What is the future of ‘gathered’ church?

At the beginning of August, Jude Smith (who is team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds) wrote an intriguing and slightly pessimistic article on the challenges facing the idea of the gathered church meeting on a Sunday morning, and I have been pondering it over the last few weeks.

The context was the headlines about the financial challenges being faced by her diocese—but her observation was that there are deeper challenges we all face which are not to do with financial, but to do with the personal and social pressures that discourage regular, disciplined meeting together for worship (however we understand that). She sees the challenge in five main areas:

  1. The end of early retirement will mean fewer energetic volunteers with time to give to run things.
  2. Commitment to grandparenting, as families are increasing dual-occupation and dual-income because of financial pressures.
  3. Childolatry, where children are given what they want, and need to add skills to their CV to compete for places at university and in work.
  4. Shifts and gigs which means that work patterns for those in employment are more irregular.
  5. The death of practical skills means that we will need to call in the professionals.

I was struck by the article, since these are already measurable factors which have a visible impact on church attendance—but I don’t see many people actually engaging explicitly with these issues. And there is much to be said about them, both theologically and practically.


My most theological observation is that all of these are connected with a (mostly unnamed) ideology which has gripped our culture, one that I think is deeply inimical to the gospel. George Monbiot helpfully sheds light on it:

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007/8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

And if physical small group meetings are important, what are we doing with our strategies for online engagement? Alongside two kinds of small group meeting structure, where I am (at St Nic’s, Nottingham) we also ensure that the sermons are recorded and put online, so that those who are not physically there can still benefit from the preaching. It is the digital equivalent of delivering cassette tape recordings to the housebound (anyone remember doing that?). But I wonder what we should be doing to offer a more complete digital opportunity for support, discussion and reflection? There is a lot of theological discussion that goes on online—but how much intentional time and energy is invested in this by church leaders (lay and ordained)? If Jude Smith is right about the fragmentation of physical attendance, perhaps we should see this as a routine part of our pastoral ministry, rather than something extra and optional or the province of specialists.

For those unwilling to commit to regular Sunday gathering, we need to teach that it is part of commitment to Christ. But for those unable to attend regularly, we surely need to make provision for them to be fed, built up and encouraged in faith in other ways.


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44 thoughts on “What is the future of ‘gathered’ church?

  1. ‘But I wonder what we should be doing to offer a more complete digital opportunity for support, discussion and reflection? There is a lot of theological discussion that goes on online—but how much intentional time and energy is invested in this by church leaders (lay and ordained)? ‘

    In our situation – quite a bit and most of it mine! However, the issue for us – in a small church of around 40-50 on a Sunday, is engaging others from the church to create the discussion. I know some read faithfully, but no-one posts a comment, even in response to a question. And it’s not an age thing: our age profile is probably north of 50, but it was a young 50 yr old and active digital user who suggested at a recent PCC meeting that having a Facebook page would be a good idea … it’s been going for some five years!

  2. This is an interesting piece. A few observations:

    1. Truly counter-cultural Christianity will have to find ways of contradicting neoliberalism’s characterisation of people as commodities in competition. So everything that can be done to humanise every experience of church is important.

    2. This means that while putting on a good ‘show’ is important, it is much less important than offering a genuine welcome and we should never forget that.

    3. Online and streamed content should become normal for us, but I never hear any serious or extended discussion of the importance of human contact in a West that has a huge crisis of loneliness. Why are churches not known as the places where you never need be lonely any more? Why is visiting the sick or the housebound (or the the shy and lonely and anxious student) seen as unstrategic, time-consuming and “inefficient”? I think it will be part of a truly counter-cultural church that does what Jesus would do and which he can bless.

    4. I am part of a small(ish) team of professional musicians whose skills serve a large church. We are not dependent on a lot of technology (apart from electricity to power the organ) to produce what people listen to. We work closely together as a team and socialise together outside work. We know each other and feel part of each other’s lives. We have argued and sometimes fallen out. We have had members of the team we didn’t like. But we still spend a lot of time together each week and have to work through our difficulties. Our intense fellowship allows many others to come and worship without fearing the demand of a lot of engagement. The congregation also has a lot of people with pastoral skills – so there is a lot of I’m formal and unplanned pastoral care that goes on unseen, simply because people know how to do it and have the confidence to make contact with others to offer that care.

    Cathedrals are odd places. But are there some principles in here that could help churches that want to escape neoliberalism’s icy, deadly grip?

    • Thanks Jeremy, that’s very interesting. But isn’t there a paradox here, in cathedrals being a place of welcome where people don’t need to engage…? How do you prevent that becoming experiential consumerism?

      I am aware that there are many cathedrals who don’t appear to offer much by way of teaching and discipleship…

  3. The market does deliver some benefits that could never be achieved by planning! Is this really in question?

    I’m sure that free market economic theory and its over-application to political and social domains is responsible for some of the poor thinking and policy of the past 40 years. However, the serious problem of loneliness and the strain on our education and health systems have many other causes, not least the unprecedentedly high levels of immigration from some much poorer countries, and extraordinary levels of family breakdown, divorce, illegitimacy, fatherlessness and all the other toxic fallout of the sexual revolution and our culture’s failure to treat marriage and family as sacred. The collapse in religious engagement can’t have helped either.

