For months I’ve agonised over going to the Church Growth conference. I was delighted when the research programme, based partly at Durham University, was launched, then disappointed because it looked like it might be mainly focussing on Fresh Expressions. I feared that would be the only focus of the research, the report and the conference. [Skip all my ramblings and read the report]
Don’t get me wrong, I love that unchurched, dechurched (God, I hate terms like that. I prefer ‘people’ – a bit like ‘bishops’ instead of women bishops, or ‘Christians’ instead of gay Christians…) people are begin brought to faith and meet in growing discipleship and service in the name and love of Christ.
But I really dislike bandying around the idea that fresh expressions is the only way to grow, the only way to be church in the future, the cool way to be church, the way that will grow. The rest of us can just get on with declining, whilst doing all the funerals. And we’re not even really needed for that, with civil celebrants. Or that fresh expressions have all the answers, all the ideas, all the motivation. The rest of us can just mire in our boringness and fade away, internally arguing about pews and organs. Our woolly liberal via media doesn’t cut it, it’s not passionate enough or articulated enough or conservative enough or anything enough. We are to be consigned to history and we might just as well give up and either join the ships not holed beneath the water line, or go and do something else.
I don’t say this in critique of many – indeed I think many engaged in these growing areas do not even bother themselves to be indifferent of the boring trads who don’t get it. It is a caricature and, one might say, a defensive position taken by such an institution without a grip on reality. It is my taken-to-heart critique of a general malaise.
People drawn to lead fresh expressions are spirit-filled and often blessed with success, and for that glory and thanks be to God. But as I hate boxes and being boxed, so I dislike my church being dismissed as outmoded. I dislike being part of an undeniable narrative of decline. I dislike being part of a part of church which is not pioneering, or why would we train pioneers? If the rest of us are also supposed to be proclaiming the Gospel afresh to a new generation, why are we not all pioneers? And what are we supposed to understand by not being trained to be or being considered pioneers? What is the negative of the unspoken narrative, and what damage does it do?
There are continuities in The Church which are really important. If Church Proper (dull, stagnant, distasteful as she is to some) did die, is the new expression of church, church as people loving of and living for God not as inhospitable incomprehensible & exclusive, is it mature enough to be church for everyone yet? Have those of us buried in caring for buildings forgotten that the church is the people, not the building? Have we? Have the people? What are we doing about it if we have?
In the old days, I used to get very frustrated with funded projects whose outputs and dissemination were all about what they had acheived and nothing about hand-on-ables. Everything is contextual, but always lessons can be learned and resources can be shared. Every time a success is had, celebration should be had. And shared – not as non-unpackable language, but as resources to work with, ideas to adapt, practices to be modelled.
I despair of working in silos. I long for the next phase of our deanery plan to kick in, the ‘working creatively to optimise our skills and resources’. I am, perhaps, the wrong type to be in this job.
I may think a place/community, a church, a priest (seen plenty dysfunctional teams & benefices) but I firmly believe in collaboration and support. Not competition or my toys play.
So I approached the release of the church growth report with trepidation. I want to celebrate fresh expression success. I want them to succeed, I don’t mind the mixed economy (though I would love that we were all sufficiently filled with the active Spirit that church shopping were not so necessary (read necessary in whatever tone you like)). But I don’t want their success to be at the expense of parish churches who are also trying. And if I put a book down on growth or mission because its introduction makes it clear that it is for and about different ways of being church and assumes itself to be not relevant to me, then I know plenty hearts and places where a wedge is driven and may be the only thing that grows.
Believe me, that is not at all to think that ‘traditional’ churches are doing fine thankyou and are growing or doing our job, and that there must be some mistake about fresh expressions being necessary because everything will be alright soon, just you wait and see. I see very many needs for The Church to get with the programme. So many I could write you a list.
Which brings me to the report. Following the tweets as it was presented, easy for bile to rise. All the pointed out highlights are the bits where fresh expresssions are doing really well. Note to self: have you counted recently just how many fresh expressions types you follow in comparison to trads….(these kind of things are the blogs and newsletters I read most too). Note to others: don’t pigeonhole me for railing against fresh expressions when I’m a pioneer at heart, trying to pioneer on/from the inside of the church I love despite its failings.
