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."Within this citation, these words stand out, part quote from Welby, part comment from Brown:
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." "
""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!)).