Monday, April 9, 2012

Growing the church

If Easter Monday is not a time to reflect on church growth then I do not know what is a better time! Having preached yesterday on the resurrection as vindication and victory, drawing attention to the resurrection as an invitation to personal participation in the life of the risen Jesus as well as to the public fact of the resurrection as an event in history, this good news just has to be fruitful news. What is not to like about joining Jesus' merry band of Christians, full of life and hope?

In reality, life is not even across all our ministry units. Some see this fruitfulness developing in front of them; others can only look back to a golden era in the past while the present is a discouraging decline in numbers and increase in congregational age. Andrew Brown, Guardian journalist, picks up some thinking on this in the midst of an article about the C of E needing a rebirth:

"But [+Justin, Bishop of Durham] Welby's experience of the outside world before his training is typical. So is his pragmatism about church growth. Although he is generally reckoned to be an evangelical, he doesn't believe that it follows from any particular theology. The idea that strict churches grow while liberal ones decline isn't borne out by the facts: "Church growth is about doing standard things well – funerals, baptisms, weddings: making sure you're welcoming and tolerably warm and the sermons are worth listening to."


These seem quite simple things. But in practice, they can be very hard. Jessica Martin is a former English don at Cambridge, who left that job two years ago to become the priest of three small villages south of the city.

"I don't feel that what I am doing at the moment is actually managing decline at all. What we're experiencing is modest growth."

She talks about a pattern in which the decline is still happening among older people, who grew up with Christianity and are now dying off. "I feel we might be in a sort of transitional point."

The growth is coming among families: "Getting your children baptised is how the overwhelming majority come." But these new members have grown up away from Christianity and the language and traditions of the church. Pretty fundamental Christian concepts, such as sin, just don't make sense to them any more. "I find families very ignorant and very responsive, and happy to come to stuff that they feel they might have some chance of following."

The problem, she says, is finding ways of reaching half-believers. "The cultural assumptions of the people under 40 who I meet are just totally different, and the habits of being that the church both assumes and inculcates are new. When people are confirmed as adults, a lot of them have problems with penitence; they say: 'But I have always been a good person!'"

Yet the church remains attractive in her villages partly for reasons that have nothing to do with theology, she says: "I encounter quite often in the people who do flirt with church a quite explicit desire for physical community: an anxious sense that people need to get together and do stuff in the same place and time." "
Within this citation, these words stand out, part quote from Welby, part comment from Brown:

""Church growth is about doing standard things well – funerals, baptisms, weddings: making sure you're welcoming and tolerably warm and the sermons are worth listening to." These seem quite simple things. But in practice, they can be very hard."
In my experience, limited as it is, I agree with Bishop Welby that church growth is about doing the standard things well. In NZ that might mean less emphasis on funerals, weddings and baptisms as 'the standard things' (we have less of them these days than the C of E appears to have) and more on Sunday services, Mainly Music mid-week programmes, connecting with local schools through Bible in Schools and the like. I concur with Andrew Brown that these seem quite simple things but in practice they can be very hard. Take just one matter, doing Sunday services well.

Reimmersed in parish practice as I am at the moment as part-time, interim priest-in-charge of a parish is a reminder that the every Sunday thing we do, services of worship, are complex realities involving varieties of people, gifts, contexts, possibilities (drama, children's talk, special musical item), expectations, habits, traditions, bits of paper (or slides on a screen or both), equipment (which may malfunction or mishandled) and supplies (wafers and wine, laundered linen), to say nothing of choices re collects, readings, which reading to emphasise in sermon, what to pray for, songs and hymns. Is there going to be fairtrade tea and coffee for morning tea? Chocolate biscuits or plain? In the midst of all that complexity is the question of the sermon! How to preach the gospel truthfully, enthusiastically, and to a consistently high standard of clear, accessible, disciplined communication?

In practice, it is indeed hard to get worship services working in such a way that they contribute to church growth (e.g. because they have a consistent quality which emboldens people to invite friends and new neighbours to them, or simply because when people search for a new church, they like what they find at our church). Anecdotally I know that for some vicars it takes years, not weeks, to evolve their services from what they inherit on the day of their induction to the point where numbers attending increase rather than decline. Incidentally, the evolution of services in respect of doing them "well" is not only about improving what may not be going well, but also adapting what we have become used to doing to a changing context.*

The encouragement within Andrew Brown's article is that there is evidence that the church grows when it does the standard things well. The challenge for the Anglican churches around the world, and right here in the Diocese in which I serve, is to do the standard things well in all our parishes all the time.

(*In my experience some of our parishes with declining-and-aging congregations offer worship services of a high standard, but it is the high standard of the 1970s or the 1990s, and not of the 2010s. Thus locked in a time warp, they find younger people do not join in. One of the greatest challenges in parish ministry is transforming an aging congregation with few or no members under the age of 50 (or even 60!)).

10 comments:

Father Ron Smith said...

"What is not to like about joining Jesus' merry band of Christians, full of life and hope?" - Peter Carrell -

Well, for one thing: that Christ's incarnation, reconciling ministry, death, resurrection and subsequent glorification was not all just one jolly "Easter Camp'-style big-band triumphalism.

Christ's resurrection followed upon his dereliction & death - a reality and no fantasy! No pain no gain! And Christian triumphalism is often a short-cut for authentic religion.

This is why the Liturgies of Holy week - before the celebration of Easter Day - are so important, and one reason why the non-liturgical churches have little experience of the reality of the kenotic self-offering of Jesus - both before his death at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees, and at his trial and crucifixion.

