Comments: Church Growth

Grace Davie wrote a fairly conservative sociological book (I have it) in terms of 'still believing' if not belonging, and that seems to be shifting in position. She's still the same, though, because, as for Europe being exceptional, well, the United States is now following suit, as observed institutional religion is in clear decline there, and the religion of other places can be seen as part of a transition to modernisation via a middle class Protestantism, a consumer charismatic faith. Regarding the Church Times, such a focus on growth indicates decline must be deep. She's right about the decline of the Liberal Protestant: Unitarians have had equal focus on growth as shown here and the decline has gone on, so that the Liberal Protestant identity has to go, if anything distinct can replace it and appeal.

Posted by Pluralist at Saturday, 4 July 2015 at 5:16am BST

Gay couple in Pete Broadbent's diocese: "Mmm - that coffee smells good - and look at the quality floor-coverings! It all feels so centrifugal. Can we get married here?"
Vicar: "No - but after you get married somewhere else and I've explained to you how you've departed from the church's teachings, I can do a service for you as long as I don't bless you."

Posted by Laurence Cunnington at Saturday, 4 July 2015 at 7:11am BST

"Pete Broadbent's diocese" is certainly an interesting description, Laurence! I am sure Pete would agree that said diocese is rightly "the people of North London's diocese".

Posted by DBD at Saturday, 4 July 2015 at 10:17am BST

Great to see church growth coming on to the radar of the church at large. Of course there's a chance of the tail wagging the dog, but it's time to stop being sniffy and start taking practical steps - a lot of it isn't rocket science when there's a genuine will in the church to make it happen.

Posted by Peter K+ at Saturday, 4 July 2015 at 12:12pm BST

Of course David Goodhew is right, even though the church he attends (St Nick's) isn't to my taste (which doesn't matter at all). Interesting also to read the various 'tips': illuminating both differences of philosophy and of character.

To be really crude: the single biggest reason for decline is lack of will. Say what you like about churches like St Nick's (and I do), they are highly organised, they do try and they never give up. Compare and contrast, as academics say.

Posted by John at Sunday, 5 July 2015 at 6:23am BST

I'm interested by the use of the word "will" in these comments. Whose will? People inside the churches can will all they like for people to come to their churches, and it is not as if there haven't been serious strategies worked out and followed through in church after church over the last forty years. But decline has been continuous and now seems set to accelerate.

The reasons are multiple and complex - but somewhere in there is the uncomfortable truth that Christians simply willing to grow their churches is not cutting it. Even the ones that are full and seem able to attract people have an issue with persistence. People drift away. And young people come in the first place in smaller and smaller numbers.

Rather than using all this will power on ourselves, might it not be an idea to find out why there is no will to explore what we claim to have? Or to identify why those who used to be with us willed to leave?

The immediate defence from some will be that that is letting "the world set the agenda". But if the will of the people is, for example, to reject a "toxic brand" then we might as well hear that message and work out how to de-toxify.

Posted by Jeremy Pemberton at Sunday, 5 July 2015 at 8:23am BST

Let's learn from the experts at growth, charismatic evangelicals.

They make their churches accessible, with stripped down liturgy, modern music, and welcome teams. This is followed up by small groups in the week. They tap emotions, have sermons that reference pop culture, and incorporate audio visual. They avoid theological jargon, and describe their beliefs in straightforward language. Accessibility, enthusiasm, and social support. It's a simple formula, and it works.

All this could be imported to liberal churches, without evangelical theology. When it is, liberal churches will grow too, and liberalism will finally be taken seriously by the powers that be.

Posted by James Byron at Sunday, 5 July 2015 at 6:45pm BST

On our side, we're reading articles about how young people do not want a church that is "dumbed down" and how they like the ancient ritual. Go figure.

Our young families in our growing church are pleased to be able to raise their children in a church that isn't "bigoted." We've had two female rectors leading the parish for the last two decades+, and we've been gay friendly forever.

I suspect that there is no "one size fits all," but it certainly makes sense to listen to good ideas from wherever they come, and decide what is authentic for the particular parish.

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 5 July 2015 at 8:10pm BST

Cynthia, I don't think 'stripped down liturgy' equals 'no liturgy', and I'm pretty sure 'avoiding theological jargon' doesn't equal 'dumbed down'.