  4. On ‘worshipping community’ as a measure of church engagement – I am not a fan because I think this is a vaguely defined quantity that can embrace people of widely varying levels of commitment to the church. For instance, children attending midweek children’s groups can be used to swell the numbers, but is this really what we mean by church membership?

    As always, it depends what you’re trying to measure, and how much you care about precision. I’m not entirely sure what worshipping community is trying to measure, but if I’m asking about how many members a church has I mean something like adults who attend regularly and give financially. Otherwise I’m not sure what I’m counting.

    • Hi Will,

      I couldn’t agree more. Surely, it doesn’t make sense to diagnose the church’s numerical decline by means of the annual “October count” (of average weekly and average Sunday attendance figures), only to assess the church’s recovery from decline by means of the more flattering ‘worshipping communities’ yardstick.

      Since 2012, when churches were first asked to record participation in their worshipping communities, this statistic has always been subsidiary to average weekly and usual Sunday attendance. It’s only in recent years, that ‘worshipping communities’ are being touted as a more accurate gauge of commitment (vs. participation) than ‘usual Sunday attendance’.

      Ian’s comparison of church participation in the UK with that in North Korea doesn’t really work because (to state the obvious) there’s so little similarity between a challenge like hostile State persecution abroad and our own ‘personal and social pressures that discourage regular, disciplined meeting together for worship’.

      The reason that the ‘worshipping communities’ statistic was introduced into Statistics for Mission (SfM) 2012 was that many churches were claiming that the fall in average weekly attendance was not reflected in a similar a decrease in other forms of regular church participation.

      In fact, the ‘worshipping communities’ question itself evolved from diocesan missioners who met back in 2011 to identify a different way of measuring their effectiveness in order to inform the life and mission of the church: http://community.dur.ac.uk/churchgrowth.research/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WigglesworthMAdissertation2.pdf

      Mark Wigglesworth who wrote this paper as an M.A. Dissertation cites the following example of how unreliable WC data can be:
      ‘The country church recorded a WC total of 449 in 2012 (I estimate that this is almost the population of the whole village) and only 30 in 2013, the recorded change (J – L) was -1. The uSa for this church was 19 in 2012 and 17 in 2013 and ER was 30 in each year.’

      This is why the 2016 Statistics for Mission report underscores the challenges of relying on ‘worshipping communities’ data with this remark:
      Keeping track of a church’s Worshipping Community is considerably more challenging than counting attendance at services, and not all churches are able to offer precise numbers. The accuracy of the data has improved as the concept has become more embedded as an aid to providing good pastoral care; this is an ongoing process, and therefore changes in a church’s Worshipping Community from year to year may reflect changes in record keeping rather than changes in worshippers. Thus, although the Worshipping Community is developing into an important measure of the number of regular Church of England worshippers, it has not been collected reliably for long enough to offer robust information about trends in church participation.’

      If, by their own admission, this kind of measurement does not offer robust information, then why should it be promoted as a more accurate gauge of commitment than the “October count”?

      • ‘Ian’s comparison of church participation in the UK with that in North Korea doesn’t really work because (to state the obvious) there’s so little similarity between a challenge like hostile State persecution abroad and our own ‘personal and social pressures that discourage regular, disciplined meeting together for worship’.’

        I am not suggesting that is the same in degree.

        But if you are right, then the social and cultural changes that Jude identifies would have no impact at all on a committed member. In other words, you are arguing that a committed person now would attend church just as often as an equally committed person did 30 years ago. Is that really credible?

        • But, I’m not arguing that the factors cited by Jude have no impact at all on Sunday attendance. Nor is it valid to infer from my position that I’m arguing that a committed person today would attend Sunday services just as frequently as an equally committed person back in 1988.

          Instead, I’m explaining that, as a measure of commitment, it makes sense to count attendance of ‘underground’ church activities, when that its public activities are so heavily censored, or even outlawed. In contrast, attendance of church activities, which are merely better at accommodating Jude’s five factors, cannot measure commitment any better than uSA.

          So, my position is that:
          1. without further detail, neither of these statistics (whether of Sunday or ‘worshipping communities’ attendance) can be a reliable gauge of commitment.
          2. Since commitment is so hard to gauge numerically, the purpose of assessing numerical growth should be understood from the related concerns expressed at the inception of Reform and Renewal 2015 (GS1976):
          ‘the urgency of the challenge facing us is not in doubt. Attendance at Church of England services has declined at an average of 1% per annum over recent decades and, in addition, the age profile of our membership has become significantly older than that of the population. Finances have been relatively stable, thanks to increased individual giving. This situation cannot, however, be expected to continue unless the decline in membership is reversed.’

          The report also mentions the added burden of church buildings contributing to the current financial situation, which is clearly unsustainable. It cannot be remedied by asserting that we’d be better off counting something other than uSA.