First I read the Church Army’s report. How fascinating to see their definitions of what could be included as a Fresh Expression of Church, and how very many were discarded. Positively taken, many things are really extensions of existing church, which shows that others are doing mission and outreach. Negatively taken, that was a much smaller % than people might have wanted to see of fxC being genuinely church and genuinely successful. But interesting.
Second, the main report. I’m ok with lists, I quite like them. Especially lists which are helpfully usable – detailed enough to be self-explanatory, brief enough to all for a broad range of interpretation or development. So I enjoyed the sets of lists. I’m pondering putting the lists I took out of the report into a table to compare. Maybe I’ll get around to that. I’m carrying a few lists in my head/many bits of paper as it is, the sections and questions of the diocesan Preparing the Ground for Growth programme, the training session outline of Bob Jackson’s Everybody Welcome, a great long list of priorities from Open for You.
So in the report, I see lists. Many lists. I see less bias than I expect. I see lots of things I know are common sense, and I wonder why we don’t do (the answer is often there isn’t the time, or the resource, but often the killer line that is highlighted in the report: that people do not want to change, they like their Christianity in the way they have it thankyou very much. What is this gospel of which you speak?). I see lots of things that correspond to the PGG sections, Everybody Welcome, Developing a Healthy Church and many more. So some of this really isn’t new, we just need to engage with it.
Here’s an example of what I suspect will only be so helpful – a piece about a church plant growing from 12 to 50+ in 2 years. How? Growth factors: “learning about the demographics, making organisational systems fit for purpose, identifying values, developing leadership, community outreach and opportunities to explore faith” (p20). If you’re sitting somewhere desperately praying for the inspiration and support to get your little 12 person church up to 50 people, then I fear those factors need more unpacking than the case study gives you, as no examples are included.
Here’s another: more youth work. Tell us another one. Thanks, the church times, for the headline ‘Growth possible if the young can be wooed into staying’. Seriously, how many clergy spend half their Sundays thinking ‘our youth work is fine’? But how do we attract the youth with what we have, without throwing out the faithful discipleship of the people who do like it as it is. Ah yes, we have a fresh expression bringing faith to the youth, and we just work out the terminality of habit. More people. The fields are white for harvesting, but where are the labourers? See below.
More people. “Churches are more likely to grow when there is one leader for one community” (p27). I’m very glad this was highlighted in the report, despite the slight irony of our diocesan email forums releasing news of two great priests about to leave the diocese, and three more taking on a further church to their already plural bow within 24 hours of the report’s release. I know there are resource issues, present and future (pensions), but I really cannot see how reducing and spreading thinner will work, however creative we are at working together, and however much people scream ‘lay people’ at me. Oftentimes, mission happens because there is a collar present in the places of the parish(community/network/pub/estate). More often, it happens because that collar is making an effort. More often still, because that collar is making an effort, backed up by enthusiastic lay people/disciples/Christians.
click to expand
Here are the factors which charaterise church growth. Or rather, church health – which should/will lead to church growth. And what is really really interesting and needful to hear/read, is that it applies to all churches, all expressions of church, all traditions of church. It’s a commonality we can all share, share ideas and share resources. And share joy and celebration when health and growth develops. And in this week of Christian unity, it would be great to go forward working together on it, rather than see headlines about fresh expression success, or decline of traditional church, or really scary interviews with archbishops about churches growing if there’s a good clergyperson there – cue despondency among many great clergy who fight the list of factors the report says inhibit growth as best they can and still have churches which are precarious.
The infographic is good, but the expansion in the document is subtly different, so here’s the list (p8) with comments.
- Having a clear mission and purpose
“Vitality comes with reflection and choice; the particular style is less important than the fact that it has been considered and embraced” (p11)
- Being ready to self-reflect and learn continually
- Being willing to change and to adapt
- Assigning roles to lay people as well as ordained clergy
The researchers asked: Do the same people tend to serve in volunteer leadership roles year after year or does your church rotate volunteer service among a larger number of people?
