What might church growth look like post-Christendom?

John Bavington writes:

“Our current system is perfectly designed to see the results we are currently achieving” (Alan Hirsch)

My word for the year is “anti-clericalism”

I was trained for Anglican ministry in the late 1990’s, George Carey’s ‘Decade of Evangelism’. Lots of people were talking about “Church Growth” and “Healthy Churches” and moving from “maintenance to mission”. Parishes began to engage in “Mission Action Planning”, and HTB had begun to get serious about “church planting”—following the example of the many new church networks that seemed to be growing everywhere and attracting lively ex-Anglicans.

For many years my idea of church growth could be summed up by the word “addition”. I hoped that each year we would add new members to our church and in that way our church would grow. Of course, the new members would need to be more than the number we lost each year through bereavement, population mobility or backsliding.

Looking back now, I think I took it as a given fact that most of that growth would come through the activities of the clergy or staff. I would have been horrified if someone accused me of expecting everyone else to “turn up, pay up and shut up”, but in truth I expected little more of most church members, except a few who might become small group or Sunday school leaders, or assist a staff member on the Alpha Course.

And then, in 2017, I attended the Launch Conference, hosted by Anthony Delaney of Ivy Church in Manchester. There I heard Dave Ferguson speak, and my understanding of what was needed from me as a church leader was completely transformed. In the last few years, through engaging with the thinking of Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways, 5Q, and other titles), Neil Coles (Rising Tides), Dave Ferguson (Exponential, and the whole “New Thing” movement), Stuart Murray-Williams (Post-Christendom) and others, I feel like the scales are being ripped from my eyes to enable me to begin to imagine a different model for church, a movement-orientated model, able to thrive in a post-Christendom world.

The heart of the challenge is this: What would it look like for me to stop thinking in terms of growth by ‘addition’ and start thinking in terms of growth by ‘multiplication’? The maths is telling.

Suppose I set myself a fairly modest target: Suppose I decided to start a church, and spent a year helping one other person to become a disciple of Jesus, and training them to help another person to become a disciple of Jesus. At the end of the year there would be two of us in our little “church”. In the second year, we both train one other person. At the end of two years there are four of us. At the end of five years there are thirty-two. Up to this point, a fairly modest level of growth. But this is where exponential thinking becomes interesting, because these are 32 passionate disciples who see their raison d’etre as bringing in new disciples. So, as you keep doubling the numbers they grow, well…exponentially.

2 —> 4 —> 8 —> 16 —> 32 —> 64 —> 128 —> 256 —> 612 —> 1024

If it could be done, and not allowing for those other factors mentioned earlier (bereavement, population mobility and backsliding), at the end of ten years you would have over a thousand members of your church! And you can do your own calculations for the next five years! (You would reach the world population in 33 years!)

Of course, there are factors which mitigate against being able to achieve in real life what the model predicts in theory. For example, not every discipling story will be a “success” in the terms laid out here. And there is the challenge of establishing and evolving church structures to accompany and support such rapid growth. On the other side of the coin one able person could seek to train more than one other disciple, and we are not starting with just two of us! If thinking about ‘multiplication’ growth can bring even a quarter of the numbers in the chart, we’d be making good progress.

“Don’t measure your seating capacity, measure your sending capacity” Dave Ferguson

This movement way of thinking involves thinking about multiplication at all levels. In 2 Tim 2:2 we read Paul saying

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

Here we find four generations of discipleship mentioned.

Paul —> Timothy —> Reliable people —> Others

 So we now talk about the 2 Tim 2:2 multiplication principle:

  • Disciples who make disciples who make disciples
  • Therefore leaders who raise up leaders who raise up leaders
  • Therefore churches that plant churches that plant churches

This is the language at the heart of the work Bishop Ric Thorpe is doing with the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication, and the whole C of E Strategic Development Funding (SDF). I think the SDF support is helpful, and I have to admit an interest, as our church is a (relatively small scale) beneficiary. But I also think one issue with the funding is that it creates the impression that we couldn’t turn the situation around without it, or that there’s nothing that churches can do about growth unless they have this external resource.

That’s paid church leaders talking. I am a stipendiary member of the clergy, very comfortably paid, with a lovely house and a pension. The deepest personal challenge to me (and by extension my family) comes from the knowledge that the most effective church leader and planter in history, Paul of Tarsus, was (for much of his ministry) a non-stipendiary minister.

As mentioned earlier, church planting has been on the agenda for a long time, but in inner-city Bradford where I minister, it is difficult to imagine that we could plant a network of churches which would all be led by a full-time paid minister. In fact, in the discipleship multiplication model outlined above, if my goal is simply to raise up another disciple by reading the Bible and praying with them, I can do that while holding down a full-time secular job. At what point in the model do we need the other tasks that fill the diary of a full-time minister? At what point do we need a place to meet larger than a standard living room?