          In fact, I’d suggest that ‘worshipping communities’ can often represent activities that involve a far looser church affiliation than regular Sunday attendance. So, overall, the WC metric is actually worse at gauging commitment.

    • But Will (and David) see the comment of Jonathan Clark below:

      ‘I noticed a distinct change from 2015 to 2018 in my last parish: the usual Sunday attendance went down, largely because people were attending 2-3 times a month, not 3-4 as before. But the size of the “worshipping community” (at least using the provided C of E definition) went up quite significantly. ‘

      Unless you think that people attending 2-3 times rather than 3-4 times means that are no longer committed, or are significantly less committed, then USA is clearly not measuring what people think it is measuring.

      • Hi Ian

        I agree that uSa is not a very good measure of membership either, though it is at least pretty rigorous and clear.

        The problem is we want to count people (individuals) not heads on a Sunday.

        A colleague, who is currently working on the question of how we should count church members for the purpose of reporting to the Commissioners on a funded project (I have his draft paper on my desk but haven’t read it yet), used to count his own church members by seeing who attended at least monthly for six months. That gave him an accurate picture of how his church membership changed over time (and he kept track of why as well). I also think financial giving is an important measure of commitment. Those are the kind of measures we really need, but the difficulty is that collecting them is more tricky than doing a head count during a service.

      • Hi Ian,

        You mentioned the potential for uSA to be ‘measuring decline where there isn’t decline’.

        If during the annual October count, those whose attendance was formerly 3 – 4 times in that month decreases to 2 -3 times, then uSA will register that as a numerical decline.

        The same would be true of reducing visits to a worshipping community. It’s fine as a subsidiary measurement and I don’t think that anyone here is arguing for it to be discontinued.

        However, without further (and possibly intrusive) inquiry, there’s no attendance measurement can provide data that is granular enough to differentiate between thoroughgoing commitment and nominal attendance. As an extreme example, there are atheists who attend weekly cathedral services.

        Broadening the way in which attendance is measured doesn’t transform attendance stats into a better gauge of commitment.

        That’s why I disagree with the notion that because uSA is not an accurate measure of commitment, it’s a less accurate than the ‘worshipping communities’ way of counting.

        Whether you’re measuring usual Sunday attendance, or involvement elsewhere in bread-baking classes or Yoga sessions (with some kind of prayer in there, somewhere), you’re still counting bums on seats (…or mats).

      • Ian I agree with you here. We are living in an age where people are increasingly mobile, which means that their friends and relations often live some distance away. This means that people will go away for weekends much more often. This is not necessarily a sign less commitment.

        In this context the worshipping community should be better. However, there are anomalies in it perhaps the definition of worshipping community needs to be tightened up.

        • Hi Nick,

          As I explained above, no-one’s arguing for the ‘worshipping communities’ statistic to be discontinued. However, I would re-iterate that attendance stats of any kind do not measure commitment.

          Perhaps, David Keen’s useful insights about the parish system can shed some much-needed light here: http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-parish-system-game-over.html.

          He quoted from Anna Norman Walker’s presentation to the 2014 ‘Westminster Faith Debate’:
          “In the Diocese of Exeter we have 607 churches, many of which are listed. Over 200 of them attract less than 20 to Sunday services, and 124 attract less than 10.”

          He also described a similar situation in his own diocese (which we know is being repeated up and down the country):
          “Here in Bath and Wells we have just under 500 churches, 66 of these have 10 members or fewer, another 162 have 11-25.”

          So, after starkly describing how growth is penalised by an unsustainable increased imposition of parish share on thriving churches, he explained:
          ‘The only escape from the spiral is that a) the majority of churches in the Diocese start to grow instead of decline (in the latest stats I have, declining churches outnumbered growing churches by 6 to 1) b) we change the way the sums are calculated and collected (as many Dioceses are beginning to do) c) we find the ecclesiastical equivalent of George Osborne and do some serious austerity. Otherwise, in the words of the designer on Titanic ‘the ship will sink, it is a mathematical certainty’

          Last year, in my comment describing how dioceses are being affected by this spiral, I wrote:
          ‘Meanwhile, to cover the cost of training the encouraged influx of ordinands under Reform and Renewal, the Archbishops’ Council 2018 Budget forecasts eye-watering diocesan apportionment increases of 9.4% in 2019 and 11.1% in 2020 (compared to 9.3% over the past three years).

          This year, to keep this apportionment to affordable levels, the 2019 Archbishops’ Council budget capped increases at a maximum of 4.3%, principally by seeking alternative funding, including:
          a £2.0 million capital draw-down from the Church and Community Fund (which was originally set up to support community projects run by parish churches, deaneries and dioceses);
          a £0.5+ million intentional grant from the Corporation of the Church House (which was only possible after amending its Royal Charter)

          The phrase ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ comes to mind and the budget admits: The Council recognises that drawing capital from the CCF is not an indefinitely sustainable solution. If the increase in ordinands in training continues in line with aspirations (c.10% p.a) then the funding gap (temporarily plugged by capital drawdown) would likely grow to over £4.0 million in 2020 and £6.0 million in 2021.