I find it interesting, though (this is a general comment, not related only to what Cynthia said), that whenever we think about church growth we immediately start talking as if that means 'more people coming to church on Sundays'. As I read the Book of Acts, church growth meant 'more people coming to faith in Christ and joining the community of disciples - ONE of whose activities was weekly worship'.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Sunday, 5 July 2015 at 9:16pm BST

Tim, I'm Anglo-Catholic and our parish is growing. If you ask people why they come, as we do in surveys, it's the high church liturgy, high quality music, and social justice ministry. "Strip down" our liturgy, and it would not be the ancient ritual that resonates with some young people. As for eliminating the jargon, I need examples, the liturgy is the liturgy. But how one talks about it can certainly be clear and accessible.

I was trying to advocate for solutions that are not "one size fits all." It's good to have a variety of worship styles and musical offerings.

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 5 July 2015 at 11:15pm BST

"Get rid of the dynasty of people who have run the church for the last 40 years. Persuade them to stand down. Honour their contribution. They stop being part of the solution and become part of the problem when they block everything."

Would this include those clergy who have also blocked progress and brought on the Anglican decline?

Posted by Sheila Rosenthal at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 8:37am BST

I'm not a fan of asking people why they come. I have long agreed with Jeremy Pemberton that the real question is to find out why they leave and why they don't come.

Does anyone know of a church that follows up those who have drifted away after a while and asks them why they left? Whether they go somewhere else instead or what they doing now?
What, if anything, could tempt them to give church (another) go?

That's the kind of information we need to collect, not just numbers on the Electoral Roll. And then we need competent analysis of the nationwide data.

Let's get real. Most people who've never been inside a church have no idea what music is being used where, what liturgy and what kind of sermons are being preached. They know as much about their local church as I know about my local mosque - nothing.
We can stop this Anglo-Catholics vs Evangelical churches game.
We are all in this together and we could do with some proper statistical information and analysis for why our churches are shrinking.

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 9:43am BST

I'm enjoying Cynthia's take on this - I don't think there is an easy off the peg solution, and every church is different. I'm convinced that 'good' liturgy can be a helpful discipling tool. I'd add that a lot of evangelical Christians and churches are also involved in social justice issues in different ways - Stop the Traffick is one that springs to mind, but there are plenty of others on local and wider arenas.

I'm less convinced by James, not least because I don't think there's anything like the same sort of liberal contemporary music from which you can build a service - and if you decided to use Matt Redman, Stuart Townend etc you'd have to do an awful lot of filleting to get rid of references to substitutionary atonement etc. There's a danger your church may unwittingly become evangelical !

Posted by Peter K+ at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 12:08pm BST

Sheila, yes.

Thankfully, though, vicars have to retire at 70.

Posted by Peter K+ at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 1:05pm BST

Cynthia's right to say that other styles of worship can be a success, but they require talent and resources, and the right audience. The evangelical model is easiest to implement, and has the widest appeal.

Peter K+, plenty workship songs are free of references to PSA; and, of course, any moderately talented songwriter can be hired to bash a few out. If the will is there, this is a non-issue.

It boils down to a simple question: do we want justice in the church, or not? If we do, we need numbers and money, and you get those by making services as accessible and lively as possible, backed by comprehensive social networking. Evangelicals have hit on a simple and easily replicable formula to grow churches. It works, and they run the church because of it. There's no ethical objection to it. If we value justice, we'll junk stylistic preferences in a heartbeat, implement it, and at last begin to enjoy the fruits of success, as they do.

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 2:49pm BST

The author of the suggestion that we should "get rid" of people was born on 31 July 1952. A long way from 70.

Posted by Turbulent Priest at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 2:58pm BST

In answer to Erica's question ("Does anyone know of a church that follows up those who have drifted away after a while and asks them why they left? Whether they go somewhere else instead or what they doing now?") a colleague and I did just such a survey a little while ago. No, we didn't find, unfortunately, that "leavers" went to other churches - with the exception of those that had already been "churched" for some years beforehand. We found there were three top reasons people cited:

- 1. Although we are a friendly church - they all said so! - they weren't actually making friends, ie people they would meet up with during the week, invite over for a meal, etc etc. Despite the "church growth" "wisdom" that people like to be left anonymous, there was not a single person who tried us and didn't stay that would have liked to be more anonymous - on the contrary, they often expressed surprise that we didn't get people to talk to each other at various points in the service, as this is what they'd encountered in other clubs/adult education settings etc. (Of course, the reason we don't do lots of that is that the existing members would hate it).

