Monday, May 17, 2021

There is a lot to ponder before I write my book on the Secret to Success: 21st Century Church Growth

Thank you heaps to the commenters to last Monday's post. With vim and vigour, intellect and insight, experience and exegesis, you have exemplified what Anglican blogging ought to be ... every post!

The reality in my experience has been that some posts occasion very few or even no comments, and others generate lots of comments because they are about That Topic.

So, it has been very pleasing to have lots of thought provoking discussion generated by simply raising the question, Why people are not coming to faith today in a Western country such as New Zealand.

But do these erudite and energetic comments help me if (say) I were to write a book called The Secret to Success: 21st Century Church Growth?

Yes and no.

Yes, there are explanations for growing churches within the comments made during the past week.

No, the subject of Christian faith, why people are drawn to it, and how we might maximise the drawing in factors turns out - according to some comments - to be a complex matter, admitting to no simple, adoptable formula.

For instance, while I read some comments as helping us to identify that churches X, Y and Z are likely to grow and churches A, B and C are not, I do not see that any comments conveyed a confidence that such growth would grow the Christian faith as a whole in a country such as NZ.

Put another way, it is observable here in NZ that despite the success (compared to other churches) of the Catholic, Pentecostal and (to use a controverted word) conservative mainline churches, the percentage of Kiwis believing in God continues to decline (according to successive censuses) and (as best I can tell via some anecdotes and some data) the numbers of Kiwis regularly in church on Sundays is static (if not declining).

That we might agree on how to grow churches would not be the same as finding the secret to restoring Christianity to its majoritorian glory days in Christendom.

In sum there is a lot to ponder in the discussion to last week's post. Here are a few ponderings from me:

1. The role of God in the world and in the church is a mystery 

Why is there suffering? Why is Christianity divided when Jesus prayed for its unity? Shouldn't God be doing something about it?  (This week as I write, questions involving both God and suffering are highlighted by the renewed war between Israel and Palestine, fuelled in part by religious motivations and motifs)

Answer to all such questions: we do not know.

But here are a set of questions to which we do know the answer, and the answer is Yes.

Should we do what we can to alleviate suffering?

Should we work for Christian unity rather than disunity?

Should we be praying to God, Your kingdom come?

For all the diversity within Scripture, the differences of views on what Scripture means and so forth (as highlighted in the discussion thread below), actually, a number of things are perspicacious!

But, agreed, exactly what God is up to in the fraught situations of the world and in the fragmentation of the church, it is a mystery.

2. There is more to the church than meets some eyes

An immeasurable number of people have been disappointed by innumerable ways in which the church has failed them. And that there are so many church denominations is a travesty and a tragedy (because almost certainly our fragmentation is a stumbling block to belief). 

Nevertheless the church is good for something - I reckon - and it is this: people gather together and tell the story of God's work among humanity, especially the story of God becoming human in Jesus and sharing our flawed and frail life, and the telling of the story includes the insights of past tellings, and thus the church today is blessed by the church of yesterday, most especially when we open the Bible and pray the liturgy.

The church holds the treasure of the Good News, the Good Story of God in Christ. It is a mighty treasure and it is a privilege to gather week by week if not day by day with fellow sinners to talk about God's kindness and generosity towards us.

Doesn't the treasure, the pearl of great price the church holds, outweigh the shortcomings?

3. Abundant life in Christ requires a rich theological imagination

A number of comments in the discussion below lament the thinness of our understanding of God, of what God has done for us and what God has in store for us.

Having created us, God invites us on a journey full of feasting and fascination. We've rejected the invitation and spurned God and God has not given up on us. Through Christ God dies for us that we might live - live that life full of feasting and fascination. Justification by faith is, we could say, the entry door to this life, but not the whole of it. The fascination lies in the inexhaustible depth of being Father, Son and Holy Spirit have, as Persons and in their Union-of-Being. The feasting is the communion we participate in with them.

Isn't a significant point to Scripture that it offers a thousand insights into this fullness of life in God?