          Such figures of a funding gap are clearly worrisome from a financial perspective, but it must be viewed in the context that the gap primarily exists because of the success seen in terms of growing the number of ordinands in training – an outcome that we must rejoice rather than lament.

          Work to determine an appropriate longer-term strategic funding solution is already underway and will gather pace over summer 2018 with the aim of implementing as part of the 2020 budget round.

          However much we may want to put a positive spin on this and to celebrate growth in the number of ordinands and ‘worshipping communities’ as the first ‘green shoots’ of recovery, there’s no evidence that such groups will make a significant contribution to the parish share in order to help plug the above-mentioned funding gap.

          For me, the last word goes to Rev. Richard Kellow, whose Church Times article provides a cursory lesson on the relative fragility of worshipping communities, which can be so easily de-funded, closed down and their membership re-directed to nearby parishes: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/11-may/comment/opinion/questions-for-fresh-expressions

        • Hi Nick,

          As I explained above, no-one’s arguing for the ‘worshipping communities’ statistic to be discontinued. However, I would re-iterate that attendance stats of any kind do not measure commitment.

          Perhaps, David Keen’s useful insights about the parish system can shed some much-needed light here: http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-parish-system-game-over.html.

          He quoted from Anna Norman Walker’s presentation to the 2014 ‘Westminster Faith Debate’:
          “In the Diocese of Exeter we have 607 churches, many of which are listed. Over 200 of them attract less than 20 to Sunday services, and 124 attract less than 10.”

          He also described a similar situation in his own diocese (which we know is being repeated up and down the country):
          “Here in Bath and Wells we have just under 500 churches, 66 of these have 10 members or fewer, another 162 have 11-25.”

          So, after starkly describing how growth is penalised by an unsustainable increased imposition of parish share on thriving churches, he explained:
          ‘The only escape from the spiral is that a) the majority of churches in the Diocese start to grow instead of decline (in the latest stats I have, declining churches outnumbered growing churches by 6 to 1) b) we change the way the sums are calculated and collected (as many Dioceses are beginning to do) c) we find the ecclesiastical equivalent of George Osborne and do some serious austerity. Otherwise, in the words of the designer on Titanic ‘the ship will sink, it is a mathematical certainty’

          Last year, in my comment describing how dioceses are being affected by this spiral, I wrote:
          ‘Meanwhile, to cover the cost of training the encouraged influx of ordinands under Reform and Renewal, the Archbishops’ Council 2018 Budget forecasts eye-watering diocesan apportionment increases of 9.4% in 2019 and 11.1% in 2020 (compared to 9.3% over the past three years).

          This year, to keep this apportionment to affordable levels, the 2019 Archbishops’ Council budget capped increases at a maximum of 4.3%, principally by seeking alternative funding, including:
          a £2.0 million capital draw-down from the Church and Community Fund (which was originally set up to support community projects run by parish churches, deaneries and dioceses);
          a £0.5+ million intentional grant from the Corporation of the Church House (which was only possible after amending its Royal Charter)

          The phrase ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ comes to mind and the budget admits: The Council recognises that drawing capital from the CCF is not an indefinitely sustainable solution. If the increase in ordinands in training continues in line with aspirations (c.10% p.a) then the funding gap (temporarily plugged by capital drawdown) would likely grow to over £4.0 million in 2020 and £6.0 million in 2021.

          Such figures of a funding gap are clearly worrisome from a financial perspective, but it must be viewed in the context that the gap primarily exists because of the success seen in terms of growing the number of ordinands in training – an outcome that we must rejoice rather than lament.

          Work to determine an appropriate longer-term strategic funding solution is already underway and will gather pace over summer 2018 with the aim of implementing as part of the 2020 budget round.

          However much we may want to put a positive spin on this and to celebrate growth in the number of ordinands and ‘worshipping communities’ as the first ‘green shoots’ of recovery, there’s no evidence that such groups will make a significant contribution to the parish share in order to help plug the above-mentioned funding gap.

  5. A key question here is: What is church? Many would see it as the gathering. Church is somewhere you “go”. But surely the New Testament sees it as more of a family, something you belong to. Family gatherings are an important expression of that, but not what defines a family.

    Rather a family is more of a network of relationships rooted in a shared identity. If this is the case then strengthening the church is not just about what happens at the Sunday gathering, but how relationships are built and strengthened in other contexts as well. That could and should include mid-week meetings, visiting and through the internet.

    If we see church as primarily the Sunday gathering then people will engage with it either as consumers looking for an individalistic spiritual uplift or as workers trying to create an event that will keep people coming and draw them in. Neither of these identities really reflects the idea of church as family.

    Also when it comes to measuring the strength of the church then seeing the church as a family network will mean using the new analysis being developed as network science to measure its strength rather than simply the number of people who turn up either weekly or ‘weakly’ (i.e. occasionally).

  6. “3. Childolatry, where children are given what they want, and need to add skills to their CV to compete for places at university and in work.”

    This is a particularly unhelpful observation.