- 2. At 1 hour 10 mins, the service was felt to be simply too long - several people said 45 minutes was a realistic maximum, though they did say that if there was a break in the middle they would be able to take more. Interestingly, those with children tended to comment that their children were happy with the length, it was the adults that couldn't take it.

- 3. The provision for children was an issue, but in two ways: some disliked the provision (most weeks) of age-specific groups, because it felt odd to be divided from their children; while some disliked the bits of the service (and some weeks, the whole service) that included all ages together, and would have preferred the agegroups to be completely separate.

I'm sure other churches would find other results, this was just ours. In response to the survey we "re-jigged" our services dramatically, creating "rolling worship" - I wish I could tell you that we have been successful at retaining more of our visitors, but I can't!

Posted by andy gr at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 3:47pm BST

"Thankfully, though, vicars have to retire at 70."

With a spirited disregard for age discrimination legislation, it would seem. Or perhaps that's another CofE exemption.

Posted by Laurence Cunnington at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 3:55pm BST

'if you decided to use Matt Redman, Stuart Townend etc you'd have to do an awful lot of filleting to get rid of references to substitutionary atonement etc.'

And let's not forget that in at least one famous incidence, Stuart Townend has been asked several times for permission to change one line in one of his songs, and he has refused every time - which, as a living songwriter and owner of the copyright, he has the perfect right to do. So churches which change that lyric are breaking the law. (as a songwriter I've had this happen to me, too, so I'm somewhat sensitive to it!)

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 4:06pm BST

The Church condemns gay marriage and is still'iffy' about the place of women - making huge concessions to those who oppose their being made priest and bishop.Then it wonders why people vote with their feet and levee and will not be tempted back!

Posted by Jean Mayland (Revd) at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 4:32pm BST

Jean, institutional homophobia undoubtedly drives some away from the church, but most people are either indifferent, or rank it as a low priority.

Mainstream evangelicals have, as ever, deftly gauged the popular mood: they take a traditional line on sexuality, but downplay it, and emphasize pastoral support. By this juggling act, Willow Creek in America, and HTB in England, continue to thrive.

Evangelical skill at handling and defusing a hot-button issue is something to learn from. I hate the effect it has on LGBT people, but can't deny the ability it takes to pull it off.

Evangelicals got game. If we don't match 'em, they'll be the only game in town.

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 6:07pm BST

Andy,
thank you, that's really interesting! It does confirm my own suspicion - people are far less interested in our pet divides and pet solutions than we think.

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 6:46pm BST

James,

I have two problems with your recommendation:

(1) I don't personally like it at all and I wouldn't attend such churches. I might well end up in a FiF church or something similar because apart from the women issue they are identical to the church we currently attend. This is not just a matter of 'taste' or 'stylistic preference': it's a matter of a whole way of doing things, of a whole way of - if you like - 'accessing the divine'.

(2) I'm pretty sure that many/most 'liberals' think like me. Paradoxically, traditional liturgies give the most space.

Posted by John at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 6:53pm BST

Laurence, maybe the Housing Commitees are worried about the cost of installing stairlifts! Actually I guess given the unusual employment status of parish priest there's a concern that a bishop can't give a declining incumbent a 'tap on the shoulder' in the same way one might in a secular job - and some incumbents can find it VERY difficult to let go.

More widely I'm not convinced that views on same-sex marriage/ women bishops keep too many people away. I'm sure there are some, but women tend to be in the majority in churches of all stripes, and overall it tends to be the more conservative churches doing better in the growth stakes. I think the reasons for decline are complex, but I know that there are growing churches of many different hues, and that's a matter for rejoicing. I think what Cynthia says about authenticity is very important.

Posted by Peter K+ at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 7:06pm BST

I would point out to Jean that the Episcopal Church, which was one of the first to ordain women and has had a female primate for the past nine years, and is seen as very gay friendly, has been declining in membership overall over the past few years at the same rate, or even faster, as other denominations that are seen as less progressive.

Ordaining women and approving gay marriage may or may not be the right things to do (it's no mystery that I'm on board with one but not the other). But it won't make your church grow. I suspect that everyone's looking for the magic bullet that will make your church grow without actually involving you talking to your friends about Jesus.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 9:13pm BST

"overall it tends to be the more conservative churches doing better in the growth stakes."

Is there any actual evidence for this?
I know it's an often repeated statement but I have never seen any statistical evidence for it, and I have heard several people stating that it is not true.

