How to Grow the Church

CofE_Infographic_730width_v4A 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!

CofE_Infographic_730width_v4This 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:

  • Motivating
  • Envisioning
  • Innovating

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.

Almighty God,
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)

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29 thoughts on “How to Grow the Church”

  1. Thanks for this … have been pondering the report since it landed in my inbox this morning.

    Regarding leaders, the report does say ‘Churches are more likely to grow when there is one leader for one community’, even if it doesn’t spell out who that leader should be (or what training they should have).

  2. Thanks Lynda. You are quite right–I remember this comment now. I think this, along with the other observations, is a clear endorsement for stipendiary leadership (though it does not make this explicit). Again, I wonder whether there is some delicacy in making comments which critique current policy.

    I do think the planning for decline in clergy numbers is not much more than a plan for decline, and I look forward to seeing the first bishop question this!

  3. Despite the humour I think the first paragraph to be the most pertinent in the article, followed by the comments about character. If the person has the character of Christ he or she will do the work of Christ and expect the responses that Christ received (both positive and negative!)
    NB the “character” cannot be taught. It needs to be discerned by others and recognised by calling such people to lead and yes, the article is right. Character is much more important than any ability. God can equip the willing but he cannot/will not “make willing” the equipped.

  4. May I read your latter argument with a hermeneutic of suspicion please? ‘Leader’ in the New Testament and ‘paid clergy’ as envisaged by the Church of England in the 21st century have no automatic correlation, do they? Surely what is needed is leadership in the former sense, whatever institutional form it takes, and though no standard pattern can readily be discerned (as I understand it) in the early church it seems likely that leadership was shared in one way or another. As to growth without set aside leaders, what about Quakers? It all depends, I guess, what ‘set aside’ means, and I don’t think it has to mean ‘paid’. The difficulty arises elsewhere, in the understanding of what ordained ministry is. If set aside means simply ‘having a congregationally recognised gifting’, as I think it does, that opens up much wider possibilities.

    On a more positive note Mancini in ‘Church Unique’ suggests churches should be measured by sending capacity, not seating capacity, which seems to me to have a lot going for it in terms of priorities (sending capacity being much wider than ‘sending to the overseas mission field’).

  5. Are the Quakers a big denomination? I think the problem there is understanding what they believe these days…

    ‘Clergy’ is a loaded term, and of course it is anachronous to read that back into the NT. But setting people apart, ensuring they know the good news, and raising funds to support them is all there. If we do that for people, I am happy to call them ‘ordained’ whether they are clergy or not!

  6. Open “Brethren” are probably a better modern example than Quakers (who started out that way) following the NT pattern of “setting people apart, (who are actually living the good news), and raising funds to support them”.
    Many Brethren assemblies are now moving into employed leadership and greater “organisation” which can be good but can also have pitfalls and tend towards a minefield as the organisation gets bigger and harder to manage (see cofe and NHS). The big problem for selection of employees is that assessment of character of external applicants is well nigh impossible.

  7. Great summary Ian – thanks! Two comments: as one who is currently worshipping at a Cathedral (some would say THE cathedral!) and therefore presumably swelling the numbers, I would agree with the need to be careful about claiming too much in terms of growth. Joining a cathedral can be like joining a cinema: it marks out a period of time when I can pray and worship, but I’m not sure that I have encountered any strategic resources for my growth in discipleship.

    Secondly, I couldn’t agree more about the need for dedicated, gifted and trained leaders (whether paid or not, but isn’t a worker worthy of his/her hire?). But I would add to that the desperately urgent need for YOUNG leaders (of all ages). Most congregations tell me that they wish they had more young families and children, yet the church is still churning out readers and priests who are elderly, either in age, or outlook, or both. Neither do we have a culture of retirement and handing over to the next generation. Our culture is thoroughly elderly (who under 30 ever uses the term ‘refreshments’, for example?) and we need a massive recruitment drive for new young ordained clergy. Of course style-age is not directly related to chronological age, but we do desperately need a new generation to reach the missing generation.

  8. It’s a curious thing, that. I would have thought it was relatively easy for any cathedral to offer bible studies, small groups, lectures on discipleship and so forth. I wonder why they don’t?