Who cares if we debate Scripture and cannot agree. Scripture is more than an argument over which we argue. Scripture is invitation and inspiration, fuelling our desire for God and leading us ever deeper into the still water of God's oasis of life.

Will we see this? Do we have the theological imagination to envision how deep and wide and long and high is God's love for us and the logical consequence of God's inexhaustible love? That there is an abundant life to be lived in the spacious security of that love.

Whether or not the world beats a path to the door of the church, isn't it worth living the abundant life God wants us to lead?


Unknown said...

Vatican II for Protestant churches would be a calm reappraisal of their role in modern societies. Like Martin, I recall that a lot of good was done in that role. But most items on the list have been crossed off, and Western societies are pushing past their modern forms. For the Body, some circumspect celebration is in order, followed by discernment of our present calling.


Unknown said...

Churches supported the modern order by standardizing people in ways that made organization around a central state possible. If we were doing fewer of the modern things, or else doing them differently, some of us could find ourselves in nonstandard ways of being in Christ. What might those be?


Unknown said...

After the first millennium, cities in the west of Europe began to repopulate, so that some persons born into the feudal and manorial order could escape that to life on different terms. Women, for instance, moved into cities as beguines, Poor Clares, Dominicans, and anchorites. From them came the famous visionaries of late medieval spirituality.


Father Ron said...

Bihop Peter, here (I think) is the nub and heart of your speculation above about the need for - and viability of - the Church in today's world:

"The church holds the treasure of the Good News, the Good Story of God in Christ. It is a mighty treasure and it is a privilege to gather week by week if not day by day with fellow sinners to talk about God's kindness and generosity towards us."

My own feeling about this is that; for the Church to make its presence felt in the world, it must first be prepared to gathered around its Lord in Word and Sacramental Celebration. Only in this way can we be restored to partake of, and go out in, the Spirit of Christ to declare and actually BE the Good News of the Love of God for ALL God's children.

Christian authenticity is only gained from our unity in the Body of Christ with one another - so that "The world may see and believe" (a Biblical concept). We cannot go out with any feeling of our superiority over those with whom we hope to share the salvation of God; but only as fellow sinners with joyful hearts that are overflowing with charity and love for ALL whom God puts into our pathway to cherish and nurture.

The Feast of Pentecost was given for the express purpose of declaring the 'Great Love of God as Revealed in The Son'. We can't do that with sanctimonious preaching. We need to be able to humbly share the Treasure we have ourselves encountered in the life and witness of Jesus. - "Come,. Holy Spirit; renew in us the fire of your Love, through Christ our Lord!"

Unknown said...

Carrell needs to pick up the phone and ask bishop Jay Behan why his church has grown 50 percent since it became a GAFCON outlier. He would get his answer in no time at all.

Peter Carrell said...

Thank you for a range of interesting comments.

I would very much look forward to reading any book BIshop Jay writes about church growth.

(We do talk fairly regularly so I can ask him about his stats next time we meet).

Father Ron said...

A rather disourteous comment here from Mr.David Virtue (who hosts his very own U.S. blog which bears his own name; advertising the benefits of GAFCON & ACNA - and now, AACCNZ).

I am sure Bishop Peter is as aware as anyone here in New Zealand of AACCNZ's progression here in Aotearoa/NZ, which has been spectacularly slow - ever since the incursion of a great team of overseas GAFCON-related prelates descended on Christchurch for the grand opening, in which they ordained their own bishop for a very small community of ex-Anglicans.

Anonymous said...

The community of ACANZP is pretty small, too, and getting smaller each year.
However, despite Ron Smith's rather discourteous comment, the Confessing Anglicans are not "ex-Anglicans", they are Anglicans under different legal jurisdiction.
That distinction is probably lost on the 98% of New Zealanders who do not darken any "Anglican" church doors. NZ's population continues to grow and this is very largely driven by immigration. The church that knows how to respond to this challenge and how to bring the gospel to Chinese, Indian and Pasifika immigrants is likelier to grow, it seems to me. Immigrants are younger than the population average and more likely to have children.
The Chinese community, now about 5% of NZ's population and certain to grow, is typically "non-religious". How will they be rea hed and evangelised?


