Monday, August 31, 2009

Church attendance

Some correspondence below about resisting the liberal tide leads me to post re church attendance from a different perspective, partly because commenters have raised questions about what is going on in ACANZP re attendance, given that we do not publish our own church attendance figures (except in diocesan yearbooks which are not readily available outside dioceses).

One way to look at NZ statistics for Anglican church attendance is to ask, which are our large churches and why are they doing well?

It is a widely agreed fact that (a) our cathedrals do well re attendance, though generally more progressive in theology than conservative, but special factors come into play as all kinds of "civic, military, etc" services are held at cathedrals which local parishes do not hold; nevertheless most of our cathedrals are also 'parish' churches and have good congregations in their own right, (b) with one, maybe two exceptions, a dozen or so parishes with annual attendance around the 20000 mark (i.e. 400 per week) are all identifiable as working to the beat of a conservative theological beat (mostly evangelical (and most of those 'charismatic evangelical'), a few more catholic (or, if one wishes for great precision, 'catholic evangelical'),* and (c) in all seven NZ dioceses (i.e. 'Tikanga Pakeha'), the predominance among the largest parishes (c. 200-400+ p.w.) is strongly weighted, if not exclusively weighted to the conservative end of the theological spectrum.

Incidentally, my anecdotal understanding of the situation in the Diocese of Polynesia is that church attendance is going well. But, relative to the challenges in NZ, that is not surprising as the general cultural climate in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa for church attendance is highly favourable. In Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa, church attendance figures, whether recorded faithfully or not, would need very careful discernment: low Sunday figures, for example, would tell nothing of a particular Maori emphasis in ministry on 'marae-based' ministry, especially for tangi (gatherings to mourn the dead over several days culminating with a funeral service). Nevertheless relevant facts are that (a) there are very few congregations sustaining stipendiary priests - aside from the five bishops, and several educators, most Maori clergy receiving a stipend are principally employed in a military or hospital or prison chaplaincy role, (b) Sunday congregational attendance (anecdotally) is very low.

It would take a lot to provide a definitive argument (say) that conservative theology produces, on average, the best church attendance. So I will not attempt that here. But I will offer this observation from my years of attendance at policy and planning meetings in our church: it is very rare to ever hear our leaders say that we ought to spend more time and effort researching what makes conservative parishes successful and even rarer to hear talk of either applying any such learning to the general life of our church, or embarking on a more active recruitment policy for conservative ministers and missioners for our church.

This observation can be turned to a question for ACANZP: do we wish to grow our Sunday attendance figures or not? If we do, then some things (maybe many things) can be done differently, with lessons learned from our larger churches waiting to be applied.** If we do not, will we ever have a conversation among ourselves when we admit to ourselves that we have no urgent commitment to pro-actively grow our attendance figures?

*Most of the vicars of the c. 400 parishes gather annually for a meeting of 'The Four Hundred Club'.

**That we might have lessons to learn from our larger parishes does not mean they have stumbled on some perfect formula for church growth. I am confident that the vicars of these parishes would readily admit to (a) having learned some difficult lessons through experience because no parish perfectly develops according to some theory of church growth, and (b) yet having much to learn. (One big challenge, incidentally, for these parishes and their bishops, is finding great successors)!


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Peter - it would still be good to see national figures published to chart patterns across place and time.
I have never thought a conservative theology in itself is the key to growth but as something integral to a whole outward looking attitude and praxis that encourages believing intercession (rather than pious deism), warmhearted preaching to change lives (rather than displays of learning), the belief that God is immediate and speaks to us in the Bible, the life-&-death necessity of evangelism, and a stress on children's and youth work that attracts families. Bob Jackson of Lichfield diocese in England has written 'The Road to Growth' which looks at strategies and values for medium sized churches, and I wonder if his ideas will get a wider hearing in the 'western' Church.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon1 that some actual NZ statistics rather than generalisations are essential.

Furthermore, you have had more than one commenter pointing out the difficulties in interpreting statistics. Nothing you have written actually objectively supports your case.

You have been gracious enough to acknowledge that your diocese, THE conservative evangelical diocese of NZ, is actually dropping in attendance - whilst mixed churchmanship diocese are stable or growing. This directly disproves your primary thesis.

Whilst I personally have no issue with cathedrals and people's choice to worship in communities of over 400 regulars, I wonder whether the traditional Anglican model of a wide network of smaller, local communities with strong pastoral care may be a better formula for diocesan growth. But since, as you say, astonishingly none of this is discussed amongst NZ leadership, nor do they have any idea of concrete statistical evidence - hence it is merely my unfounded conjecture against your disproved one.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
A key question to ask of the mixed churchmanship dioceses is what is contributing to the stability, even growth of their attendance numbers ... and which parishes are declining in their ability to support a stipend!

Anonymous said...

I continue to be astonished at your statement that not only does your provincial leadership have no statistical analysis of your province whatsoever, but that there is little to no discussion or analysis about growth or decline!

You pose a good question about mixed churchmanship diocese - maybe that would be a good place for you to start presenting some solid analysis here. Looking forward to your systematic answer.

Please can you let us know the URL for "The Four Hundred Club" parishes and where can we obtain the published papers of their reflections so that others might learn from this, as you say often-painfully acquired, wisdom?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
You might be waiting a long time for systematic analysis from me re mixed churchmanship dioceses - I do not have time to do that research right now.

I am confident, however, that the larger, stable or growing parishes in the NZ dioceses are more likely to be 'conservative' than not. I invite NZers who have done research to support or deny that anecdotal observation to comment!

There is no website nor any published papers from the Four Hundred Club that I am aware of.

Anonymous said...

Nelson has only a small population compared to other dioceses, so the base for growth is comparatively small. There was a lot of growth in the 1990s, when it was previously thought the diocese was finished.
Other, newer charismatic churches often provide 'competition' for evangelical Anglicans, whose denominational identity is often fairly fluid. So a broader question is: how many people are still attending churches (of all descriptions) and how many have become inactive?
The liberal-leaning leadership of the Anglican Church doesn't want to face the well-known conclusion that liberal churches rarely grow today, as it would call into question their working theology. Rather like Tec, where the only growth industry is law suits.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anon1
Who am I to disagree with you? :)

An interesting point to do with attendance statistics (at least in NZ, but I think also in Australia, probably elsewhere) is the question of statistically hidden changes to attendance patterns:

100 people attending weekly in 1990 has (many ministers would say) become 100 people attending, but only 3/5 Sundays, or whatever, so, say an average weekly attendance of 85 may not tell us that there are, in fact, 100 regular attenders in 1990.

In general terms I stand by my assertion, in line with what you say Anon1, that liberal churches in NZ, certainly in the top of the South Island, are not generally growing in numbers, and the growing churches are conservative churches.

Anonymous said...

Let me see if I have your points clearly:
Your church leadership rarely if ever discusses growth or decline.
Your church leadership neither has nor provides any statistics of overall attendance.
You contend your church has much to learn from growing and large parishes.
Leaders of growing and large parishes meet annually.
These leaders publish no papers and have no website to help others learn from them.
There is no mention of these leaders’ meetings in any provincial publications or church websites. Or even who they are.
You can only join this group once your attendance figures passes a certain number.
But there is no assistance given to help you increase your attendance.
And many vicars do not know this group even exists even if they are interested in what they have to offer. Which they aren’t offering.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Not quite full marks here :)
The 400 Club is pretty well known in the Dioceses, and has, over the years expanded its membership.
Help is available for those who wish to grow their churches from the vicars of these churches and in various other ways ... but mostly that help is not sought!