    Yes, of course you’re quite right about young leaders. In terms of a massive recruitment drive, my experience is that the central church says this is the responsibility of the dioceses, and the dioceses say this is the responsibility of the central church. I think this has been a major weakness in our approach to ministry for many years, though I will be very interested in either a diocesan official or a central church person could correct me on this.

    Now you mention it, one curious omission from the report was that churches tended to attract people of a similar age to the leadership. By my reckoning, that means if clergy are most effective between eight and 12 years in to incumbency, and they need a curacy after training it means that people should be entering training around the mid 20s.

    Is anyone doing the sums at Ministry Division?

  9. Some interesting observations on the report. You haven’t specifically mentioned the failure of multi-parish benefices to support growth, though I suppose this is closely linked with the reduction in stipendiary posts. Our five parish benefice is supported by a three day a week, house for duty, retired priest. The diocese recognises the problems, and is attempting to do something about it through it’s ‘Effective Ministry in Every Parish’ initiative. That’s all about having a named ‘Minister’ in every parish, who might be a reader or churchwarden or… It remains to be seen how successful this will prove.

  10. Which diocese are you Stephen? You are right that I don’t highlight it–though it does come over quite strongly. Surely this must spell the death knell for the disaster that is team ministry?

    I felt rather ambivalent about the ‘OLM’ experiment, though trained people for it in Salisbury diocese. For many on the fringes, unless you have seen someone who is ordained and wears a collar, you haven’t seen the ‘real’ leader. But I think the key think for congregations is actually having stipendiary leadership, which of course isn’t the same thing.

  11. “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.”

    Not convinced. The pattern offered by the Methodist revival did NOT focus on the role of ministers, it focused on the role of the laity in disciplining the new members in classes. These were led by LAITY. The full timers were on circuit, staying for a year and preaching round the circuit. They preached and perhaps offered support short term, but the type of engagement is totally different from that which the CofE pretends to. Yes there may well be a role for full time clergy, but it’s not at the sharp end of ministry; the fact that we still expect clergy to visit the sick is an indicator of how wrong we get it.

    Remember that the original vision of ‘seeker friendly church’ was that the Sunday service was the shop window – BUT REAL CHURCH WENT ON AT SOME OTHER TIME. Because we are failing to make that distinction, we get all excited because people are coming along to the entertainment that we provide on a Sunday morning, and fail to prioritise ‘real church’.

  12. thanks for the comment (and it would be great to know who you are). a couple of observations:

    1. Are you talking about the Methodist revival in the Church of England, i.e. prior to the formation of a separate denomination? If so, then I am not sure you can argue that full-time leaders were not important, as they were key in training and encourage the lay group leaders—who were of course vital, and I think a similar thing happened following the charismatic renewal and the (re)discovery of ‘every member ministry.’

    BUT the numbers of clergy were (as far as I can work out) about the same as they are today…in a population of less than 8m in 1800, and less than 6m in Wesley’s lifetime. So the church was massively more clericalised then.

    2. I have a real theological problem with the idea that what happens on a Sunday is the shop window, and real church happens elsewhere. Interestingly, this model has not been transferable to a UK context in the way that I think Mike Hill and others had hoped–the English are much less tolerant of a culture of polished performance.

    The report does, in fact, comment ‘Congregations needs congregational leaders’ and I think they are right. Besides, if a church is growing, and discipleship is deepening, giving will be happening, so there will be funding for paid leadership. And why not?

  13. In discussing the early days of Methodism, it’s important to recognise that most of clergy were a waste of space for them, either in active opposition, sometimes encouraging the physical attacks on the visiting preachers. In that context that ‘the numbers of clergy were… about the same as they are today’ is irrelevant.

    And I repeat: the type of ministry offered by the Methodist full timers was radically different from what our clergy end up doing today. They were there short term. They PREACHED, for conversion. Perhaps they did provide some support to the local people getting the classes going, but the focus of church life was in the classes, whereas IN PRACTICE, what your model ends up focusing on is physical presence in church on a Sunday.

    I’m not opposed to full time leadership – but I do wonder what they are expected to do during the day! The Methodists used to be clear – out preaching in public… The propensity of the Anglican church is for them to end up with as chaplain to the congregation, which creates the congregation’s expectation that that is what they WILL do, provides them with relatively unchallenging things to do, and removes the duty on the laity to fulfill that role. Given the reality that we won’t prise the useless full timers out of their sinecures, it seems a mistake to offer them any sort of legitimation when the change needed is in them.

