Does setting targets help with growth?

18growth1Last Saturday I attended our Diocesan Synod—and came away having had a fascinating and absorbing time. (I am not sure I had ever anticipated saying that about a Diocesan Synod!) The first half of the meeting was what you might usually expect. We receive annual reports from across the diocese, the most important being the Diocesan Board of Finance, which is (in effect) the diocese itself with regard to finance. There were some encouraging things to report (such as fantastic investment in a wind turbine) but, as usual, most of the discussion focussed on concerns about how hard-pressed congregations, often with roof repairs to pay for, are going to manage paying their parish share in future years.

But mid-morning there was a change of focus. Paul Williams has been in post as diocesan bishop for nine months, and this was the first chance to make public his plans—or rather, what he believes God is calling us to. These plans were very specific indeed, and include seeing, by 2023:

  • 7,000 new disciples in the Church of England in this diocese;
  • 1,000 new young leaders;
  • a ‘college’ offering discipleship and leadership training to young people;
  • 100 younger ordinands;
  • 75 church plants or grafts;
  • 25 ‘resource’ churches which can support these;
  • a major church plant in Nottingham city centre, supported by HTB in London, geared towards young people, and another in a rural area somewhere central in the diocese.

These were sufficiently memorable for me to have just written them down without referring to any notes from last Saturday. They are also quite challenging, and it is worth doing the sums to see what these might mean in practice.

The current USA (usual Sunday attendance) in the diocese is somewhere around 14,000. Assuming these new disciples will come to church most (though not all) Sundays, then that would mean a growth over seven years of around 30%. Put it another way, I think there are currently around 200 congregations, so the average congregations is around 70–80. These would all need to add, on average, around 35 new disciples over seven years, or at least 4 each year. Of course, these numbers would be changed significantly assuming that the church plants and grafts take place. There is good evidence to show that churches grow more easily if they do planting well. But, however you look at it, this is an ambitious plan. The target involves nearly doubling the number of ordinands coming forward for selection and training.

There are some obvious and easy criticisms of this plan, and some of them were expressed to me during the morning and in the days that followed. The first is a concern that growth is something we engineer, rather than something that God gives. But Paul Williams introduced the discussion with a reflection on Luke 10.2:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” God’s plans never fail for lack of resources.

If the harvest is plentiful, and the problem is the shortage of the workers, then we need to address that issue—which is the one that is in our control.

The second was a sense that this was a plan being imposed, rather than an idea being presented for consultation. But there has, in fact, been much discussion around it in the previous months, and there is now a consultation with deaneries on what their part in the plan might look like. In the end, someone needs to make a decision on what we should be doing; I am not sure that stretching and ambitious plans to reverse the declines in church attendance have ever come out of synodical consultation exercises!

One of the exciting dimensions here is that Paul has already secured in principle support for Strategic Growth Funding from the Church Commissioners. This new use of Commissioners’ money is of major importance for the Church, and I am not sure how many people have yet realised this. It is a key plank of the Renewal and Reform programme, and if we weren’t making some use of this there should be hard questions as to why not—as there should be in every diocese.

Within the discussion at Synod, there were some interesting omissions. I was heartened to hear the language of the organic, rather than mechanical, nature of church growth, almost as if someone had read a recent blog post on this. But, until raised in the question time, there had been no mention of pruning. Which church buildings would we no longer make use of? Which activities and committees would we axe? And perhaps most importantly, which routine, unproductive administrative burdens could clergy shed in order to focus on making disciples? (Diocese churchyard management strategy anyone?)

The other slightly startling omission was any mention of evangelism. Perhaps some of this growth will come from transfers back from churches to which Anglicans have transferred in recent years—often those who are most committed and the biggest givers. Perhaps some growth will be biological, through the baptism of children of Christian parents. But my guess is that a good proportion of these new disciples will come through evangelism and conversion, so we probably need to talk about this at some point.

All these challenges aside, what was most striking was the change in tone in Synod from the first to the second half of the meeting. Overall, people appeared to be genuinely excited by the possibilities that this plan might open up—and I genuinely don’t think that excitement was just about having more people to pay the parish share! Aim at nothing, says the old adage, and you are sure to hit it. Here instead was a challenging target that we could focus on and feel excited about, even if there are risks of failure involved.

51QoqKupnWLThere is a universal dynamic at work here; narratives of decline are not animating or inspiring, and everyone would like to be part of a ‘winning team.’ But I think there is something more profound at work as well. Two years ago, American pastor and publisher Thom Rainer published Autopsy of a Dead Church, exploring what it was that led to church decline and closure. The contents list alone is worth scanning—and not too surprising. But overall, the message of the book (as summed up by one reviewer) is that churches die when they look inward and are concerned about preserving themselves, the past and their preferences. Church thrive when their focus is outwards.

