A number of years ago, a friend of mine was leaving theological education to go back into parish ministry. ‘I’ll just go and grow the church for a few years’, he said blithely. I thought he was a fool to be so presumptuous. Yes, growing a church is easy: all you need to do is leave any security of home or livelihood, choose someone who will betray you, perform miracles, including raising the dead, upset the authorities, get crucified, and rise again. Easy!
The Church Growth Research Centre, set up and funded by the various institutions of the Church of England, has just reported on factors in church growth. Of course, this is not the first time that people have been thinking about the human factors in church growth. The Revivalism in 19th-century America, led by Charles Finney and others, was driven to a large extent by a belief in creating the right conditions by which people would come to faith. And more recently the Church Growth Movement of the 1970s, led by Donald McGavran and C Peter Wagner at Fuller Seminary in California, advocated the Homogenous Unit Principle as vital for growing churches. (There is a good evaluation of this in a Lausanne Occasional Paper.) At every point, the idea that there are specific ‘conditions for growth’ is hotly contested. After all, Paul talks about his work and the work of other leaders as important, but only in the context where ‘God gives the growth’ (1 Cor 3.6). And Jesus appears in the gospels to attribute the growth of the kingdom to often mysterious, divine, forces. I have long pondered the phrase in Mark 4.28: the soil produces the grain ‘all by itself’, in Greek automate. (The word only occurs here and in Acts 12.10).
So it was no surprise to see Justin Welby hedging his bets—or perhaps taking a ‘both/and’ approach—in the press release for the Church Growth report.
The turnaround of the church is fundamentally in the hands of God. God is faithful. He has shown that in Jesus Christ, and He shows that to us every day in our lives—and in the lives of our churches together. But He calls on us to be his feet, his hands, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, who listen to and serve and love the people around us, who above all witness to the reality of the love of Jesus Christ.
A good executive summary of the findings can be found here. It makes interesting reading, and deserves to be taken notice of at every level. There were a number of things that stood out for me, and some implications which I think need teasing out more fully.
One interesting observation is that growth does not correlate with theological tradition—no one tradition within the Church has a monopoly on growth. This is worth reading with a little ‘hermeneutic of suspicion‘, since it would be difficult if not impossible for a Church-funded group to say otherwise. And it would suggest that the mix of traditions in the C of E stays constant, when we know this is not the case. But the report also makes two other observations the undermine this. The first is that churches grow (amongst other reasons) if the leadership are intentionally focussed on growth. This can happen anywhere, but some theological and church traditions are more amenable to this than others. The second is that cathedral attendance has grown significantly, and it would be hard to suggest that cathedrals have no ecclesial tradition!
This last fact (which has been noted before) offers two key challenges to the local church. The first is to recognise that different styles of worship appeal to different people, often at different times of one’s life. A key recipe for growth, then, would be to retain diversity of worship styles across different congregations meeting in the same building. This is reinforced by the fact of growth in ‘fresh expressions’ of church, particularly ‘cafe-style’ services. (You need to be careful with this term; I have been to supposed cafe-style services which were just traditional, but seated around tables.) This is surely a really good argument for planting congregations of different styles at different times of day within the same ‘church.’ Don’t think that just starting up a worship band will solve all your growth problems. People want depth as well as cultural resonance—and UK culture is pretty diverse these days.
But the second key challenge posed by the growth in cathedral worship is this: what kind of growth are we looking at? Counting ‘bums on seats’ is one thing, and not unimportant. But this growth has particularly been in cathedral mid-week services, and has been described as ‘believing without belonging.’ Is it even this? Attending a formal service with choral music without any sense of communal relationship could be nostalgia or (the sceptical might say) hedging one’s bets as the grave looms nearer! If ‘church growth’ is anything, it must include growth in discipleship and understanding, not just numbers. Still, discipleship cannot happen without attendance, so this must be a good start.
The report goes on to explore question of leadership, and notes:
The leadership qualities which stood out in the survey as being significant in relation to growth included:
Other important elements of leadership behaviour which are likely to be associated with growth include:
- Having the ability to engage with outsiders and newcomers
- Being intentional about worship style and tradition
- Having a vision for growth and doing new things to make it happen
- Prioritising growth
- Being good at developing a vision and goals
- Abilities in training people for ministry and mission
Although no more is made of this, these observations have significant implications for training of clergy and other leaders. What strikes me about these qualities is that, although there are elements of skill that are present here, fundamentally these things are about a person’s basic orientation in life—they are about character. So if we want leaders who are going to grow churches, we need training which focuses less on skills and competence, and more on the deep formation of character. Is it possible to do this whilst cramming a full-time theology degree into a part-time programme, with either continued work or ministry involvement alongside? Or do we need to set aside our future leaders for a process of formation? This is of course a question about full-time versus part-time training. I realise that this is not the only question to ask about training, but it is an important one, and I think it has been sidelined by more pragmatic considerations progressively since the Hind report more than ten years ago, which in effect turned theological education into a market. We will live to regret it—assume growth overtakes decline, that is.
A second implication for training relates to the second part of ordination training, the curacy. As John Leach pointed out some years ago in his Grove booklet P 72 Visionary Leadership in the Local Church, curates should all be placed in growing churches, to ‘breath the air’ and form their own expectations for ministry and leadership.
Finally, this report has a serious challenge to diocesan and national strategy, though it is one that is hidden, since it is by way of omission. At every point there is the implication, never spelled out, that congregations need leadership—trained, theologically competent, but most crucially stipendiary leadership, that is, leaders who are set aside to give time to lead the congregation. I have never heard of any pattern of church growth, in any context, at any time of history, which did not involve leaders who had been set aside for the task of leadership. (Look at the importance of this to Paul in Acts 18.5.) To imagine that we could lose 40% of stipendiary clergy in the next 10 years through retirement, and not see continued, even dramatic, further decline in attendance is to live in a fantasy world. This is not to be clericalist, or deny the importance of lay leadership. In my diocese (Southwell and Nottingham) the last bishop Paul Butler committed to replace lost clergy posts with stipendiary lay posts, and in fact one of the examples in the Church Growth report was one such case. But nationally to plan for a decline in stipendiary leadership is to plan for the church as a whole to decline.
you have entrusted to your Church
a share in the ministry of your Son our great high priest:
inspire by your Holy Spirit the hearts of many
to offer themselves for the ministry of your Church,
that strengthened by his power,
they may work for the increase of your kingdom
and set forward the eternal praise of your name;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen
(Collect for Ember Days)