happening there.

When I got to Chelmsford, I went down to the kitchen, and while I stood there sipping tea and chatting with a couple of friendly people, I watched a mom with two daughters walk into the room. The two girls were grinning ear-to-ear, and you could just tell that coming to church was a high point of their week. That seemed like a good sign. Later when I stood greeting people as they walked into the sanctuary, you could see and feel that really everyone was pleased to be there; another good sign.

When I stood up to do the opening words, I could see that most of the pews were pretty well filled up, yet there were still people coming in, so I said that perhaps people could move over to open up some aisle seats for the latecomers — and everyone just moved over without even thinking about it. You could just feel the good energy in that room, and you could feel that these were people who know how to care for one another.

The preaching part was just plain fun. Preaching, as any minister will tell you, is something that the congregation and the minister do together. The Chelmsford congregation did more than their share of the work, so I sounded better than I had any right to sound; a good congregation can do something to make even an average preacher like me sound pretty good.

I could feel an indefinable something in that congregation; something very good is happening there. Not that I want to go and be the minister in Chelmsford; I like our little church here in New Bedford. And I’m sure the Chelmsford church must have its own peculiar frustrations and challenges. But the last time I felt that indefinable something that I felt in Chelmsford was in the Watertown, Massachusetts, church a decade ago when they doubled in size in two short years. I’d bet the Chelmsford church is either going to grow in the next few years, or they’re going to have to work very hard to keep from growing.

All of which led to an interesting thought for me: there are churches where it takes more effort and energy to keep growth from happening than it does to let growth happen. Based on the limited sample size of the churches I have happened to visit, I’d say that is true of more than half our churches: i.e., in more than half our churches, I’ll bet it’s easier to grow than to stay the same size.

If you want to know if that’s true in your church, watch the children as they arrive on Sunday morning. If at least some of the children are grinning as they walk in, watch out — your church is ready to grow.