Sunday, 16 February 2014

Prize leeks

3rd Sunday before Lent.

1 Corinthians 3:6
'I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth.'

It was a relief this morning to find a perfect excuse not to preach from the gospel , but go for the Epistle instead. I left Jesus' teaching on adultery and divorce for another, less contentious day, to embrace the somewhat easier (though only by a slim margin) topic of church growth.

This was in the light of reading the Church Growth research project, From Anecdote to Evidence, just published, which looked at factors which affect growth in church congregations. 

For visual learners, I added in a chance to compare two leeks - one grown in optimum conditions on our local, GM free, organic estate (the fat, juicy one) and the other grown in our back garden (the thin weedy one). 

The main verse from the Epistle was even written on the front cover of the report, so I knew I was onto something during my sermon preparation (some weeks I'm just so grateful for divine inspiration, as the time left to write these things often has a habit of trickling away to nothing).

I mainly have a love/hate relationship with findings on church growth, I think, because,

a) I'm worried that people in a large 'successful' churches with massive paid staff teams will tell me the perfect way to grow the church, which will of course not work in this situation, and then I will feel inadequate. 


b) I nonetheless remain hopeful that they'll come up with some unique finding such as, 'if you're nice to people and smile a lot, your church will grow', and then I'll think, 'great, how hard is that going to be?'

Is growth only about numbers? 

The report, quite rightly, says numbers aren't the whole story, but researching growth in numbers is obviously a lot easier than researching growth in, say, holiness or prayerfulness, or generosity of heart. The paradox in church growth is surely the same in all Christian endeavour, even something as basic as prayer: what is the relationship between our effort and God's activity?

St Paul was quick to point out that although he might sow, and someone else water the seed, it is God who gives the growth, yet this apostle was hardly one to sit back and do nothing. When it comes to growth it would seem that we are to labour as though it all depended upon us, and trust for 'results' as though it all depended on God.

Finally, returning to leeks fat and thin - the report found 7 main factors positively correlated with church growth:

1.  Good leadership
2.  A clear mission and purpose
3.  Willingness to self-reflect, to change and adapt        according to context
4.   Involvement of lay members
5.   Being intentional in prioritising growth
6.   Being intentional in chosen style of worship
7.   Being intentional in nurturing disciples

Recalling the verse above, then, like a good gardener, it looks like we have to be intentional if we want to grow, while leaving the actual mystery of growth to God.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Decline and fall

The science of numbers in the Church of England always makes for sobering, if depressing reading. I'm not sure I can take much more of it. 

Linda Woodhead, writing in the Church Times this week, termed the decline in numbers of Ministers 'not enough boots on the ground', saying that 'there are no longer enough troopers to keep the show on the road, and the show will have to change.'

As well as not enough Ministers, there are of course, fewer and fewer people attending Sunday worship. An influential American writer on spirituality said recently he didn't really connect with God through 'going to church', to which 'Christianity Today' responded with, of course, an article saying why going to church still made sense. They'd have to, wouldn't they, because deep down, we're all thinking what will happen if, say in 30 years time, no one in the UK really is going to church (or to an Anglican church anyway...)

Of the people who do attend on Sundays, the graphs show ageing congregations, (in the C of E, the average age stands at 62) with few coming up from younger generations to take on all the jobs the older ones have done. A piece in Church Times suggests that the army of ladies born in the 1930s and 1940s are the real troopers - when they pass on, who on earth will keep all this stuff going?

Of course the church, in some form, goes on all through the week, with numerous volunteer run events up and down the UK - mums and toddler groups, lunches for the elderly, drop in centres, debt centres, etc. etc. All this is the church in action. But we still have the issue of Sunday worship. If congregations slowly dwindle to nothing, what will we do with all those buildings, for a start?

And so the question 'why go to church?' haunts believers, Ministers in particular. We're the ones who are supposed to be 'keeping the show on the road', who worry about the show grinding to a halt when all the people have gone. The likelihood of turning those graphs around till attendance is rising and average age falling to something more representative, seems small.

If people come to faith later in life, with ready made families and lifestyles, creating a culture of church going can be extremely difficult. It has to be fitted in to an already crowded life, and sometimes it seems it just cannot be. Cue Fresh Expressions of church - mid-week, Saturday mornings cafe-style, Messy church, etc. But people are still busy, busy, busy. Are we too busy to gather?

When you grow up from childhood with a rhythm of gathering, churchgoing, it's simply what you do on Sundays, just as going to school or work is what you do the rest of the week. As one writer put it, there's a noticeable difference between going if nothing else comes up, and going unless something else comes up.

Is there a way to lighten the dismal tale of ecclesiastical decline and fall? What do Ministers do about the significant number out there who believe stuff without 'going to church?' What even is 'church'? 

Linguistically the word ecclesia began in civic life - the 'ekklesia' was a gathering, pure and simple. That's what church is - it's us gathering. What we do when we gather flows from there. 

At first we gathered in homes - presumably gatherings got too big - after persecution and missionary scattering across the globe, people started putting up special buildings for gathering, some of them very large, some smaller, in every locality in the UK eventually, and organising themselves into manageable groups (with some acrimonious splitting along the way, as is only human) - and here we are today.

Church growth (decline) graphs are ultimately depressing, but they should tell us one thing - we must attend to what the point of our gathering is. When we know that, and know the relationship between gathering and being sent out again for a purpose, we will be on the right road. If we forget, we can say goodbye to the show, and the road, completely.