Do we have reliable nationwide data for numbers on the Electoral Roll over, say, the last 5 years? Linked conclusively to churchmanship? Linked conclusively to inclusivity (women priests, proper provision for disabled people, lgbt friendly)?

Has anyone actually analysed this properly?

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 9:20pm BST

John, I'm no great fan of happy-clappy worship either, but if that's what it takes to increase liberal power enough to end the church's discrimination against LGBT people, so be it. Grim as some of it is, not an unbearable sacrifice to make.

I am, of course, open to alternatives, but whatever they are, they'll have to counteract a style of worship that demonstrably puts a majority off attending. If that style is truly indispensable, what would you suggest?

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 9:39pm BST

James Byron, I take your remarks about the success Evangelicals have at selling their brand.

The problem I see with it is that the Evangelical brand is easily couched in easy-to-digest, formulaic sound-bytes. They deliberately avoid ethical and theological complexities instead simplistically referring the troubled or questioning believer to what "scripture says."

While what "scripture says" certainly has place in the discourse, I seldom find simple reading of the bible a satisfactory source for solutions to complicated issues. Rather than working out their salvation with fear and trembling, Evangelicals strike me as believing all the answers are in a magic book, and all you have to do is follow it (usually literally) and you'll be okay.

If the history of Christianity teaches us anything, it's how very wrong-headed that approach is. It works nicely for those who want to avoid wrestling with the complexities I mention, and as you rightly point out, it sells, just as political/ideological jingoism sells.

Thanks but no thanks: I'll take my messy, challenging, unsure, and even argumentative Anglicanism over evangelical PowerPoint sermons, praise songs and pat answers any day.

Posted by Daniel Berry, NYC at Monday, 6 July 2015 at 11:18pm BST

The church I attend is growing. We don't do Alpha courses and we don't sing Stuart Townend's choruses (in fact, we use the New English Hymnal and not much else). Nor are we what +Pete Broadbent (on another thread) would describe as "generously orthodox" (although I think we are - but not as +Pete would recognise it). How come?

First, we offer a quality act of worship on Sundays, lasting no more than an hour. People are drawn by the choral music, the distinctive space, the well ordered liturgy and the intelligent and engaging approach to faith in the preaching. Second, we give people space to be, without any pressure to conform to the prevailing culture, or be in this group or on that rota. We allow people to find their own level of involvement at their own pace. Third, people are coming because they want an encounter with the mystery and reality of God: not some sort of fusion of a primary school assembly and a Darby and Joan club. Recently, we concluded that the quality of the silence before worship was much more important than asking how "friendly" we are. Fourth, we couldn't, frankly, give two hoots about peoples' sexuality - nor do we bang on about the issues which are currently draining the energy of the Anglican communion. Yes, justice and inclusion is our common language; yes, the demands as well as the affirmations of Scripture are put before us from the pulpit; but we are not a "one issue" church. Fifth, we are recognised as major contributors to the life of the locality. There is a sense that people who live around us, but don't necessarily worship regularly, have some stake in our life. This means that we are not entirely dependent on the gathered Sunday congregation for time, skills and, most significantly, money. By the way, our clerical staff is currently entirely male - though we are not signed up to FinF or any other ecclesial tribe.

We are discovering that people want beauty in worship, not functionality and endless talk. It won't be the solution everywhere; but it has led to us presenting over 30 candidates for confirmation every year for the past three years (over 70% of them over 18 under 50).

Posted by Will Richards at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 8:07am BST

'"overall it tends to be the more conservative churches doing better in the growth stakes."

Is there any actual evidence for this?'

No. The 'conservative growth' shibboleth is something of an illusion. Having a while back spent a few years in a FiF church, what happens is these sorts of churches grow almost exclusively from people moving from other churches to a place where their extreme views can be welcomed. I would call that grabbing a few more deck chairs on your piece of the Titanic deck, not growth. As the institution declines it is those at the extremes who cling on hardest. That is not exactly growing in any desirable way.

The attraction of the conservative or traditionalist agendas to those who are not already committed Christians is probably negligible. Where women bishops SSM may make a difference is that it may mean that that vast lump of the unchurched will never, but never come anywhere near a church in the first place and thus (other than an occasional accident) never get within a million miles of sampling its friendliness, worship style, length or anything else.