Of those who answered that the same people tend to serve, 8% reported growth
Of those who said there was some rotation (tending to be among a limited number of people), 19% reported growth
Of those who said there was a lot of rotation among people in volunteer leadership roles, 47% reported growth
- Actively engaging children and teenagers
“Growth is found where there is a high ratio of children to adults. Churches which offer programmes for children and teenagers are more likely to grow.” (p12)
Er, yeah. Unless we actually fill the church with all the bereaved spouses we do funerals for, we can only decrease in number. Easier said than done.
- Actively engaging with those who might not go to church/are actively outside the existing community
- Good welcoming and follow up for visitors
Both of these two have the little coffee cup picture by them in the report. ‘Nuff said.
- Committed to nurturing new and existing Christians
“In those which reported none [discipleship or teaching] or “some emphasis through preaching”, less than half were growing” (p13). Ouch. Yes.
[feel free to go for a cup of tea and a walk, I'll still be here when you get back]
That was all in the executive summary. Now sometimes, even often, that’s all you need to read. But then you’d only have one list. And there are more embedded in the document. So on I read, but for now will skip beyond the case study and info on traditional church, fresh expression and most of church plant. Here’s the next list, p 20 on the common values in church planting. Shouldn’t that read ‘common values in church/being church’?
- being relational and incarnational
- the importance of welcome and hospitality
- the importance of lay people
- inclusion of local people
- importance of groups
- involvement with young families
- attempting to be a healing presence
So, we need to plant in ourselves? Or wake up and smell coffee. Or be grateful that we’ve pretty much got all those on a list from our PGG discussions. And/or be concerned that it’s only 2/3 of the folk that have engaged with those discussions. Entrepreneurial and innovative approaches shouldn’t need to be brought in. We should be generating them ourselves. We can do this.
Next up: Cathedrals. Here (p21-22) the report said the responses clustered into several themes. They kind of map to the list, and they’re kind of long, so feel free to head over and read them in the report. Safe to say though, they’re all themes that all churches should be able to aspire to. Perhaps more so than the subsequent list of factors which are why cathedrals are growing. Now your average parish church might not be able to replicate these, and should we even be trying, but still I think there is relevance. ‘Culture and the arts’ may be the school concert, ‘civic profile’ may be churches together or Remembrance services…
- initiating new services and congregations
enriching the quality of worship
improving welcome and hospitality
engaging culture and the arts
promoting spiritual openness, inclusivity
and diversity in membership and outreach
increasing the civic profile
developing educational programmes
prioritising discipleship and Christian nurture (p22)
They are, I think, all areas to reflect upon in individual contexts and situations.
Onwards. The research reports two major factors contributing to decline – youth presence, and amalgamations. I’ve mentioned both already.
Decline. The most depressing quote (?) in the Church of England:
I worry that it might even be the most common quote in the Church of England. However, whichever list I looked at, whichever way I read the report, I still think it’s not rocket science. I also still think that it isn’t as simple as ” where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches“. But I do think that [support of] churches and clergy who do have vision, who are intentional about growing in discipleship, in worship, in service, who are hospitable and inclusive, who do want to welcome young people and their views, who do look outwards not inwards (or at least, inwards not meaning spiritually inwards), CAN grow.
Now, don’t we need to work on how to resource such vision and intentionality? Together. All those lists of growth factors are as relevant to parish churches as to fresh expressions of church – or even in some ways should be ‘easier’ to achieve. So what are we waiting for?
Let’s get out there.
Finally, the executive summary for me – my headline takeaways from this really helpful set of research findings.
- tradition is unimportant, if done well, with integrity and intentionality. I knew this, I’m glad to see it in the report. I simply refuse to accept that growth comes by chucking out the organ, pews, pewsheet and via media values. This does not mean no change:
“The church does want to grow but only if the new people keep everything the same” (p31) Indeed. Nothing else to be said.
- health and growth are promoted in places where rotation of roles happens regularly. I suspect this will be hard for many to take. Fast on the heels of ‘this is the way we normally do it’ is ‘that’s X’s job’.
- factors which do not appear in research terms to make a significant difference to growth or decline, include theological tradition and gender, ethnicity or marital status [I would probably also want to add orientation] of the leader (p31). This pleased me. I suppose, along with many, I would have hoped it to say that, but it’s reassuring that it did.
Did someone say motivate, envision, innovate…