Anonymous said...

"A rather discourteous comment here"

Can even trolls be saved, Father Ron? Borrowing words from Hans Urs von Balthasar, I think we can dare to hope that they will be. To him, it is possible that Christ's salvation will reach all, and God uses the work and prayers of the Body to make this as actual as it will be. That complements I. Howard Marshall's finding that each of us will persevere to the good end, if we do, not because God has eternally predestined that, but because he has determined never to stop fighting for us. So while those with passionate and public malice for the faithful are not in Christ, as St Paul understood that, the Holy Spirit may yet free them from bondage to the cruelty that holds them down.

"Anglicans under different legal jurisdiction"

Yes, Martin, like Methodists.

"NZ's population continues to grow and this is very largely driven by immigration. The church that knows how to respond to this challenge and how to bring the gospel to Chinese, Indian and Pasifika immigrants is likelier to grow, it seems to me. Immigrants are younger than the population average and more likely to have children."

Is fixation with church numbers is ego-thing, an inability to believe the gospel unless it is a leading brand? Maybe. But I like the way Martin has framed immigration down under as an opportunity for evangelism. From here up yonder, that looks enviably exciting. If only someone had done this for TEC, the largest Anglican church in North America would not be the United Methodist Church ;-)


Jean said...

Well Peter, I was inspired by your post! It is so easy to get side-tracked from the main thing so to speak; the living out of our own faith and the encouragement of others around us on the same journey. I have multiple why’s when it comes to personal tragedies at the present time and the battle is to still believe even in spite of them, to hold to the realisation that turning to God rather than blaming Him is where hope lies. Goodness knows we have enough discouragement in ‘the world’ lets turn to encouraging one another.

The person’s I admire/respect the most in our recent past have been those who incredibly despite their own situations - e.g. Nelson Mandela - were able to treat with dignity, albeit they received little themselves in return, the people who were in societal terms their enemies.

Peter Carrell said...

Again, thank you for engaging comments!

An observation or two:

1. Stats re church growth may be useful for, say, comparative purposes: Look, the Church of X in Minnesota, preaching "true gospel" is growing, but the Church of X in Wyoming, preaching a somewhat diluted version of "true gospel", is declining. It might be a good idea for the Wyoming church to review its message. (It may also be the case that social factors in Wyoming are different to socal factors in Minnesota and the impact of these factors should be reflected on. Etc.)

2. But if the church attendance in a nation is steadily 9% of the population, as churches rise and fall in their attendance, denominations fade and new ones are formed, there is a question about why the 91% of the nation not in church would appear to not be being impacted by the gospel messaging of any of the churches/denominations.

The question I am raising over these few weeks is not primarily about which church in NZ is best placed to grow or right now is growing best or even, on some set of criteria, is the best church fullstop. The question I am raising is about the churches of NZ lack of "cut through" for the gospel!

Anonymous said...

You have no guarantee that a church will continue in a particular place. Peter knows that the decline of Anglicanism in New Zealand has been relentless since the 1960s, even as it has become more liberal and tracked the mores of secular society. In the 1970s total church attendance in NZ was about 17%, now the total will be about of that. Anglicanism used to the majority faith in New Zealand, now it has been eclipsed by Roman Catholicism and most NZers describe themselves as "non-religious". Yet Anglicans will not even collect national statistics of attendance. What is it now? 50,000 among nearly 5 million kiwis? 1%?
The most recent foray in NZ Anglicanism, the incoherent espousal of homosexual relations, has done nothing to halt the decline but has caused further splits and losses. In this, Anglicanism is not alone as Presbyterianism repeats the error - as the Church of Scotland is doing s well.
That is why a new biblically orthodox alignment of global Anglicanism has arisen through Gafcon, and those in New Zealand who want to stay biblically orthodox Anglicans (rather than progressive liberals) have that option.
Will it grow? We'll see.


Unknown said...