Posted by Fr Andrew at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 8:09am BST

James,

Thanks. I wouldn't personally go to such churches, ever. On your issue (also mine, but obviously less acutely), I think the present leadership will be discredited within 5 years and within some future there will be full inclusion. If Jeremy wins, there will be huge consequences. Societal pressures are pressurising the church. More Evangelicals are coming over. Lots of people who attend 'homophobic' churches don't agree with that particular aspect. Etc.

I don't understand the claim made by some that what matters is why we're losing people, rather than why we're not bringing them in. A sizeable proportion of the lost consist of people who get old, immobile and then die. They are then not replaced. As for others 'lost', in our church I would say I personally know why up to 80% of them have left. That's because it matters to me and I talk to people. Vicar doesn't. This, assuredly, is a matter of 'will'. So is the myopic sheep-like mentality of most members of our PCC (much as I love them). As for wider reasons, it's not because of 'toxicity': it's because more and more people haven't the background culture and more and more don't believe the metaphysical claims. Here too Evangelicals are right in the sense that they have grasped the problem, even though Alpha and Emmaus are toe-curling and stupid (I'm an academic). But this is a very difficult area, which requires extremely careful handling. Example: a few years ago I was chairing a Bible study group which included two Evangelicals. Mutually friendly relations. Text: Temptation of Jesus. Two others immediately said: 'I don't believe in the Devil'. I knew instantly Evangelicals would leave our church. I lambasted the two others (close personal friends of mine) for their 'self-indulgent stupidity'. People have to tread very carefully here. Another example: in course of good sermon on Sunday at quasi-FiF church I attended on Sunday (because I had to go to N'Castle), vicar said Jesus casts out your demons. Deconstruct: he doesn't believe in diabolical sub-divinities; huge implications for theology and Christology (Jesus did believe). Open discussion would have been dangerous. Etc.

Posted by John at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 8:35am BST

Daniel,

I wonder whether you've read any Andrew Goddard articles on the Fulcrum website, or perhaps Tim Keller on your side of the pond. People may disagree with their analyses but a shortage of brainpower or complexity is not an issue!

I sympathise to an extent, but I'm not sure that church services are always the right place to explore complex subjects in great depth - if the Good News is for all people then in a diverse congregation there's an onus on leaders to communicate in straightforward language - stick to the 'main and the plain' is a popular adage. It's good for churches to have a space where people can talk about more complex issues, though - in evangelical churches, as James notes, it's often mid-week groups where people can form closer friendships, pray together, and be more vulnerable with each other.

I wonder whether part of TEC's decline is a bit like Labour's mistake in the last election. People can see how some zero-hours contracts may be unfair, and sympathise that some people are too rich, but they didn't have much to say directly to the "middle 80%"

In the same way the TEC has invested a vast amount of 'capital' - theological, relational, strategic, financial (given the lawsuits) - into supporting gay rights, but what does the TEC have to say to the 'middle 80%' who aren't all that bothered or directly affected? What's the 'main and plain' message if liberal Christianity, and would it get people out of bed on Sunday mornings?

Posted by Peter K+ at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 9:13am BST

"overall it tends to be the more conservative churches doing better in the growth stakes."

I agree with Erika in that no evidence has been put forward to support this oft-repeated mantra.

In fact, in their report "From Anecdote to Evidence" the Church Growth Research Programme found no significant correlation between churchmanship or place on the theological spectrum and growth/decline, concluding

"Style of worship and where a church places itself in terms of its theological tradition appear to have no significant link with growth, so long as there is consistency and clarity and the chosen style and tradition are wholeheartedly adopted." (Page 7 of http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/report)

And please stop describing liberal churches as having an indispensable "style". Eucharistic, liturgical worship is not about style, it's about substance and sacrament: things we shouldn't be discarding lightly.

Posted by Alastair Newman at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 10:09am BST

While it is a little out-of-date, Philip Richter's book "Gone but not forgotten; church leaving and returning" remains very helpful in answering Erika's (first) good question. Philip has recently participated in some pioneer ministry research in which one successful and growing cell church targets precisely people who have left existing churches of all denominations and flavours. I, and doubtless the Church Commissioners who helped fund it, look forward to an informative publication.