    To start with, it considers the needs of children from ages 0-18 broadly similar, when in truth the range of needs and desires for people in that age range are massively more varied than between, say, 25-70. At 30 I have far more in common with people twice my age than I do with people half it, and that’s factoring in my professional career as a Children’s and Youth worker who probably should be ‘down with the kids’ at least a little more than average, Yo. 😉

    Second, by the time children/young people are considering skills and/or future they will largely be of sufficient maturity to make such decisions themselves. If they aren’t, they should be. While I cannot support it with data, my clear observation is that youth (in the 11-18 band) actively choose not to go to church based on their enjoyment and involvement of/with it, irrespective of what they ultimately replace it with… If they do something else, fine, but I have never known a young person feel the need to genuinely weigh their desire to attend church against a competing extra-curricular activity. The latter usually provides the excuse, post-fact, rather than the preceding motivation, however their parents may choose to rationalise it.

    Third, while I understand the point being made with the word, I don’t think equating a persons’ desire to see their children achieve with idolatry is a fair one. This whole issue would be addressed far more readily if we put less blame on the parents.

    After all, surely we should be looking at church as part of that added skill-set for life, rather than an unhelpful competitor? We encourage our young people to take lead roles in our services, to run the sound and PA system, and to participate in worship (and I do mean the 11/12 years olds as much as the older ones).

    • Hi Mat…

      That sounds a slightly (if you’ll forgive) odd understanding of ‘church’. Surely it’s not ‘part’ or a skill set despite the practical skills it might involve. It’s who-I-am in Jesus. A belonging to the whole Body of Christ and engaging with them in his new life. Shouldn’t that frame / direct time and energy for every Christian. Putting that second is idolatry. If someone doesn’t want to join with other Christians and is easily diverted by another agenda doesn’t that raise questions about holiness?

      Pressures maybe different in this decade but pressure itself is certainly not new. I’m delighted that I know young people who willingly and joyfully commit to worship and serve on a Sunday morning when there are other things they could be doing. Parents sometimes do set the bar of their example too low and that passes on down the generations like DNA.

      • Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or you’re misunderstood me. I don’t think that skills should define what a church is either. 😉

        The point I was making is that the author of the 5 points at the start of Ian’s article clearly seems to think that the need for skills in young people was a competing factor over and against attending church. My contention is that this is a false conflict, as it views church as adding nothing of worthwhile value in comparison to secular alternatives. My suggestion was simply that we reverse this idea, and see church (at least in part!) as something nessecary to personal growth.

  7. This is a minor comment, but I’m not sure that small mid-week groups were “discovered in large part by the charismatic movement”. In the early 70s when I was a student, mid-week bible studies in small groups were already well established in that context. When a research student, I helped with a youth group (not at a charismatic church) which had meetings which alternated between large central meetings and smaller groups in peoples homes. Again, this had been the case for a number of years. Perhaps small groups have their roots more among evangelical students, who then took this out into churches.

    If I’m right, this then places such groups definitely in an educated, middle class context. (I guess an origin in a charismatic context would be the same – charismatics are middle-class pentecostals) I recall talking with a Methodist minister based in Yorkshire. In his context, the idea of people meeting in each others’ homes was not part of the culture at all. So, his attempts to start them were not successful.

    However, I would agree that such small groups are a vital part of Church life, a place where individuals can be known and be nurtured. I agree that much more thought and effort needs to be put in to see how they can be developed.

    • I’d agree David.

      Back in the late 60s when I was converted (a word I think we ought to hear more of) the church in which it happened had long established small groups for study, prayer and fellowship. It’s how I ‘learned’ to pray and developed an understanding/belief that groups should be cross generational and not age-ghettos.

      A church which I led had built in the 50 or maybe 60s a hall with a main central space and room around the edge for smaller groups. So I think small groups are deeply rooted in the Cof E evangelical sector at least.

  8. Jude Smith sees challenges in 5 main areas. Yes, one connecting theme is neoliberalism. But another connecting theme is denominationalism – the unspoken (same word again) doctrine of most Protestant churches that it is normal, and natural, and healthy, to have lots of unrelated congregations in the same physical town, each writing its own plan and program with little reference to what the others might be doing. So that instead of 30 or 40 useful projects to share the gospel and serve our community, we have 15 or 20 useful projects *per church*, so 300 or 400 in a single locality. No wonder the available volunteers get exhausted.

  9. Thank you for another helpful article Ian. Re. Neo-liberalism I have just finished Lesslie Newbiggin’s ‘Unfinished Agenda’ and recall that whilst discussing the Birmingham schools’ RE curriculum in the 80’s he argued unsuccessfully that if Communism was to be included – an idea which he supported – then so too should capitalism.

  10. Helpful material and responses to chew on.

    I noticed a distinct change from 2015 to 2018 in my last parish: the usual Sunday attendance went down, largely because people were attending 2-3 times a month, not 3-4 as before. But the size of the “worshipping community” (at least using the provided C of E definition) went up quite significantly. I’ve now just started in an LEP setting where there is a formal membership policy (as opposed to the Electoral Roll which is mandated on C of E churches), where people have to state that they want to grow with Jesus, will pray, and attend worship and give regularly. That seems a pretty good basis for measurement, and allows us to know *intent* to give, even if we leaders won’t (and shouldn’t) know who *actually* is. But that doesn’t help the C of E church which has to work with the Electoral Roll system, and I know of only about one that goes further than that with a membership system on top.

