Last 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.
There 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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