Posted by John Waldsax at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 10:20am BST

I'm hardly the president of @Tim Chesterton's Fan Club, but his diagnosis of American Episcopalianism is an almost perfect reflection of what has been happening here in Wales. We haven't had a woman primate, but one who has campaigned for female ordination, promoted (not always very gifted) women clergy, with rank and file clergy who are predominantly female, who publicly campaigns on behalf of same-sex relationships (even if his dealings with gay clergy behind the scenes don't always match his words), and the latest figures (due to be published in September) will show that the Church in Wales is in the biggest financial mess since disestablishment in 1920. The demographic statistics paint an equally bleak picture.

However, it's not the women/same-sex issue that's the cause of this decline per se. It's a perception that the leadership of the Church is increasingly autocratic (the Bishops function like the Roman Curia), disenfranchisement of the laity and lack of intelligent and imaginative clergy at ground level. Economics have meant the parish system has broken down completely and Area Ministry Teams (which mean nothing to Jo Public) are the only way to sustain buildings and clergy - especially in the rural heartlands. There's less money because the leadership simply isn't trusted - right to the top. In other words, the Church is perceived as withdrawing from communities and pooling all its energy to serve its own survival. That's a bad combo - and people are not stupid.

Posted by Gareth P at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 12:42pm BST

Daniel, I couldn't agree more about fortune cookie Christianity and Bible worship, & wouldn't want any liberal, Anglo-Catholic, or moderate church to adopt them.

All the changes I suggested involved style and pastoral support. Sermons should absolutely put across non-evangelical theology in clear, concise language, and non-evangelical elements like robes and a focus on the Eucharist could be retained.

It's not a question of cloning evangelicalism, but of selectively learning from its most successful and theologically unproblematic elements.

Posted by James Byron at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 1:53pm BST

Will Richardson,
your church sounds lovely, just like my own, in fact.
Could I please ask you to "bang on about the issues" a little bit? Because there are a lot of welcome churches who really mean it when they say "All are welcome". But people don't know this. We see "all are welcome" signs on every church in the country and for most it isn't actually true.

Churches who really mean it and who want people to know about it, who want partnered lgbt people to feel free to attend, who want parents of gay children to feel free to attend, should really get registered on the Inclusive Church register or at least have a firm statement on their website.

I am asked by disillusioned lgbt people about inclusive churches where they live on an almost daily basis. I only have the Inclusive Church register to go by and my own personal network including the Changing Attitude Facebook page where it's possible to ask people if they know an inclusive church near a particular location.

If yours is - make it known if you can.

Posted by Erika Baker at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 3:07pm BST

I think Peter K+ is bang on about mainline Christianity struggling to reach moderates (or the middle 80 percent as he, I suspect accurately, puts it). It's become issue-led. Important issues, yes, but divisive ones. Not just sexuality, but the environment, race relations, welfare, and so on. It's hard to escape the impression of progressive Democrats at prayer.

Churches like Chicago's Willow Creek, by contrast, offer a distilled, accessible Christianity with a strong self-help ethos, balanced with the cell groups Tim rightly highlights. It's populist, accessible, and could absolutely be combined with liberal theology and a sacramental focus (although evangelicals are also sacramental, just with focus on the Word).

Liberalism, with its open-minded approach to doctrine, is perfectly suited to being this type of church. It should be a runaway success, with leadership conferences and festivals. Why isn't it?

Posted by James Byron at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 3:28pm BST

Alistair said, 'In fact, in their report "From Anecdote to Evidence" the Church Growth Research Programme found no significant correlation between churchmanship or place on the theological spectrum and growth/decline'

Note that this report was confined to Church of England churches. It would be interesting to see the difference in growth statistics between the C of E and denominations that identify as more conservative.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 4:57pm BST

'John, I'm no great fan of happy-clappy worship either, but if that's what it takes to increase liberal power enough to end the church's discrimination against LGBT people, so be it. Grim as some of it is, not an unbearable sacrifice to make.'

Well, I guess if the gospel is being proclaimed we should be happy, but it does seem to me that there's something a bit lacking in an approach to church growth that says 'Let's grow our liberal churches so we can have more power in our denomination'.

I'm sure that's not all you meant, James, but to me it seems like a strange way to put it.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 5:00pm BST

One more thing and then I'm done for the day! Bob Young (not an Anglican, and in fact (horror of horrors) an American evangelical, identifies four ways churches can grow.

1. Numerically (which he identifies with welcoming new members and making new disciples, not just increase in Sunday attendance).

2. In maturity, as members grow as disciples and into the ministries to which God is calling them.

3. In service, as we understand more clearly what we are doing together (collective ministry), how we are accomplishing it (individual ministries), where God is allowing us work (our context, both community and global), and who we are (our identity).

