Comments: Church of England reports Signs of Growth

Was thought given to disability access? Very strong research on nearly 400 churches over five years shows this is a major factor in whether growth occurs. Doesn't seem to be mentioned here.
Also concerned about the finding that empathy might mean a lack of ability to grow a church. That's quite something, isn't it. What exactly does this mean? What form of empathy? may help with that question. Are churches led by a fairly non-empathetic leader, but which grow in numbers, a better example of Christianity than the others? How so? Many questions. Anyone got the answers?

Posted by Ann Memmott at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 2:49pm GMT

I'm all for looking on the bright side, but calling a report 'Signs of Growth,' after a 9% overall decline in the last decade? I had to search for some time for that killer stat, hidden away in brackets at the end of a paragraph near the weather and the sports.

And I'm sure we're all delighted the cathedrals are doing well...

Posted by stephen Morgan at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 3:50pm GMT

I don't think the problems over demographics are hidden: pages 25 to 27 in are pretty stark.

However, the response is platitudinous: "There is an urgent need to focus on children, young people and their parents and a challenge to identify how the church can best invest in people, programmes and strategies which will encourage young people actively to continue exploring faith." Leave aside that the pedantic writer needs to be taught that splitting infinitives is fine, especially if it avoids rebarbative phrases like "actively to continue exploring faith" (although actually, that sort of attitude to long-dead shibboleths says a lot about the document).

But it glosses over the obvious problem that a church perceived as concerned with keeping gays out and women in their place is unlikely to appeal to a generation for whom sexism and homophobia play about as well as flat-out racism. The CofE voted on granting women equality, and voted "no". The CofE made a very loud noise about same-sex marriage being the end of civilisation. That both of these reflect organised CofE conservatives engaging in grandstanding for the benefit for GAFCON rather than the settled mind of the parishes at large may be a defence, but isn't a response: people currently uninterested in the church don't see those debates. Why would a parent want to take their daughter to an organisation which says that women aren't suitable for senior leadership? Why would a parent want to take their son to an organisation that will be hostile is he is gay?

The CofE has decided that pandering to ageing conservatives is preferable to advancing policies which are acceptable to young, educated people. It can't then complain that young, educated people are staying away in droves. It's too late to say "oh, in 2014 we're starting on a five year facilitated conversation about whether to accept gays and women as full members, we'll have a decision by about 2025"; the obvious response is "why the hell didn't you do that thirty years ago, like the rest of society?"

Welby has decided that he wants a static, homophobic, sexist CofE, and the Synod when asked support him. That means that new members will be thin on the ground. Having made his bed, he can lie in it.

Posted by Interested Observer at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 5:02pm GMT

Three things stand out for me in the findings report:
1) That there is deemed to be a higher potential for growth in "middle class suburbs" (their words) and areas with larger migrant communities from Christian cultures. The report had much less to say about why lower-income, lower-resourced unchurched working class communities have less potential for numerical growth
2) The overwhelming majority of regular attendees at Cathedrals, who joined in the last five years, are from "churched" backgrounds. I've also heard this phenomenon referred to as "parish burnout".
3) The statistic that Fresh Expressions experiences a 1:2.6 growth ratio derives from the number of people "sent to start" a community to the number who attend. It is also based on leaders' estimates.

There is growth happening out there, and that should be celebrated, but some of these findings seem disingenuous.

Posted by Tim Moore at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 5:15pm GMT

One of the obstacles to growth in poorer areas is the parish share system, especially in Dioceses that insist that even the smallest and poorest churches bear the full cost of the incumbent. Also the idea of keeping buildings open at all costs even when adding more and more churches to a benefice. A single parish benefice in a relatively well-off area is a luxury most clergy can only dream of. Those in multi-parish benefices with expensive to maintain buildings and ageing congregations are almost inevitably going to struggle. Well heeled and well resourced Cathedrals almost always thrive at the expense of the parishes around them. I am happy if my cathedral is growing while at the same time am glad it is miles away and not taking my hard working and burned out parishioners!

Posted by Fr Paul at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 10:19pm GMT

The church's institutional bigotry undoubtedly plays its part, Interested Observer, and so too does the rise of consumerism and the welfare state. Put simply, the church has a lot more competition, and its rivals have cleaned its clock.

Evolution at work.

I've reached the hard conclusion that the church's bigotry won't be stopped until it reaches crisis point. The internal opposition is too demoralized and accommodating for anything else. For things to get better, they must first get worse. I'd advise anyone likely to be affected personally to stay well clear. This is not a safe space.

As to the rest, the church will undoubtedly look to move further into education and welfare to shore-up its position. Religion has always been at its most effective when it targets the vulnerable. God help those who must rely on the Church of England for their education and meal ticket, because no-one else will.

I believe this is where one says "Kyrie eleison," and departs.

Posted by James Byron at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 10:21pm GMT

There isn't much to boast about in increased cathedral attendances. Has no-one read Grace Davie the sociologist and writer on 'believing without belonging'? This is exactly what happens with the majority of cathedral congregations where people drop in for a religious experience and then go away again.

It's much harder in the parishes, especially the non-suburban ones where every new member has to be earned and struggled for.

On this matter, once again Justin Welby has shot from the hip when he, without caveat, proclaimed (as reported in the Church Times early in January) that growing congregations were the result of 'good vicars'. A nuanced response to this last week in the same publication by the Bishop of Stepney (who has plenty of difficult area parishes in his patch) reminded us that excellent priests can be found in parishes which even under them are in decline for all sorts of demographic reasons.