Peter, I do like numbers, not least polling numbers, but the question that you raise (now that I understand it) is best addressed, not with an extrapolating analytical mindset, but with a creative devotional one. The answer is a fresh mazeway between daily life and the gospel about Jesus-in-Israel. It will be found by thinking like that of an artist or entrepreneur.

Several past breakthroughs have spread through preaching movements. Franciscans, Lutherans, Wesleyans, etc. But some have just done something new on the ground without a novel message. Desert saints, Benedictines, Beguines, Dominicans, Hesychasts, Quakers, Pietists, etc had deep organizing intuitions, but no simple message in a bottle.

Pain motivates change. My guess is that as the way through the maze gets harder to find, people will notice the example of those disciples who have found a better way through it. These will have preachers, but their message will be less *there is a gospel and it is true* than *in light of the gospel, we see the world and navigate life this way*. We need saints.


Unknown said...


Martin's comment is also a reminder, Peter, that the 91% could point either to a very homogenous population with a single point of resistance, or to a diverse one that is only approachable niche by niche. Very different.


Anonymous said...

NZ's population isn't homogeneous but is majority "European", then "Maori" (most actually mixed race"), Pasifika, Chinese (5%) and growing numbers of East Asians (Koreans) and south Asians. I don't know how strong the church is among Koreans. The Pasifika are still quite strongly churched and church is central to social life for very many of them, whereas the Chinese are largely "non-religious". The decline of religious practice among Maori has been very severe, even as Maori have trailed in most social indicators. It would be interesting to see why Christian practice has declined so much among Maori, despite religious efforts to valorise Maoritanga.
Compared to Europe (and Australia), NZ has a relatively small and peaceful Muslim population, a factor that made the Christchurch massacre all the more shocking. The country has been free of Islamist-inspired terrorism such as France and Britain have seen repeatedly in recent years.


Peter Carrell said...

Two responses only to several things above:

1. Yes, with Martin: the 91% is a heterogenous group: new migrants committed to the faith of Islam, Hinduism etc; keen Christians recently arrived from (e.g.) Korea, South Africa, Britain; Americans of jaded and faded Christian faith, escaping Trumpism/Trumpian Christianity; lots of hardened fourth or fifth generation unbelieving Kiwis for whom NZ is the only paradise they need.

2. Yes, with Bowman: there is a lot of experimental Christianity/church here, much of it in the familiar footsteps of saints of old re devotion, etc ... perhaps one or two of those experiments will yet become a “new way” for the faith here.

Anonymous said...

There are very, very few Americans living in New Zealand: in 2018 the figure was 16,245 (0.35% of the population) and the vast majority of them had been living in NZ long before the Great Catastrophe of 2017. Most came during the years of Clinton and Obama, many as young people to teach in shortage areas.
The great majority of immigrants are from Britain, China and India, in that order. People born abroad make up over 28% of the population, which is a high figure for a developed country.
About 6% of NZ's population was born in Britain or Ireland, and one imagines that with Brexit, the old links with the "mother country" may be renewed to some extent through trade and business. The interesting - and worrying - question is how NZ will see itself vis a vis Communist China. The number of Chinese NZers has increased dramatically in the past generation and they may outstrip Maori numbers within a generation. At the same time, both Labour and National have been rather cowardly and supine toward Beijing, fearful of speaking up for human rights because of economic consequences. The ascension of Biden has turned out to be excellent news for the ambitions of Beijing.
The church that knows how to evangelise Chinese people may find growth.


Unknown said...

At bottom, Martin, the breakaways seem to believe rather strongly in denominations with crisp, fixed boundaries while most Anglicans are trying to be churches governed by modern, presentist synods. The apologias from the two sides, theological and otherwise, explain less than this basic contrast.


Unknown said...


*Denomination* is not pejorative, even if one does not believe in the denominational project.

Denominations are not churches, but *neither* are they *sects*. Nothing about that project necessarily situates denominations on the margins of societies.

What then are they? Associations that distinguish themselves within a Protestant commonwealth of state churches by clearly enumerated distinctives.