4. Incarnationally, as we become a community that looks more and more like Jesus.

Bob concludes: 'Many churches seek numerical growth first, not realizing that growth in numbers comes from growing to be like Jesus--maturing and ministering. We need more pioneering work in these areas. We must explore methods consistent with our culture while maintaining our commitment to the message. A whole generation, nurtured in the secular world and living with nonreligious institutions, needs formation and education into the life of faith and its implications for society. Our faith must respond to community and world needs. Each local congregation must become more of what God is uniquely calling it to be.'

http://www.bobyoungresources.com/articles/churchgrowth_how.htm

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 5:08pm BST

"I would point out to Jean that the Episcopal Church, which was one of the first to ordain women and has had a female primate for the past nine years, and is seen as very gay friendly, has been declining in membership overall over the past few years at the same rate, or even faster, as other denominations that are seen as less progressive."

Actually Tim, we are declining less fast than our peer, mainline Protestant churches here in the US. Surveys show that our growing churches and growing dioceses are overwhelming the liberal ones. I'm not sure that churchmanship factors in, except to say that people like quality in whatever stripe it comes in.

There was more decline for a few years of the schisms. Plenty of those people are coming back, after all, misogyny and homophobia are not good foundations for a church, even a conservative one.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 5:21pm BST

Tim, it's blunt to be sure, but at times, you need to be. Power isn't the whole of it, not at all, but it is a factor. Not for its own sake, but to get the principles you support a hearing, and to ensure that all are equally welcome in the Body of Christ.

Growth is good in and of itself. If you believe that you have something good, you want to share it. I believe the church has good news, and that the way of Jesus is life-changing, a change we should promote. I just want it shared in all its diversity.

Posted by James Byron at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 5:23pm BST

Finally, I'll say that +Pete is spot on about the coffee!

I do worship in England when I'm there and have gotten around a bit, but not as extensively as in the US and Haiti. Whatever happens in church has to be an authentic expression. Thus I reject any one-size-fits-all solution, even as I appreciate peoples stories of what is working for them.

A friend of mine (English) says that her father stopped going to church when they introduced "the Peace" and shaking hands. He thought it was too touchy feely and an imported innovation from America, likely California!

I love my time worshiping in England. The people have been friendly and accepting and including us to the extent possible. If you want an outsider's view, other than the bizarre hierarchical political nastiness, you really have a lot going for yourselves. I think "the problem" (after the political bits) is that you are a nation of introverts and thus you have more trouble spreading the message than others may. I say you have a great thing, go out there and share it!!!

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 5:35pm BST

I don't often agree with James but I have to agree that we need churches with a more liberal theology, or at least an lgbt inclusive theology, that mirror many of the positive aspects of evangelical churches.

I am not aware of a single lgbt affirming evangelical church in the CoE. Young people in Diverse Church love their churches, they love the fellowship, the music, the way church is part of every aspect of life. All the things many liberal churches specifically reject is what these people adore about their churches.
And yet, the places they've grown up in, the places all their friends are in, do not welcome them 100% or would not if they knew who they really were.

There is a huge need either for at least some evangelical churches to become affirming so young people have a genuine choice, or for liberal churches to offer a style of service that speaks to these rejected people.

Posted by Erika Baker at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 7:59pm BST

'Actually Tim, we are declining less fast than our peer, mainline Protestant churches here in the US. Surveys show that our growing churches and growing dioceses are overwhelming the liberal ones. '

Cynthia, I'd be glad if you could point me in the direction of those surveys. I've been looking for them online and I can't find them.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 8:30pm BST

Much of this blog seems to be focussing on ways to promote church growth or reasons why some churches grow while others don’t. I want to question the fundamental premise of the kind of argument that David Goodhew puts forward, that church growth needs defending theologically against those who question it. For me the decline of Christianity in Europe is a social, cultural and psychological process which has been occurring for a long period of time and which is ongoing. The kind of tampering that many refer to will not hold back this development. Some find this difficult to cope with, but the church has been through many ups and downs in its history, and it may well see this ‘down’ out in due course.