    My view on this were clarified when at a deanery synod we had a presentation by one of the deanery’s curates about the way she was operating a secular victim support scheme… The continuing propensity of the CofE to throw clergy at parishes where there is no significant congregation in an attempt to allow the bishops to claim that we are still the national church, whilst ignoring the potential of large parishes for growth is deeply flawed. In that context defending full time ministry comes across as defending a culpable waste of resources…

  14. Paul, it was a fascinating conference and lots of great insight. There are a whole load of observations that I could make (and probably will!).

    Some of these include the fact that this report (actually made up of 5-6 reports) hasn’t yet been to the house of Bishops because they haven’t given a space for it in their timetable!

    There is a real need (as Andreas Whittam-Smith said) to get evidence based research into the life-blood of the church.This is a good first start to all of this.

    There are some real time bombs for the church in this report and a need for the church to grapple with issues such as leadership, work with children and Fresh Expressions. The full reports on church planting and Fresh Expressions have loads of very useful and interesting research in them and I hope that the church engages with all of this.

  15. Enders (It would be REALLY nice to know your name!) There’s a few things to pick up here. First, if you don’t know what could you do all day, then you should ask them. Believe you me, there is plenty to keep us occupied!

    Secondly, you appear to equate the existence of full-time clergy with the congregation being passive. Of course, this can happen and often does, but it’s not necessary. Again, I think it’s worth remembering the effect of the charismatic renewal and the discovery of ‘every member ministry”.

    Thirdly, I think your configuration of the laypeople teaching each other in groups, and the clergy out preaching, a slightly odd. If full-time leaders are there to equip the people of God for works of service (the important idea both in the new Testament and certainly within the Anglican understandings of ministry) shouldn’t the clergy be teaching the laypeople, and that they people themselves doing the preaching?

  16. Will, thanks for the comment. I had missed that there was a conference launching the publication, though as I understood it is the publication was the main thing. But perhaps I’m mistaken?

    I am intrigued by your comment that there are a number of timebombs within the material. Would love you to say more!

    Yes, there is a real need to get evidence-based research into the life of the church… But shouldn’t this have been happening during the decade of evangelism?

  17. The conference was quite a major one put on in a hotel off Russell Square (and supported by the Church Commissioners). Andreas Whittam-Smith hosted the day and there were people from all over the country.

    Some of the time bombs are to do with teams and group ministries (without a specific leader they are declining badly), what sort of leaders we need(need leaders who can be flexible and open to ideas rather than the primarily pastoral teachers)etc etc

    They have now put up a load more of the presentations here:

  18. Hi Ian

    I’m not saying there’s not a lot ‘to keep [the clergy] occupied’ – I’m questioning the value of what they find to do. Similarly it’s not inevitable that full time ministry makes the congregation passive, but there’s a strong assumption that they will do the chaplaincy bit… Your original item was trying to claim the need for full time clergy on the basis of church history: I’m trying to demolish that claim by reference to the 18th century Methodist… And given the extraordinary success of the pattern of ‘the laypeople teaching each other in groups, and the clergy out preaching’, it seems like a mistake to reject it out of hand. Within living memory curates at Evangelical parishes were expected to do street preaching; it’s a shame that that’s disappeared from their training!

    But ultimately it boils down to ‘what is church’ and ‘what is discipleship’. In practice the church of England models both as being fulfilled by being bored silly in a hard pew on a Sunday morning – which of course is why ‘Fresh Expressions’ does offer new hope, whilst the concert quality entertainments at cathedrals allow people to fulfill that obligation somewhat less painfully. That the next generation has refused to succumb to believing that ‘this is all there is’ and dropped out should not be a surprise; that dioceses have wimped out of closing anything like enough churches to enable there to be a surplus beyond ‘keeping the show on the road’ for another year, has sown widespread contempt for the harmless pap that is served up Sunday by Sunday. A desperate search for ‘relevance’ and ‘respectability’ has led to an endorsement of every last progressive fad, to the point where we are now proposing to endorse homosexual relationships. If it wasn’t so sad, the sight of pontificating prelates prancing so inanely to the world’s tunes would be funny.

  19. Sure, but there is also the small question of ‘what is ordained ministry?’ I had to do a mission when I was training, and I think all ordinands now have to do modules on mission and evangelism. But having clergy street preaching seems to assume that they are all evangelists, doesn’t it?