Christendom is over and we have yet to get used to the fact

Stuart Murray Williams, in Post-Christendom describes the seven transitions the church will make in a post-Christendom world. I think many church leaders will be aware of them, whether we’re comfortable with them or not. But his seventh transition (“static institution to dynamic movement”) has really caught my imagination in recent years. The Church of England is rarely described in dynamic terms! What does it take for the church to transition from a static, institutionalised ecclesiology to a dynamic, movement-orientated way of thinking and being?

The key word in all of this, for me, is anti-clericalism. As an ordained leader, I must become less, the people of God (the body of Christ) must become more. “For the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, but it must not be so with you… The greatest among you will be the servant of all.” This is not to overthrow the Anglican “three-fold order” of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, it is simply to re-orientate it away from the Christendom model we have got too used to. The old model saw “promotion” as the receiving of greater authority. The bishop as “prince in his diocese”. But that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the words of Jesus just quoted.

It’s not that we don’t understand that we are to be servants. It’s more that I think we don’t understand what a servant really does. We say that “we serve by teaching”, “we serve by pastoring”, “we serve by leading”. There’s truth in that. But it misses the real meaning of servanthood. I grew up in Pakistan, in a house with servants. Having an above-average income, my parents employed servants as a form of job creation scheme. The servants were employed because of particular skills (such as cooking and cleaning), but my parents also had the capability to cook and clean. The real value of having servants was to enable them to carry out their own roles more effectively.

We (clergy) are used to getting value and self-worth from “doing our job well”, by which we might mean preaching, or taking a funeral, or making a pastoral visit, or leading a church council meeting (and more). What if the primary question for me as ‘minister’ (= ‘servant’) was actually the number of church members I properly equip to minister according to the grace given them (Eph 4:13)?

The issue of clericalism is recognised in multiple Church of England reports over the decades, and most recently in “Setting God’s People Free” (2017), which called for a cultural shift in the way we think about ‘clergy’ and ‘lay people’.  But there is a heavy cultural anchor tied around these terms. Re-reading the report I am struck by how complex the solutions appear—when what is needed is solutions which can be easily grasped and shared, simple but not simplistic. This is what I feel the Exponential movement has given me.

Somewhere at the heart of all this is Ephesians 4

He gave some to be Apostles, some to be Prophets, some to be Evangelists, some to be Shepherds and Teachers, to equip God’s people for works of service… From Christ the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph 4:11, 16).

This fivefold model is what Alan Hirsch describes as “APEST”.

When we say “ministry”, Alan Hirsch challenges us also to ask “which ministry?” If Jesus has given some of his people grace to be apostolic (missionary, entrepreneurial, stretching the boundaries), and some the grace to be pastors (shepherds, tending and guiding), their ministries will look quite different from each other. Yet we have tended to treat “ministry” as if it were one thing, which is one reason the term “Lay Reader” has so struggled for definition in recent years. And under the Christendom model we have tended to treat (and select and train for) “ordained ministry” as if it were all pastoring and teaching.

For this reason, in our church in Bradford (with about 200 adults and children) we are experimenting with a new leadership structure which places this five-fold model of ministry at its heart.

 AgendaKey Question:Frequency
PCCFabric and FinanceIs all being done well?Quarterly
Core teamVision and ValuesWhere are we going?Monthly
Leadership forumMinistry and MissionWhat shall we do?Monthly
Staff teamDiary and DetailsHow do we make it work?Weekly

Core Team: Five people who corporately share the vicar’s role of seeking God for the vision and DNA of our calling. Each of the five is responsible for leading and training in one of the five APEST areas of ministry. All five are established leaders (two clergy, two readers and one other lay person).

Leaders Forum: Everyone with a leadership role of any kind – Core Team, PCC members, staff, small group leaders, Sunday school leaders, trainee leaders, etc. I invited about 40 people to the first forum, just before lockdown. The leaders’ forum is a great place to thrash out questions of ministry and mission in the light of the vision, and to find a common language for what we believe we are all about.

PCC: members are part of the forum, and PCC continues to function as the trustees for the church, holding everyone to account as necessary, and directly overseeing fabric and finance, but only meeting four times a year.

Staff Team: focuses on planning and programmes.

Why does this matter? Because releasing the people of God into ministry includes both the clergy sharing their authority, and the church establishing new structures which properly equip the people according to the grace God has given each one. I feel excited that we are embarking on a new adventure, but I do find that the inherited model of church is so ingrained in me that breaking free from the gravity of the past is proving a surprising challenge. Please pray for us.

John Bavington is vicar of St John’s Great Horton and St Wilfrid’s Lidget Green and Area Dean of Inner Bradford in West Yorkshire. He is married to Jeanie Allen and they have four boys. John loves curry and cricket and Crystal Palace FC.