I do not, however, believe that trying to ‘force’ growth will make anything more than a superficial impact and I find many of the kind of arguments Goodhew (as an example) make for it unconvincing and even disingenuous. For example he says that the church is central to the establishment of the kingdom. But this doesn’t seem to be a true reflection of the teaching of Jesus for whom the kingdom would come by God’s will, not ours. He tries to argue that various ecclesiastical movements in history were all about growth, when clearly that was only a small part of their agenda. He maintains that becoming a Christian is good for your health, and though I would agree that a vision in life gives it meaning and purpose, this argument seems particularly simplistic.

Goodhew speaks of a ‘decline theology’. I do not know of such a theology. I do know of a theology which trusts in God and reminds God’s people to be faithful in spite of decline and which does not regard decline as something to be feared. Such a theology accepts that God’s intentions and purposes are not necessarily the same as ours. What I did not find in Goodhew, nor in much of the blog so far, is an engagement with some of the ethical questions arising over evangelism, a very important issue about which there should be a lot more discussion.

Posted by Richard Franklin at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 9:32pm BST

Above all, what people who make the effort to get up and go to church on Sunday want is... to meet with God.

A sense of community also attracts, and human friendship. But the heart of the matter is the prospect or possibility that our hearts may feel the touch and love of Jesus Christ.

As someone else said, it's not all the words, the learnedness... it's the possibility of the actual encounter with God in the places where people hurt, or where people seek joy.

I've found two kinds of church service which afford me that privilege. One had a spiritually-gifted leader of music and worship. The other is traditional and affords silence and space.

We may be touched by God by all the diverse ways God chooses. But we need the touch of God, otherwise will people think it is worth the effort?

Personally Carmel is the heart of my worship. However, I'm very clear that for many, music has the power to bypass the cerebral controls and go direct to the yearning heart.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 10:34pm BST

I'm late joining this thread. Erika's question is a really important one. John Wimber once said, ‘People come to church for many reasons but they only stay for one –relationship.' If everyone who came to a main service at every church showed up regularly thereafter all churches would have a problem. I recently talked with a couple who came to our church, who knows why, and I regret that the welcome was not good. We have not seen them since, despite the cafetière coffee. The growth issue is important and church leaders duck it at their peril. Too many are content to stay locked in their comfortable pastoral paradigm shepherding the dwindling flock.

Posted by Anthony Archer at Tuesday, 7 July 2015 at 11:08pm BST

Interestingly, back in the mid 1990s, Affirming Catholicism (remember them...?) produced an excellent booklet on church growth. Alongside a Catholic-Anglican theological rationale for church growth, it provided a great deal of practical and achievable ideas (which combined the tips of Philip North, Pete Broadbent & co from last week's Church Times - and much, much more). Its stance was unquestionably 'generously orthodox.' The author? Jeffrey John.

Posted by Simon R at Wednesday, 8 July 2015 at 7:43am BST

Of course numbers are important. When I started attending our church about 15 years ago, Sunday communion had about 60, now it's 20-ish. This imposes all sorts of strains, which one doesn't need to be Einstein to compute. Equally obviously, no matter how friendly or welcoming one is (and we are), people who come on spec. aren't likely to return.

Posted by John at Wednesday, 8 July 2015 at 10:41am BST

With regard to why churches are not growing I think the great Milton Jones in his 10 Second Sermons may provide us with an answer.
"If Christians are all different parts of one body, I've certainly met a few 'brains' who think, and some 'arms' that do the carrying - but also a disproportionate amount of 'appendixes' who don't appear to do anything at all, and some of whom will no doubt one day cause a lot of trouble."
I'd agree with Milton up to a point but would question that appendixes don't appear to do anything at all. No, they grumble! Less grumbling might just result in more growth.

Posted by Father David at Thursday, 9 July 2015 at 8:57am BST

Father David,

I agree - even though you're probably including me among the appendicitis sufferers. That is why I keep arguing here that Anglicans need to shut down their controversies with reasonable compromises so that we can all get on with the job.

Posted by John at Thursday, 9 July 2015 at 10:05am BST

John on Thursday, I would not dream of being so discourteous as to include your good self among the appendicitis sufferers. However, I fear that your hope for compromise may be in vain. Surely it is the controversial stuff that is posted on the TA Blog which produces the most comments and adds to the rich tapestry of life?

Posted by Father David at Thursday, 9 July 2015 at 12:48pm BST

Father David, I am with you. Be you with me. I am glad that you challenged Bishop Pete on another thread. There is every hope - and every reality - of continuing respect/cooperation/even love across necessary boundaries.

Posted by John at Thursday, 9 July 2015 at 7:08pm BST
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