In the context of confidence about God’s provision and the harvest being ready, it feels to me as though the diocese has just taken a significant step in being outward looking. That is surely a vital step towards a thriving future.

Additional Note: in conversation with Paul Williams subsequently, he has pointed out that he carefully avoids the language of ‘targets’ and instead talks of ‘aspirations’, not least because this is something we believe God is calling us to, rather than something we ourselves are trying to achieve.

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11 thoughts on “Does setting targets help with growth?”

  1. Dear Ian

    This is very encouraging and exciting. I would hope that regular readers of this blog would join with you in praying for this – please keep us informed as plans turn into actions …
    In the parts of the C of E that I’m linked with, you can add this to the plans in Blackburn Diocese that you have blogged about (, the plans on the Carlisle Diocese website that I’ve been reading recently and the Annual Church meeting I was at in a church in Bath and Wells Diocese a couple of weeks ago (while visiting my Dad).
    The book you mention grew from a blog by Thom Rainer that can be found at It makes for sobering reading.

    • Thanks for the link to Rainer’s own blog. I think it summarises the (short) book fairly well.

      Yes, I knew about Blackburn—interested to hear about Carlisle and Bath and Wells. I wonder how many are also planning in this way.

      Two things to note: this is a radical change from Anglican approaches of even the recent past. And the leadership of each of these dioceses is evangelical…on which see another blog post!

  2. This is really encouraging news. You may know that here in Sheffield Diocese we’ve got funding for groups of parishes to employ admin workers to handle the stuff that does need to be done but isn’t best use of clergy time. The first ones are already in place.

    Do you have more info on the plans for planting in a rural area? (I’m in the largely rural northern end of the diocese.).

  3. Having said that my comment is contextual. It is for the church of England, and they are a long way behind on church growth and strategy. (Not theological training, political acumen, and resources). I don’t think it will work unless this is well understood. A simple example would be street evangelism. Pentcostalists are very good on this and it leads to growth. AOG are also very good on church growth and church structure. My former pastor in Leicester saw his church grow to 600 from around 30 people over 30 years. I would hate to see a situation which I have seen before in which Anglicans see the advance of other parts of the church as something they could simply deploy and use politically and socially. I don’t think that is genuine and I don’t believe it will work very well, although it might lead to some growth.

  4. In respect of church growth, I wrote this in response to the Bishop of Blackburn’s plea for change:

    ‘As a black man, I am especially interested in the interplay between ethnic demography and religion.

    Globally, North America, Latin America, Asia and Africa are all experiencing significant growth in church affiliation. (source: Brierley)

    Again, worldwide, the Independent, Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations have all been on the rise. As far as world Anglicanism is concerned, the Global South represents approximately 80 per cent of its membership (approx. 50 million).

    They dwarf the 1.7 million people take part in a Church of England service each month (source: CofE website). Add to this the fact that the religious and racial demographics of towns, like Blackburn, have changed considerably. According to the 2011 Census, within Lancashire. 20 per cent were black or minority ethnic.

    We may debate whether the term ‘white flight’ (which was coined to describe the migration of white families away from those areas characterized by an influx of ethnic minorities) accurately describes the changes in these areas. Some might simply attribute them to differences in population growth among the various races.

    What is clear is that the religious affiliations of major ethnic groups do not particularly converge. Pentecostal growth has been fuelled by black affiliation. Most of us are in no rush to attend CofE services. If we do, we are in no mood to absorb white cultural norms, when we know and love our own.

    Considering Christian denominations, the English Church Census 2005 (Christian Research) showed that non-white church attendance increased by 19% from 2001. By comparison, white churchgoing community decreased by 19%.

    The same survey showed that, as a proportion of national figures, black church attendance was at least three times our proportion of the population, moving from 2.6% to 3.8%.

    Any one can see the significance of these trends. It’s very much the same as the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles. The main agents of any religion’s growth are its resonance (often native) with specific ethnicities, migration, and relative population growth.

    If the Cof E is to halt its decline, it must allow mission to be reversed, whereby it formally supports and recognizes ethnic minority-led church plants that will abide by its doctrine to invigorate and spearhead genuine church diversity.

    While Bishop’s Mission Orders could be implemented to work around the objections of ‘difficult’ incumbents of selected parishes, the real issue is whether these initiatives are sustained by bishops within the National Church structure, or jettisoned.

    Often, that’s a political decision fuelled by the bishop’s unwillingness to aggravate a high-church incumbent who cannot accept the operation of a more ‘exuberant’ form of worship within his benefice The eventual abandonment of official support for Christchurch Fulwood in Sheffield comes to mind.

    Reversing the decline requires a strategy that fast-tracks the process for diversifying Anglican church leadership to retain both a respect for Anglican traditions and engender the trust that minorities will be treated as equals. If not, the bishops can continue to hold their hands out to an increasing disaffected white majority of which their youth are statistically the most likely to reject their overtures. It’s King Canute all over again.

