The Road To Growth
Its rare one reads anything proclaiming a positive future for the Church of England, or indeed for mainstream denominations in the UK, even more so that its a book and certainly not a book published by the Church of England’s own printing presses. But I’ve just finished reading such a book (title above, author Bob Jackson).
There are several things that make the book even more remarkable, of which the first is that it says a lot of things that ought to be common sense, or which don’t only refer to the experiences of Evangelical churches. In fact, it says some very odd things, like the fact that Alpha as a brand is having little or no effect in bringing people into the church (not the same thing as Alpha as a waste of time), and that women priests are statistically as likely, if not more likely, to be leading churches that are on the numerical up.
The problem is very simple: the church can’t go on shrinking very much more and still actually function. We’ve lost most of the people who just rolled in to church every Sunday and put a few pounds on the collection plate and complained if anything changed. We’ve lost most of the people who wanted us to change. We’ve also stopped getting asked to do funerals by people who never had a previous contact with us, and the same is true for weddings and baptisms (things that the author refers to as “Christendom duties”).
But that doesn’t mean we’re all losing lots of people across the board. But it does mean we’ve gone beyond the point where anyone can reasonably make the argument that numbers attending doesn’t mean we’re doing something right. And it means we have to act to turn things around.
The problem with the national figures is that they mask the real situation – yes many churches are shrinking, and some of them are doing it rather fast. Some people are being misreported – specifically those who have moved their attendance to mid-week. Big churches are shrinking faster than smaller churches, with a virtual ceiling effective above around 250 regular attenders. But there’s growth in all sorts of places. Its just that very often we don’t hear the stories.
The book covers just about every area of potential for growth, some of which is pretty inaccessible to ordinary members of the church, but some of which should be required reading for the folks in the pews, especially as it tells simple stories of churches discovering that growth is happening in even the most ordinary of situations.
One section of the book that I enjoyed (and might be controversial in some circles) concerns the setting up of services (or congregations, if you will). The book take a couple of examples, the first being the (perhaps clunky) example of cinemas: once we went to a single-screen cinema to see a film selected for us by the owners. Now we go to multiplex’s and get a whole menu of options. Like most parallels, its of limited use – I’d be thoroughly put off by a church that had 10 altars and regularly had concurrent services on 7 of them. But it does highlight the shift to a better range of worship appropriate to the full breadth of people in society. As Bishop Graham Cray said elsewhere: “We must ask ourselves, who will we never reach if we continue to do this?”. Surely our services must be trying to reach someone.
Whilst the book had a lot to say about reaching young people and families, it didn’t say so much about the challenge of reaching over-60’s. In the classic conception of an Anglican Church as dictated to by oldies who ignore the young ones except to pay lip service, we easily forget just how many ‘Oldies’ aren’t in church. I’d have like to have seen more. But for many groups in society, this book has a welcome message: churches must cater to everyone, not just the middle-aged, middle-class folks.
The other example used is of a plane flying with only one wing – of course it will crash. The solution isn’t to replace a port wing with a starboard wing (the author very careful not to say left and right!). The solution is to find a second wing – which in this case is to balance out the “inherited” forms of worship with “fresh expressions”. The term is lifted from a report which (long story short) uses the term specifically because every Priest in the Church of England has already vowed to proclaim the Gospel of Christ afresh in each and every generation.
A Fresh Expression is pretty nearly anything which is neither an inherited congregation (one that has existed in past generations) nor follows the basic principles of a church service as we have inherited them. It is likely to be within and alongside a traditional congregation, but should not simply be an evangelistic ministry designed to get people to attend a ‘regular’ (read, inherited) service.
Whilst the range of topics covered, from the statistical and financial reality of the church today, to the policies nationally, regionally (diocesan level) and locally (parish level) that can help create change, there was one further chapter, perhaps a little late in the book, which I felt especially useful for today’s church. It addressed the spiritual side of moving the church towards growth. Prayer was a big issue – churches where individual members of the congregation are regularly meeting to pray are often doing much better. One of the worries has been a lack of personal bible study, although many more people are reading books about the bible/faith and engaging in other ways (magazines, websites, to name just two). The spiritual life of the church maybe should have come earlier, but it is something where significant progress is being made.
All this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but then neither should this remarkable anecdote:
One parish church found it impossible to fill in my questionnaire asking for a list of factors affecting their attendance threads and enquiring whether they use growth-friendly tactics like [the globally renowned] Alpha Courses. “You see, “ said the vicar, “it’s really all down to a group of people many years ago very seriously praying together. That’s why we’ve grown".” The Vicar was Sandy Millar and the church was Holy Trinity Brompton.
Its all too easy to forget that the reason some churches are growing isn’t the choice of presentation or course material or songs. Holy Trinity Brompton created “Alpha”, and whilst many churches look at HTB and think Alpha must be how to replicate their success, the truth is, it only appears to ‘work’ as a course because of its roots in the prayer and wider concern of the church running it.
The conclusion to the book is that the Church can make a decision to go for growth, but that there are some big, often painful, decisions to be made along the way. The path to growth may be very long and arduous, and it may feel like we’re starting from scratch (and in many ways, we are) but its a road many others have travelled before and who have many exciting stories to tell. Its just a pity a book like this is so easily dismissed as something only the vicar should read. If you think you have a future anywhere in the Church, get a copy and read it.