For instance, Episcopalians and Presbyterians are both Protestant, but the former have bishops and the latter presbyteries, yet each recognises the other as part of the Body. The mutual recognition is possible because, as it happens, the two share a lot of central doctrine as Protestants. Because of this mutual recognition, neither body would claim to be the whole Body. Importantly, neither can extend that same recognition to Rome, the Eastern churches, or Anabaptists.

What then is a Protestant church? A body of Protestants that recognises the RCC and other bodies outside the commonwealth defined above as constituents of the Body.

As Martin notes, a denomination and a church can look identical to passersby on the street. But the logic of recognition forces a Protestant church to make sense of its distinctives in a more inclusive ecumenical conversation. That conversation will have begun long before the Reformation.

Continuing the example, Episcopalians and Presbyterians in churches account for their stances on episcope in relation to the practices of Catholics, Orthodox, and (why not?) any Anabaptists who find their way into the ecumene. Thus did an ABC and ABY defend Anglican orders to an erring pope, and thus did T F Torrance once propose to an astonished Church of Scotland that it consecrate bishops.

It is much simpler for a denomination to say what it means and mean what it says, to talk its walk and walk its talk. Its identity can only get tidier with time as its founding men and movements are ever more exhaustively studied and defined. Very stable.

But impossible where Protestants think that Catholics are Christians. Frequent intermarriage can have that effect.

Or where they recall the Reformation as Lutheran reform rather than as Reformed rupture. After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, continuity with the medieval church has not seemed as absurd and anachronistic as it once did.

Or where they understand the unsurprising continuity from the Greek NT to the Greek fathers. Looking west from the East, the common Latin roots of Protestants and Catholics are easy to see.

So at least in some places, denominations have had no choice but to evolve into churches. Alas, to be a Protestant with an ecumenical identity is not simple. The light synodical governance that still serves denominations reasonably well is not adequate to the deep questions pondered by churches. Modern theological education is less helpful than it could be.

So Protestant churches today do have rootless characters at the margins (cf ACANZP's report A Way Forward), just as the RCC did for a time after the Second Vatican Council. Denominationalists have been understandably aghast at this, just as old nuns once fretted about free-spirited young ones without habits.

But theologically, to call the merely rootless *liberal* severs the word from its historic referents from late C19 Germany to early C20 England. Or makes a confusing social and political reference to the BoBos (David Brooks's Bourgeois Bohemians) of recent decades.

The mere idea of a church has encouraged the *ressourcement* that we have seen. Arguably, the most conservative Reformed theologians working in the Communion today are TEC's Katherine Sonderegger and Hans Boersma. But they are church theologians, not denominational manualists.


Father Ron said...

Today, Pentecost Sunday, the Church is reminded that 'Church Growth' will be a gift from God to a people who abide by the injunction of Jesus; to love others as God loves us" At Saint Michael & All Angels in Christchurch today, we will all have our hands anointed for ministry.

Today's messge from Pope Frasncis is particularly relevant to our stuggle for authenticity:

" Keeping the truth does not mean defending ideas, becoming guardians of a system of doctrines and dogmas, but remaining bound to Christ and being devoted to his Gospel.”
Pope Francis

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of you people with the fire of your love!

Unknown said...

A last comment, one on what + Peter has called "experimental Christianity."

Evangelism can succeed because a message circulated in say July has won over a nation by October. Yes, this all-at-once adoption has sometimes happened. In the US, the Great Awakening and Billy Graham exemplify messages that moved multitudes in just a few years. What has happened before can happen again.

But in the apostolic age, the growth was not all-at-once but *exponential*. An initially tiny group grew because many ordinary members of it were evangelists. Some believe that only this sort of growth is now possible in societies fragmented by social media.

If that is true, then + Peter's search is, not for something that most Kiwis will believe in under three years, but for a presentation that converts a few into persistent evangelists who recruit more evangelists. A different problem, but one that may indeed yield to experimentation.


Father Ron said...

I have to agree with your thesis here, Bowman. The FAITH is 'caught' rather than 'taught'.

"Come Holy Spirit, renew in us the fire of your LOVE".