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10 thoughts on “What might church growth look like post-Christendom?”

  1. John, I don’t think you should beat yourself up for your relatively secure financial circumstances in comparison to those of St Paul. After all the biblical narrative is often recorded specifically because of the exceptional happenings it speaks of rather than any intention to define a blueprint for our present circumstances. Above all, it seems to say that God’s people need to be entrepreneurial in the way they go about things. That’s to say, they’re likely to be energetic and on the move mentally, and quite often physically too – when God told Abraham to go, he went (and so did Moses after a bit of haggling!). In that sense Christians will tend to be restless people, judging themselves, looking to do things better, open to new ideas, downcast but not defeated when things go pear shaped. You might sum it up as being ready to learn both from your successes and your failures. Your piece suggests to me that you fit that bill rather well!

    On the other hand there are solid things to hang on to: we have an identity as Christians and we need to be attached at least to the good roots that we have. St Paul clearly knew his Old Testament backwards and he obviously delighted in joining up all those exploits of God’s people from centuries earlier, and quotations from the Psalms and the prophets, to the radical new gospel which fired his missionary travels and permeated his letters. Some aspects of our CofE roots may drive us mad at times but there’s still much there to make us grateful (and to fight to save it); we don’t always appreciate what we’ve got until it’s gone! Perhaps a smidgen of ‘the gravity of the past’ can still serve you well?

    I can see that clericalism is not a good reason for being ordained. And certainly, while respect and support is to be hoped for, deference diminishes relationship. On the other hand, speaking as a lay person, I think that churches do need strong and decisive leadership; the absence of it really does knock confidence, and confidence would seem to be especially needed in churches today. So, whatever tweaks and innovations you make within the system in which you are placed, I should say that it is in the area of relationships with the people in your church that success or failure lies. Somehow or other you have to be strong but approachable, focused but flexible, determined but relaxed. It’s not easy is it!

    I really hope your new ideas bear the fruit you long to see. Thank you for sharing your thoughts; you’ll have to report back in due course!

  2. It’s refreshing to read such a refreshingly optimistic and intentional approach to church growth. This positive mindset should be encouraged and should never be stifled.

    In response to a previous post on church growth, I referred to John Hayward’s mathematical paper, A General Model of Church Growth and Decline, reveals that one of the authentic correlates of church growth is the number of “enthusiasts” in any congregation.

    He wrote:
    “It is proposed that only a subset of the church, the enthusiasts, are involved in the recruitment process, and only for a limited period of time after their conversion. It is found that the church reaches equilibrium in its proportion of society according to the potential of these enthusiasts to reproduce themselves, and the losses from the church. If this reproduction potential is below a threshold that depends on losses, then extinction occurs. If it is above a higher threshold, then the church sees rapid revival growth.”

    In my comment, I highlighted three of Hayward’s key conclusions:
    1. The reproduction potential Rp governs the rate at which enthusiasts reproduce themselves.

    In scripture, St. Paul mentions how the Thessalonians modelled radical conversion from worldliness and idolatry in a way that reinforced and amplified the preached word: ”The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thess. 1:8 – 10)

    The visible leadership needs to model the behaviour that they want to see in other church members. If leaders are loathe to share regularly their testimonies to the transformative power of Christ with non-Christians, then there’s little encouragement for younger members to do the same.

    2. Changes in the reproduction potential (have more effect on church numbers than
    changes in other parameters

    Leveraging the enthusiasm of newer members as a springboard for outreach is a more effective growth strategy than just trying to prevent the departure of the disgruntled and disaffected.

    3. A church needs to make enthusiasts not just converts if it is to avoid extinction

    “The need to make enthusiasts, or contagious believers, in order to survive and grow is a recognized strategy in many fast growing churches.”

    Historically, this ‘infectious sharing of faith’ has arisen from renewed collective church emphasis (sometimes to the point of over-emphasis) on some previously neglected cornerstone principles of authentic Christian experience and faith: e.g. new birth, baptism, faith over works, sanctification, public witness, miracles, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, healing (whether through organised medical provision or supernatural), welfare provision, social conscience and alleviation of poverty.

    Such renewals are often evolve from ‘grass-roots’ initiatives, but they can be clergy-led.

    If we want to see an explosion of ‘infectious sharing of faith’, we can begin as many of the successful new churches have done:
    1. In house groups, we should intentionally encourage people to testify to their personal experiences of God’s goodness and spiritual guidance. At some point, their confidence may grow to the point of sharing their testimony in a Sunday service. It’s also a good way of identifying those with a gift for communicating the faith.
    2. Community engagement, such as food banks, clothing exchanges and even public concerts also provide a great opportunity for lay Christians not only to collaborate with the clergy, but also to intersperse their activities with the sharing of a short personal narrative of modern-day redemption, whether from financial woes, health scares, or relationship breakdown.