    (and who are you??)

  20. “[A]ll ordinands now have to do modules on mission and evangelism”… LOL. The moment that evangelism is paired with ‘mission’ you should know you’re in trouble; evangelism is looking for people to become Christians because of active witness, whereas mission justifies almost anything.

    “what is ordained ministry?” It’s the authoritative leadership of the church. It’s the person with the right to say ‘This is what God is saying in this situation’. It’s a combination of having a gift of discernment with the recognition of the church; in that I’m following John Gunstone in ‘Charismatic Anglicans’, who argues that the real leader of any church is the one that says ‘This is what God is saying’, and everyone recognises that the person is right, whoever it is that wears the dog collar. And in that context ordination and stipendary status are only loosely related.

    Now in practice many who have those gifts for ordination also have an effective teaching ministry, and Paul recommends that such elders should have ‘double honour’. (cf 1 Tim 5). But the assumption that they MUST be good performers at the sharp end doesn’t seem to have a strong justification; bring on REAL OLMs, not the sacrament distributing deacons whose discernment I wouldn’t trust to tell me whether it’s morning or afternoon, that we tend to get.

  21. IN citing JOhn Gunstone you are distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic authority, which is important. But I don’t really see how that sits with your previous comments. If this is the person who is the leader, why should that person be itinerant and out preaching, rather than, as you say here, leading the congregation?

    I think your first paragraph is lapsing into cynicism…

  22. You’re losing sight of my original argument here – which was to challenge the claim that full time ministry has been necessary for church growth in church history. I’m suggesting that the real leadership of the early Methodist church was provided by the ‘laity’, with the itinerants providing ‘oversight’ at most, given their focus on evangelistic preaching and that they were only in a location for a relatively short period.

    I’ll admit to a charge of cynicism about what the CofE official structures provide – because it’s been my consistent experience that what is produced usually ranges from the ‘harmless’ to the downright toxic. This is actually inevitable given that ‘we are a broad church’, however the increasing admissions that gay relationships are being blessed on the sly does demonstrate the point.

    I was born in the vicarage of a conservative Evangelical in the days when we knew that the system disdained us – but at least we weren’t expected to give it money, and we were left alone. These days dioceses have accumulated far more power, have started doing things which are better done by organisations that actually believe something, and demand money despite being demonstrably untrustworthy. Yet evangelicals play the game, and seem surprised when they are proved to have been deceived once again. The CofE remains the least worst boat to fish from, but it’s getting hard to ignore the toxins to be found in the boat.

  23. I know that you’ve been focussing on Leadership in some of your recent posts.

    The other thing that comes crashing through the report is children and youth. The stats are chilling for those not putting real investment into children and youth – If I may post a link I’ve made a small summary here:

  24. The issue of children in church needs to be approached with great caution. To begin at the beginning: remember that correlation is not causation – the fact that churches with a significant children’s presence are growing does not mean

    1) that the emphasis on children is the cause of growth
    2) that the church is therefore healthy

    Local churches are well placed to tap into the very strong need of people to celebrate their children’s lives and to provide a communal space where parents can share the joys and challenges of child rearing. At its best such engagement can be the means through which people encounter God; at its worst the church comes to provide what is, in effect, a comfortable but ultimately god-free environment.

    IMNSHO the test for this is provided by the existence of the hard bit; are there teenagers coming along to worship, or do they drop out as soon as their parents will allow them to. To be a teenager is to challenge what you’ve grown up with and find out what’s real for you. The absence of teenagers in a church is a sign that their perception is that we’re faking it; at the very least it’s a sign that we not communicating effectively.

    The danger of the emphasis that the church has put on children’s work over the years and its relative effectiveness in getting people through the doors is that we assume all is well when that results in numbers being sustained; the reality however MAY be that we’re merely providing a comfortable social club. In that context teenagers provide a useful ‘canary in the mine’; if they’re absent, we have probably got a serious problem that our noisy ‘all age’ (except teenagers!) worship is conveniently hiding.

    The challenge for us is to provide a place where God can be known. The temptation for us is to provide a place to which people want to come because it’s comfortable to be there. The fact that many Mosques are heaving with large congregations needs to be dissected; if attendance is a sign of spiritual health, it’s long past the time when we should all become Muslims.


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