Most church growth these days risks being cannibalistic i.e. growing at other churches expense. The real challenge, as yet unaddressed, is what to do about the onward march of a secular humanism that wants nothing to do with a Church that is persistently negative in its proclamations.

Posted by Concerned Anglican at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 10:47pm GMT

From my perspective, we simply need to get out of denial and into reality. And the conference today hit the low notes as well as the high notes, and asked real questions. Someone said to me (and Churchill comes to mind at this point) - it isn't the beginning, it's the start of the beginning. There are grounds for optimism, but the tendency to corporate denial is not one of them.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 11:11pm GMT

"The real challenge, as yet unaddressed, is what to do about the onward march of a secular humanism that wants nothing to do with a Church that is persistently negative in its proclamations."

Why "do" anything about it? It appeals to a different market. It's all about the market, now. Those who want religious experience can go to a concert, listen to an MP3 of their choosing, fire up the incense and read something from the Mind, Body, Spirit section.

The part of the church that works, charismatic evangelicalism, combines cultural accessibility with emotional appeal and certainty. Style matters at least as much as content. If some more liberal churches got in the guitars, tapped the emotion, and said clearly what they believe, maybe they'd get the numbers in too.

Posted by James Byron at Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 11:14pm GMT

Two letters in the Church Times this morning offer different perspectives to this subject.
One, from Bob Hopkins offer hard statistical evidence to correct misinformation in the Bishop of Stepney's article of growth and fresh expressions. It begs the question as to why we in the CofE manages to distort actual good news when we have some and why our instinct is to treat it with suspicion. There is something here to be grateful for - and people to honour who are enabling it.
On another level, a second letter cautions against the use of church growth/numbers as automatic evidence of fidelity and blessing - pointing out how the National church was flourishing in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and how vibrant the Rwanda church was leading up to the genocide.

Posted by David Runcorn at Friday, 17 January 2014 at 8:42am GMT

Personally, having been at the event yesterday, I rejoiced at a church moving from denial to facing the truth, and at the professional (statistical and methodological) integrity and competence of the researchers. There were many issues - not least a fairly constant critique of data quality. The Church Army Group, for example, did their best to identify fresh expressions of church, but on their criteria excluded more than half the candidate examples from their coverage. I mention that because the Church Army website has a full report rather than the executive summary - read what they did. What I hope is that the start made here will grow, and that we will become more "data informed" (rather than "data driven")- the only data most PCCs consider regularly involve money - that may start to change.

Data are not the whole story, but they are part of it. If the data of Good Friday were our benchmark (one dead Jesus and one dead penitent thief and half a maybe convinced soldier and a bit of an inkling in Pilate's wife) we wouldn't have a story. We have a church because of Pentecost. And Pentecost has numbers and facts attached. We can't make the excuse that it is always Good Friday, but neither should we assume that it is always Pentecost. And we are not allowed to forget that the cross was essential - data don't make sense of the cross, only the resurrection does that.

I very much hope that high quality research will continue to be funded and nurtured - the links between the CofE and the research community in Pastoral/Practical Theology are fairly limited and definitely not strategically evaluated and prioritised. The work done here was on the whole very good (much of a far higher quality than we are accustomed to in the CofE) - some was outstanding.

Just as Good Friday and Pentecost are part of our story, so all kinds of data, whether welcome or not, are part of the story we have to tell ourselves and the world. When we divorce ourselves from reality we find ourselves in the position of the psalmist - unable to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land.

Pretty much every concern raised so far on this thread was apparent to the researchers and dealt with in the presentations. it was good work, but a beginning, and there is a lot more to be done.

The key practical conclusion for me involved the small numbers of Christian parents who teach their own faith to their children. "... to proclaim afresh in each generation the faith once delivered ... " Forget the wording of the baptism liturgies - it is what parents actually do with their children which counts. And we ought to be doing more to help them.

The harder question was about engagement with the age group 15-25.

But that's enough from me.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Friday, 17 January 2014 at 8:41pm GMT

i attended the conference on some of the research this week and i hope this post

usefully summarises not only what the published summary of the research says but also adds some of the comments made by those presenting and answering questions at the conference

Posted by useful in parts at Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 8:07am GMT

Has this survey on Church Growth made any connection between the introduction of modern liturgies and the decline in the number of people attending church? For it seems to me that the two are not unrelated. With the widespread abolition of Thou, Thine, Thy language we have lost a great deal of the majesty and the mystery of worship and in the process we have lost vast numbers from the pews.

Posted by Father David at Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 8:37am GMT

I think the Bishop of Stepney has raised the most intelligent points in this recent focus on "growth".

It does not surprise me at all that comfortable middle-class suburban citizens would feel comfortable in comfortable middle-class suburban clubs, er, I mean churches.

Even in many of those, though, there is a shortfall of younger people.

If people are looking for 'culture' which reflects their own privileges and security, then yes, some churches may provide that, and you create a sort of social where you can meet up with like-minded friends.

But I'm not sure that that privilege, comfort and security was Jesus's way, and I do wonder - as Adrian Newman mooted - whether growth that matters is about going down deep into *other* people's cultures and communities.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 1:52pm GMT

Next they'll be telling us that where there are good vicars churches will grow! Whatever next?

Posted by Father David at Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 4:10pm GMT
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