    • Thanks Jonathan. Your experience demonstrates that counting USA means measuring decline where there isn’t decline…not at least of that sort. But this also raises direct practical issues: if you have a sermon series running from one week to the next, how does that work when you know people won’t be there weekly?

  11. Neoliberalism has created a culture of individual being the most important unit. This is characterised by Margaret Thatcher’s statement – “there is no such thing as society”. If you look at the effect on church you find more people looking for “the perfect church” one that agrees with their views or tastes. This has perhaps led to a commuting church culture and the proliferation of new independent churches that we have seen and the decline of the local church as the place for everyone.

    Alternatively you could look at that change and see it as the result of a local church that fossilised and did not “proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation” .

    If you have a church of older people (or any other demographic) and you ask them do they want to change they tend to say ‘no we like it as it is that is why we come here’ rather than say ‘we like this, but we recognise we need to change to reach out to a wider group of people’. The first response is the individualistic one, the second is the societal one.

    I realise this is putting forward the extremes here and that in most places there are between these extremes, but perhaps shows how the neoliberalist ideas have infused into our thinking.

    • Hi Nick,

      I’m no fan of Margaret T but I think the quotation is almost always taken out of context. I believe it’s about taking personal responsibility and not simply expecting ‘society’ to do it. Society doesn’t exist outside of ‘us’.

      • If I have taken the quote out of context then i apologise. It is still true that neoliberalism has put forward an individual centred world view. Hence, higher education is for the benefit of the individual, not society at large that needs Doctors and Engineers for our society to function, hence tuition fees.

        • No apology needed Nick! It’s more that not everything can be laid at Maggies door. There maybe enough there already 🙂

  12. This is a stimulating article. Four points, some of them in response to the comments: 1) I’m sorry to hear that Ian thinks coffee is a compulsory part of church attendance (ha ha). 2) And if we dislike the concept of “competition”, how do we react to people who turn up at our services because they’re discontented with their previous/current church? Do we gently suggest that a bit of loyalty to their “family” is a virtue? 3) The concept of church as “family” seems to me to be in decline, and being replaced by church as “organised (loving) army with a mission”. Families have worldviews, but not missions. 4) Finally, it is a sad fact that many people find churches lonely places to be. PS Ian, we know you love Revelation, but the most essential book of the NT??

  13. Another very useful contribution Ian. My reaction is what should we do? Is Messy Church an answer or a distraction ? I have just completed a confromation group and I am not convinced that the imperative of Christian Discipleship got through to them.

  14. Interesting article. Raises great questions on what’s truly the function of church and how best to be church. On the antagonistic nature of modern culture I agree with your thought about the relevance of Revelation. Also found the TED talk by F S Michaels on the economically based prevailing meta narrative very illuminating (her book is similarly interesting)

  15. Ian, you wrote this:
    “If evangelism means calling people to ‘repent and believe’, then we are inviting people to turn to Jesus by turning from whatever has dominated and controlled their lives up till now. We are inviting them to proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’ over against any other ideology or commitment.”

    The key to the question that arise to me is YBH – Yes, But, How?

    The way is not to focus on “turning from” but who people are to turn to, Jesus and all his Glory, is it not? Jesus is Better. Having everything in life without Jesus is to have nothing. Having Jesus but nothing else is to have everything.

    The following are Gospel Coalition abstracts from Dr Sinclair Ferguson book “The Whole Christ” looking at repentance, legalism and antinomianism (there’s much more in the book.) a book well recommended widely.

    “Christ should be presented in all the fullness of his person and work; faith then directly grasps the mercy of God in him, and as it does so the life of repentance is inaugurated as its fruit.” (101)

    “At the end of the day we cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically. The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly. For this reason, in the New Testament either term may be used when both dimensions are implied; and the order in which they are used may vary. But in the order of nature, in terms of the inner logic of the gospel and the way its ‘grammar’ functions, repentance can never be said to precede faith. It cannot take place outside of the context of faith.” (104)

    “Faith will always be penitent; repentance will always be believing if genuine.” (104 n. 17)

    “Grace rules out all qualifications by definition. Grace therefore eliminates boasting; it suffocates boasting; it silences any and all negotiations about our contribution before they can even begin. By definition we cannot ‘qualify’ for grace in any way, by any means, or through any action. Thus it’s understanding God’s grace—that is to say, understanding God himself—that demolishes legalism. Grace highlights legalism’s bankruptcy and shows that it’s not only useless; it’s pointless; its life breath is smothered out of it.” (110)

    “There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It’s the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself.” (157)