    I’m reminded of how St. Peter averted disquiet among Christianity’s early Gentile following: ‘Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

    The bishops would do well to follow his example, but unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath’

  5. Extremely ambitious plans – and you can’t blame the Bishop for trying . However, the collapse in Southwell & Nottingham Diocese in the period of 2002 to 2012 has been so great. I would have thought aiming to retain what they already have would have been ambitious enough!* In the ten years to 2012 infant baptisms fell by 31%, marriages by 18%, funerals by 32%, Christmas communicants by 28% and all-age Average Sunday Attendance by 18%. By any view, those figure are devastating and, as I say, you can’t blame the diocese for trying to do something about them – but I do think the targets are pie-in-the-sky. Interesting points from David Shepherd, too – my anecdotal evidence of the congregations in the diocese is that black and minority ethnic people are notable by their absence.

    *not only do you have to recruit enough new people to replace those who are dying, you also have to recruit one new member for every person who leaves because of the church’s position on same-sex relationships and marriage, just to stand still. Now, you may think the church is better off without them – but they take their money, their goodwill and their appearance in the stats with them.

    • Laurence, that’s an interesting comment, but you include some curious logic.

      There has been significant decline by doing what we are doing…so we should continue with it rather than engage in the kind of step change that Paul is suggesting?

      All the evidence suggests that it is conservative evangelicals who are the most financially significant givers, so on the basis of your logic we should become more conservative not less.

      I just read this fascinating reflection from a ‘progressive’ in the States on the looming reality that his church is dying…even faster than the C of E!

      He includes the comment:

      All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now.

      I am not sure they are rushing back!

  6. Laurence Cunnington’s response provides us with the reasons for the growth plans proposed by Paul Williams. Anyone who has heard him (Paul Williams)etc knows he certainly does NOT suffer from Peters Principle.

    Prior to his appointment as Bishop of Kensington ( which also covers HTB & many of their church plants)
    he was Rector of St James, Gerrards Cross. From my perspective as a St James parishioner, it experienced from early 1990’s a 300% growth covering a period of 15 years, that is before and during his time at St James. Electoral roll 830 at its peak, with 5 Sunday services, budget of £ 750,000 approx.. He rebuilt the church hall ( £2.5 million) mostly from NEW local members over 5 years!

    The factors which influenced this growth were:
    i) Paul Williams quiet enthusiasm
    ii) Prayer for revival from mid 1970’s onwards ( still going strong in the church and other denominations
    iii) Using the material and expertise of Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church( Chicago USA) from early 1991
    iv) Introduction of Mothers and Toddlers coffee mornings – twice per week. If you wish to see a bishop
    using glove puppets with fascinated children in a junior service – ask Paul Williams.
    v) Reinvigorated Sunday school with a 30 year old intelligent & enthusiastic new lady leader having over
    150 (7 to 16 year olds) also using Willow Creek material. She achieved remarkable grown up support
    of one per 3 children.
    vi) Contemporary worship – regrettably not my scene but many attend that service

    As a commercial man, I have experienced this sort of growth in two separate companies both in a short time span. We were as good as the people we employed and they had to work very hard indeed.
    Paul Williams optimistic growth plan is possible BUT only with massive prayer backup. Who knows when the answers will come – it took nearly 20 years before the ‘seedlings’ began to show at St James.
    Perhaps Paul Williams has experienced “a still small voice” like Elijah?

    However I believe every church has to be wary that it does not overcommit itself financially at a time when parishioners are feeling economic stringency.

  7. The comment from John Wertheim is fascinating – thank you.
    These comments have also had two replies from members of groups who feel let down by the Church of England. The Bishop in Ian’s original article does focus on another group who have also been let down by many churches – young people. The plans list 1,000 new young leaders, a ‘college’ offering discipleship and leadership training to young people, and 100 younger ordinands. When these plans work out the difference will be huge.
    I dug back through my file of ‘interesting’ reports and found a Methodist paper from 2006 (still available on the web at In it the writer, speaking in a personal capacity, celebrated that the Methodist Church had become more diverse in terms of ‘ethnicity, in the contributions of men and women. in theological conviction, in social, cultural and educational backgrounds, in political convictions, and in our understandings of “Church”.’ The report then went on to say that ‘Age diversity is more difficult: I am in fact not very confident that we have it in ourselves to re-engage to any substantial degree in the near future with children, young people and people in the 20-45 age range, but would always be glad to be surprised on this one.’ This was written in 2006, so this range could now be extended up to 55 – which takes in perhaps two-thirds of the population.
    It is this imbalance that Paul Williams clearly sought to address when Rector (as explained in the above comment – Mums and Toddlers, Sunday School and contemporary worship) and now seeks to address across a whole diocese.


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