"Christ our Passover is SACRIFICED for us - Therefore, let us keep the Feast." With humility not triumph.

liturgy said...

Easter Season Greetings, Peter,

An important reflection from your favoured candidate for ABC ;-)

We have not stuck well to our knitting!

Like running a website – basically each visitor to our worship should find what they are looking for and think they would like to return… That, as your post indicates, is quite simple – and hard work.

I do not agree with you that funerals and weddings would, here, not be good entry points. IMO we have (unnecessarily and unreflectingly) handed these over to wedding celebrants and to the funeral director industries. We have systematically absented ourselves from helping people to know that the church has a message, resources, and expertise to enrich marriage and to have a (less expensive) wonderful wedding. And when was the last time you heard vicars/bishops teaching their community, verbally, on websites, and in handouts, that when someone is dying – involve the church; when someone has died – call the priest first? We are to blame that the norm has become – when someone dies: call the funeral director; s/he will involve a priest if that is what you want…

Christ is Risen!

Bosco

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron and Bosco

I didn't mean to understate the suffering and discipline of being a Christian!

Nor did I intend understating the real and unrealised potential re funerals and weddings as entry points re new and renewed life in the church. Your suggestions, Bosco, are eminently practical!

Michael Godfrey (The Rev'd Dr) said...

Nice, Peter. My primary frustration in the current climate is that many colleagues are pronoucing doom and gloom, discovering that their church is not the apogee of universal spiritual enlightenment, and are turning either to Hip-Hip-Hippity-Hoo Jesus, incarnation of vacuous entertainment, or Ra-Krisna-Gaia-Medusa-Woteva Jesus, incarnation or personally tailored and flavoured redemption, in order to reclaim an imagined centre stage. Worship, like faith, like theology, should rumour resurrection hope, doing it with integrity, proclaiming the remarkable and specific miracle that an unimportant peasant-rabbi in an unimportant province was the unique locus in which heaven kissed earth and death was transformed into life.

Churches that do that well - and there are some - continue challenge both social and spiritual injustice and continue to connect authentically with the lives of those who seek meaning.

Peter Carrell said...

Re the next ABC:

I do indeed suggest watching out for the Bishop of Durham as a "dark horse" in "the race".

However if I were to place a bet today, I would place it on ++John Sentamu. Notwithstanding some recent health difficulties (mentioned in public), his stated age of 62, and something of a concerted ABY campaign (anyone byt York), the fact is that ++John would fit well with the multiculturalism of English society, with the well recognised feature of international Anglican life that the centre of it is now in Africa, would count as an 'evangelical' (whose "turn" it is to provide the next ABC), and would not be seen as a wishy-washy whimp by the conservative evangelicals of the C of E (and note carefully that I am not saying that ++John is a conservative evangelical, just that he would be more acceptable to the c.e.s than any other plausible candidate I can think of.

Peter Carrell said...

There should be "relational consequences", Michael, for all "doom-and-gloom" clerics!

Your comment sums up brilliantly what I am trying to say.

Tim Chesterton said...

This is why the Liturgies of Holy week - before the celebration of Easter Day - are so important, and one reason why the non-liturgical churches have little experience of the reality of the kenotic self-offering of Jesus - both before his death at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees, and at his trial and crucifixion.

This sounds incredibly smug and judgemental to me. I spend quite a bit of time with Mennonites, and their understanding and experience of humility and self-sacrifice after the pattern of Christ seems to me to be every bit as good as that of the liturgical Christians I know.

liturgy said...

Trying carefully, Peter, not to be doom-and-gloom and so end up with relational consequences, but continuing my point from your post that we, as church, can do the standard things well and that this is simple and requires some work; and staying with the baptism, marriage, funerals as entry-points point:

IMO we should have had provincial Anglican websites for baptism/christening; marriage/weddings/relationships; funerals/grieving. I can assure you these would have been the first hits on a google-search here for any words that included “marriage”, “wedding”, “relationship”, “funeral” etc. These sites could have been kept fresh with volunteers producing interesting, helpful articles. There could even have been a fourth one for confirmation/youth-catechesis.

This, of course, would have required the church to have a missional approach of actually going to where those who aren’t going to us actually are: cyberspace.

To end on an upbeat note: with only one bishop, and maybe half-a-dozen clergy ministering and missioning into cyberspace – I am more surprised that connections continue than that they don’t.

Christ is risen!

Bosco

Father Ron Smith said...

Regarding your recommendation of the translation of the ABY to ABC, Peter, here is a satirical video well worth watching. The feral commentator is a local in the Church of England. Particularly funny is the reference to the ABY's conversazione with fellow delegates in the toilets at the meeting to choose a bishop:



http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3De-1OuNg7GVg%26feature%3Dyoutu.be&h=EAQF62sJ2AQFweqNHvBiNwsc6BaKEx5n7DTxpMfvh-cC1-Q

Shawn said...

" and one reason why the non-liturgical churches have little experience of the reality of the kenotic self-offering of Jesus - both before his death at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees, and at his trial and crucifixion."

Sorry, but having spent a great deal of time in non-liturgical churches of the type that Ron is hinting at (big band) this is simply untrue. I wonder how much time Ron has actually spent in the Churches he dismisses so readily?

The Spirit that moves people in Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches does so in a wide range and variety of ways, including through dark nights of the soul, and Christ is presented and experienced in many ways, not just in triumphalism (though there is a place for that too!).

In fact I would have to say that my experience has been that there is more understanding of Christ's kenotic suffering and of humble service in so-called "big band" churches than in the kinds of churches that promote Ron's sneering and self-satisfied judgmental attitude.