    “Antinomianism may be couched in doctrinal and theological terms, but it both betrays and masks the heart’s distaste for absolute divine obligation, or duty. That is why the doctrinal explanation is only part of the battle. We are grappling with something much more elusive, the spirit of an individual, an instinct, a sinful temperamental bent, a subtle divorce of duty and delight. This requires diligent and loving pastoral care and especially faithful, union-with-Christ, full unfolding of the Word of God so that the gospel dissolves the stubborn legality in our spirits.” (161)

    “Divine indicatives give rise to divine imperatives. This is the Bible’s underlying grammar. Grace, in this sense, always gives rise to obligation, duty, and law.” (168)

    “Commandments are the railroad tracks on which the life empowered by the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit runs. Love empowers the engine; law guides the direction. They are mutually interdependent. The notion that love can operate apart from law is a figment of the imagination. It’s not only bad theology; it’s poor psychology. It has to borrow from law to give eyes to love. . . . Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Saviour severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for us.” (168–169, 173)

    “Divine indicatives give rise to divine imperatives. This is the Bible’s underlying grammar. Grace, in this sense, always gives rise to obligation, duty, and law.” (168)

    “Commandments are the railroad tracks on which the life empowered by the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit runs. Love empowers the engine; law guides the direction. They are mutually interdependent. The notion that love can operate apart from law is a figment of the imagination. It’s not only bad theology; it’s poor psychology. It has to borrow from law to give eyes to love. . . . Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Savior severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for us.” (168–169, 173)

    My view is that when the focus moves from both the caught and taught aspects of Gospel of Jesus (Keller frequently proposes that the Gospel isn’t just the kick- start of the Christian life but is the A-Z of Christianity, and at the centre of all preaching to grow, to sanctify us in Christ) to a focus in church on anything but, which amounts to idolatry, putting the distractions, other loves, first, as a matter of personal preference, choice That is a personal, individualistic, and theological place where disillusion, discouragement, and a dousing of a flame of faith starts and continues, the opposite of the fanning of the flame.
    Why would I attend church, if not to participate in the worship of our Supreme and Superb Triune God. At any service where that doesn’t happen, I’d rather be somewhere else, and I feel cheated, not fed or watered, nourished.
    It also may be worth recalling that not only is Sunday Sabbath in Christianity a day of rest, it is also Resurrection day, every Sunday, where we can rest joyously,(paradoxically even in, or through , times of trouble) in the finished work of Christ.
    But, non of this is practical, will come the criticism. I’d suggest that the Church can be no earthly good unless it is so heavenly minded, including end-game, book of Revelation, minded

  16. Ian I read your blog as a no-ordained, non theology professional as i really enjoy being stimulated in my thinking.

    With regard to small groups, I understood ever since my conversion 40 years ago that they were simply a re-invention of the methodist class system. I was therefore surprised to hear of a Methodist minister unable to introduce them.

    Increasingly I see my church attendance as something I do through a variety of avenues. Like many converted 40+ years ago I understood being a Christian involved 2 services on a Sunday followed by a youth group, a Wednesday taught session/prayer meeting and a Home Group. The result was that I lost touch with every single non-Christian contact but became a part of the church. The Home Group covered all ages and we and another couple were “mentored” by some of the most godly people I have ever met. For a number of reasons I do not have access to a small group at present but this would be where I see myself gaining support for my Christian walk, personal challenge from people I trust and opportunity to worship in a practical fashion. Sunday morning is time to go cycling either on my own or with friends and becomes a time of witness and discussion. Quiet Sunday evening services where i can relax and unwind in contemplation are for me the service I look for. I certainly would not suggest that we should stop meeting together but Sunday morning for me is no longer THE MEETING.

    Worship I was always taught and understood was a whole of life event. Worship was what I did when i woke up, did my quiet time, helped the old lady on the bus, gave directions to the lost, did my work better than i needed to do, sought to bring peace at work whilst also standing for equality and justice, through not shouting at the children, creating love with my wife and finally sleeping. Yet every time I go to Sunday morning service (not lead by my wife) I hear Worship being limited to the time between 10:00 and 11:00 and usually even more specifically to the three or four episodes of listening to the professional musicians. I personally would remove from leadership every single church leader who ever used the phrase “Let us stand to worship”. No wonder most church attenders see no reason why their Sunday attendance is of any relevance to their weekday life, you have taught them that worship is for short periods on a Sunday morning! I believe that in part you (plural leaders) are reaping what you have sown for so long.

    I would suggest that a church which has a USA of 30 and a worshipping number of 400 has too much going on run by too few volunteers. When my wife and I ran a secondary school age appropriate teaching meeting on a Sunday morning, every member of staff was expected to take a sabbatical after 2 years on the team and had to formally sign up for the second year. Why do we allow Sunday school teachers and other volunteers to do the same job for 40 years? Usually with no ongoing training and frequently badly!

    I cannot remember who said that a persons wallet was the last part to be converted but it is very true. A senior diocesan figure said recently they would leave any church that talked about giving and tithing – despite the biblical centrality of giving. I would argue that if people are not giving somewhere between 5 and 10% of income (pre or post tax) to the church then they are not committed members of the church. Such giving requires a change of spiritual and mental allegiance which practically demonstrates that Jesus is Best and in my view counts as works of repentance. For myself discussing this with the older couples in our first Home group who were certainly not rich and with my parents-in-law was a solid grounding in the importance of tithing as a spiritual discipline and demonstration of allegiance. At that time the teaching in its strict form would have been 10% before tax!

