I was recently reading a discussion on using measures of performance in secondary-school education, about which the author was highly sceptical. He quoted this aphorism (from I know not where): ‘Weighing pigs doesn’t make them any heavier!’ There is a general sense that too many things are being measured inappropriately in our culture, causing multiple problems. The first is that, if you tell people that you are going to measure something and assess their performance on that measure, then you are in danger of reducing their job to succeeding at that measure alone. Hence the criticism of education that teachers aren’t interested in children learning, only in their passing exams. The second is that we end up flattening life out, and only valuing that which can be measured—a danger challenged by the saying of Albert Einstein:
Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.
But the reason why putting metrics in place to measure specific things is so tempting is that it focusses the mind, and encourages people to think about what they are doing and why. Apparently, in the days of steam and regional railway companies, one company was exploring ways to make its trains run more efficiently and keep to time. It was discovered that the most cost-efficient measure was to paint the train funnels red! Why? Because the crew on the train felt as though they were visible and being watched, so they worked more efficiently!
Despite recent complaints that the ‘national church is stuck in broadcast mode‘, (and despite the irony that the parable of the sower in Mark 4 suggests that broad casting is the thing God wants to do that we should join in with), the evidence is that many local churches are still more focussed on issues of practical maintenance (roofs, heating, parish share) than they are on central questions of mission, evangelism, and church growth.
The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England (of which I am a member) functions as the Church’s executive board, making decisions in partnership with the Church Commissioners and the House of Bishops about how the central annual budget of around £132m should be spent. We have just been through an exercise in revising the way we express our aims, and we are working with nine objectives which we think express the concerns of the Church.
To bring more of the people of England to the faith of Christ through the Church of England
To strengthen the Christian faith and life of all who worship God in the Church of England
To ensure there are sufficient ordained and lay ministers of the required gifts and qualities who are effectively deployed to enable the Church of England to fulfil its mission, and to support those ministers in their calling, development, ministry and retirement
To contribute to transforming our society and communities more closely to reflect the Kingdom of God through loving acts of neighbourliness and service to all
To promote high quality Christian education in Church of England schools and voluntary education settings, and through our Church contribution to other schools, colleges, further and higher education institutions
Resources for the Church
To help dioceses and cathedrals to be most effective in their mission, by providing cost-effective national and specialist services and advice
To ensure all children and vulnerable adults are safe in the Church
To operate the national governance arrangements of the Church of England as cost-effectively as possible in pursuit of the Church’s mission
A Church for all people
To be a Church that can provide a home for all people in England
(It might be worth reflecting for a few moments on what you think of these as objectives.)
It is no accident that evangelism is the first objective, and with it the Council has a specific aim: ‘By 2020 to have halted the fall in numbers of Church of England worshippers in dioceses representing half the population of England and to see growth in numbers in a quarter of dioceses.’ There are several important questions arising from this.
First, should we have measurable aims at all? After all, the Church is not a business and the gospel is not a product that we are persuading people to buy. Would it make sense to have a numerical aim for the growth of a local church? If not, why the national Church? Secondly, does it make sense for the Council to have objectives in relation to dioceses over which it has little control? As Justin Welby often says, there are very few levers that he or anyone else can pull, not least because the Church of England is so diffuse in its organisation, with Synod, the dioceses, the Commissioners and the House of Bishops technically speaking all independent of one another.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t a local church have measurable goals in terms of its mission? Aim at nothing, and you are sure to hit it! This doesn’t need to be a case of usurping the sovereignty of God, assuming that these goals are discerning and worked towards through prayer as much as action. And the Council has hard decisions to make about budgets and allocation of resources; without measurable goals, how do we know whether we have made the right kinds of decisions. In the end, the delivery of the goal is in the hands of the dioceses—but the question is whether central decision-making has helped or hindered. There is an analogy here with measuring a fruit harvest: the farmer cannot make apples grow, but he or she can help to create the right conditions for apples to grow well and plentifully. Paul sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Cor 3.6)—but the growth God gave was affected by the way that Paul sowed and the care with which Apollos watered, just as surely as it was for the farmer’s apples! Numbers matter, because numbers represent people, and people matter. And looking at numbers forces us to confront the reality of our situation and allows for accountability.
The biggest change in allocation of resources in recent Church history has been the created of the Strategic Development Fund, through which Church Commissioners money is not simply distributed to dioceses to maintain what they are doing, but part is now distributed in response to applications for funds to support mission initiatives, including church planting both in cities and rural contexts. I am not sure that many in the C of E realise what a massive change this actually represents.
If we are going to measure against this goal, what measure should we use? The most common measures are ‘weekly church attendance’ or ‘usual Sunday attendance’, and this is ascertained by asking local churches to survey their congregations (usually in October) and send the information in to Church House, from which the Statistics Unit produces a very informative report, the latest one (produced at the end of last year) giving the figures for 2016. The graphs continued to show a downward trend on these two metrics (the main charts are on pp 13 and 14), though there is an interesting pause in decline in 2011 and 2012. On this basis, we are still some way from our 2020 aim of halting decline and seeing some growth.
But the question then arises as to whether weekly attendance is the right metric, for both internal and external reasons. Internally to the Church, there has been a noticeable growth in attendance at mid-week services and groups—so does Sunday attendance really measure involvement and engagement with discipleship? Externally, the pattern of most people’s lives continues to fragment, and there are many other things to do on a Sunday—and many other ways to engage with Church online. An alternative, and arguably more realistic, measure is to look at ‘Worshipping Communities‘ rather than weekly attendance, and the Statistics unit has now asked churches to gather this information as well.
Following consultation with dioceses, the “worshipping community” of a church is defined as anyone who attends that church (including fresh expressions of Church) regularly, for example at least once a month, or would do so if not prevented by illness, infirmity or temporary absence. It includes activities such as fellowship groups and other activities that have a distinct act of worship or prayer. It also includes acts of worship not on church premises (e.g. at a school or community centre).
We include those who: come to midweek services; are ill and unable to come to church; are away on holiday or business; have home communions; are part of a regular ‘fresh expression’ of church; live in care or residential homes and would consider themselves to be full members of their church; give regularly to their church; lead worship (e.g. clergy).
We do not include those who: are visitors – e.g. holidaymakers, baptism parties; consider their ‘home’ church to be another church.
What is interesting is that, according to the ‘Worshipping Communities’ (WC) measure, there are some signs of hope. Whereas only two dioceses (Hereford and Exeter) are showing growth over the last three years measured by Sunday attendance, 10 dioceses are showing signs of growth on the WC measure, and a further seven have halted their decline. The $64,000 question is whether the difference in the two measures is the result of wishful thinking—or a real insight into changing patterns of involvement in the church community, and changes in the way that Christians express and grow in their discipleship.
What, then, is the nature of the challenge that we are facing? The Council staff produced a very helpful diagram explaining what is going on with the Church nationally.
Though other people might react differently, when I saw this my heart leapt for joy—because this is the kind of analysis that you would do as a personnel manager when looking at the changes in your workforce, and it took me back to when I was just such a person (working at Mars Confectionery). At a local level, this means that the typical church with an attendance of 50 is seeing the net loss of one person a year. But that means that adding one person a year is what is needed to reverse decline, and growing by two people a year for such a congregation would represent world-changing explosive growth, comparable with the growth of the early church in the first three centuries. 67% of the UK population is in personal relationship with a Christian, and around 80% of Anglicans here say that they know someone who would probably respond to an invitation to come to church—yet only 17% would be willing to issue such an invitation. If that figure changes, who knows what might happen?
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