    Nowadays, such testimonies could video’ed and prominently featured on the church web-site.

    In furtherance of this, church leaders need to resist and challenge the oft-repeated fear of that sharing such testimonies to the goodness of Christ is a likely to be a ‘turn off’.

    It comes as a surprise to some that this kind of potential ‘turn-off’ hasn’t hampered the growth of the Newer churches. Perhaps, the historic UK churches can learn something from them.

    • David, “a church needs to make enthusiasts not just converts” – yes indeed – but they need to be enthusiasts for the church as well as enthusiasts for Christ. Most of us on this blog accept an obligation to be enthusiasts for Christ, but enthusiasts for our own churches are thin on the ground – and besides, our own churches are often not local, and so not so much relevant, to the people we are most likely to influence.

  3. Great article John.

    As a lay observer, I think the term “anti-clericalism” is a bit harsh. It is too easily read as a challenge and consequently results in defensiveness. There probably *is* a growing sense outside the institutional church that clergy are unnecessary and, amidst multiple sexual abuse scandals, maybe even untrustworthy. But it doesn’t take much thinking to see the valuable social role clergy play.

    What’s more significant, I think, is a growing sense among global people of faith (whether inside or outside the institutional church) that the “priesthood of all believers” should be taken more seriously. Out of that comes, not a negative rejection of clergy but a positive affirmation of every person’s contribution.

    That attitude is not a denial of the need for specialisation. We need administrators, teachers, pastors, visionaries, cooks, bottle washers, spiritual directors, musicians etc. What we don’t need is a privelegd group of people who were called by God in some way that the rest of us weren’t, and who have some special authority over others or some special access to truth.

    I point out in my book “Scattering Church: Effective Mission in the Post-Institutional World” that the church is not the only institution people no longer trust. I don’t like the term “post-Christendom” very much because it singles out the traditional church as the centre of the universe as though the modern (postmodern?) social move can be captured in a before-and-after timeline around the period of “Christendom”. As I see it, the effect on the church is not the central move but just one of many moves. In fact it reveals our arrogance to think that the changes all revolve around the public acceptance or rejection of “Christendom”.

    Nevertheless, the socio-political world is changing rapidly and as one side-effect of those changes the traditional church, along with many other traditional institutions, has become sidelined. People’s personal mobility, reliance on digital technologies, the dominance of postmodern suspicions about truth and grand narratives, all contribute to a sense that the “church” is irrelevant.

    All of that, along with the recently added challenge of not being able to meet in large groups, is a positive pressure to consider other models of being church. In “Scattering Church” I suggest seven features that could frame a church that is more relevant and adventurously colourful in this modern world.

    Personal disclosure: Although raised an Anglican in Australia I’ve been more influenced by Anabaptist thinking and don’t currently “attend” any institutional church.

  4. John, thank you.
    Your article, reinforced by David S’s very interesting comment, amde my think how ‘exponential growth’ is very much in our minds at the moment. While we might not like to compare Christian faith to a virus, ‘infection’ is an interesting way to think about it. We are now familar with the R number: the average number of people infected by each infected person. The spread of COVID-19 and information around this has taught us that there are two factors in this spread:
    a) how infectious is the virus
    b) the nature of social contact

    So, while in normal circumstances the COVID virus seems to have an R factor of about 3, chickenpox has one of 10 and for measles R is15 (herd immunity needs a fraction of the population (R-1)/R to be immune, which is why measles vaccination is so important).

    How ‘virulent’ is Christianity? Perhaps this varies by type and between individuals – there are ‘superspreaders’! Are there also ‘asymptomatic carriers’ – those who pass on Christianity to others without showing any symptoms themselves?

    But the nature of social contact also plays a part. As we know from the last few months, reducing social contact reduces the spread of a disease. By analogy, Christians are rather good at ‘social distancing’, and confining themselves to a ‘support bubble’. Much of Church life tends to reinforce this, with the added complication that those who might be most infectious who are drawn into the churchy activities.

  5. “32 passionate disciples who see their raison d’etre as bringing in new disciples”
    Sorry, chaps, but you are brilliantly expounding the gospel of Descartes, the ecclesiology of Thatcherism and the spirituality of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?”
    In a hundred years time this will all be a curious history ready for a short footnote.
    But to get there we have to face a catastrophic collapse in the demonic western society which grew this desperately mistaken gospel. Kyrie eleison, as the hills fall on.

    • Thanks Wyn—but what an odd comment.

      I wonder how you read the New Testament if you don’t see one of the key teachings of Jesus that his disciples should teach others so that they become disciples too?

      How else does a post-Christendom culture become Christian?


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