  17. I have wondered how the church functioned when it first moved into Europe from its Jewish roots. I presume that society didn’t function on a 7-day week basis with some sort of ‘Sabbath’. I recall that in Ephesus Paul used to debate each day in the school of Tyrannus. The ‘church in the house’ flags up a few times in the letters too. They seemed to have something organic going on rather than something religiously liturgical. My Millennial friend, who often works overseas and who attends a thriving city church, says his main source of church life is the small group and not the Sunday services.

    • Hi Peter,
      You beat me to this kind of comment. The pattern of church life prior to Constantine must have been very different from that enabled by Christendom which declared the first day of the week (i.e. not the seventh or sabbath) to be the day of rest, and the official nature of Christianity enabled groups to meet in large buildings based on the basilicas of the Roman empire.

      It is very likely that people met in groups in a house, probably that of a wealthier member of the congregation. Such a house would have a central courtyard suitable for meeting. In studying 1 Corinthians recently, commentators reckon that church had at most 40 members, being the number which could fit in such a dwelling.

      It does seem that the shift from the seventh, following the pattern of the synagogue, to the first day of the week was early on, c.f. Acts 20.7, 1 Cor 16.2 and (perhaps) Rev 1.10. (The “Lord’s Day Observance Society” is correctly named).

      I would suggest that from the NT we know that they ate together as well as celebrating the eucharist. They sang and edified each other. There were apostles, prophets, teachers and pastors providing discipleship.

      Perhaps the important point is that all this was done without the offical “day of rest” which the government enforced. This meeting together had to fit in with whatever work and business the church members did. And this in a context where most business required participation to an extent in pagen temple rituals, and so Christians (called “atheists” for rejecting the pantheon) tended to be isolated from economic life.

      • What better justification not to dismiss new creative models of church out of hand. These are fast changing times. Whether we like that or not does not matter.

        We must look for the ways to proclaim the gospel to a new generation. That fits with the constraints on the time of the people we seek to bring into the kingdom. If our society requires them to work on Sunday morning we must work round that. If this means the Sunday morning service is an anachronism so be it.

  18. If I might add a few comments to the ‘childolatry’ thread…

    A while back, I knew someone who was a social science researcher, looking at why fecundity in Italy was so low (the lowest in the world, I think, at 1.3 children per woman). His finding was not that Italians did not like children, it was the reverse, they doted on them. However, this meant that to have a child was very expensive because of all that was lavished on them. Thus, many couples could only afford to have one little darling. That it getting close to ‘childolatry.’

    Half a century ago, when I was young, if a child said “I want X”, the parent would say “‘I want’ doesn’t get.” Do you hear that nowadays? “I want” is the core expression of consumer capitalism, the handmaid of neoliberalism. To deny people their desires is to go against the whole zeitgeist.

    Mat asks if it wrong for parents to want to see their children achieve. However, that raises the important question of the nature of achievement. Is success seen in terms of passing exams so you can get to a good university so that you can get a good job which pays lots of money? That would be the assumption of many of the middle-class parents (who are those the original article cites as suffering from childolatry). Is education about “skill-sets” for the job market? Or is it about creating rounded people, of good character.

    Which of these is more successful, the merchant banker on a huge salary, who sees himself as a ‘master of the universe’ but does not have any real relationship with his children, or the subsistence farmer in Africa, who shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.?

    We need to recognise how the habits of mind and assumptions of the rich western world are actually deeply inimical to the Gospel. The problem is that most of us are so atuned to the ways of the world that this recognition is very hard.

  19. This article covers so much that it is difficult to know how to comment.
    The Guardian recently published an article about Parkrun (and other innovations) (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/29/forget-profit-love-fun-innovation-parkrun).
    This paragraph seemed relevant:
    “It is the new church,” says Karen Weir, who started the Richmond parkrun in 2006. The former City management consultant would give up 10 hours a week just to ensure Saturdays went smoothly for everyone else. “The idea of the community has broken down. People don’t go to church any more. But here, you come together with a load of people – and you feel embedded in the local area.”
    Parkrun is the new church. Discuss.

  20. All those who weren’t constrained to take part by virtue of their role, but had better things to do, people to see, places to go, so that they were not part of the worshipping body of Christ today, now is the time to confess.

  21. There is another aspect that appears to have been overlooked or discounted in the imperial, sovereign-individualism of the West: it is where we are joined together in worship with others at the same/similar times, on the same day, in different places and even in different, denominations and countries. We tend to look at it from our perspective, not God’s as he looks and sees those :
    “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25 NASB
    None of this is to negate, house groups, nor worship as part of everyday living out our faith. House group, midweek, while being a climate for growth and discipleship, can, however , foster a superiority in those who belong (more spiritual), and those who don’t.
    CS Lewis is instructive, as he often is , in the Screwtape Letters.

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