Rising numbers are often gained at others’ expense, says Alan Billings
[COL}Jesus warned about misreading the signs of the times. All the more reason, therefore, to ponder with care the information about church attendance from Dr Peter Brierley’s English Church Census 2005 (News and Feature, 22 September). This is not an argument for putting our heads in the sand, though it is an argument for trying to drill down beneath the outline of the figures.
The anxiety is that the Church is reading the signs wrongly, and making strategic mistakes that will only weaken the capacity for mission and ministry in the future. This is a serious matter, because the latest set of figures reveals that time is not on our side. Since Dr Brierley began his surveys in 1989, Sunday attendance has fallen from 12 per cent to the current 6.3 per cent.
The situation in which the Christian Church now finds itself in this country is both perilous and unique. It is perilous, because there must come a point where church attendance is so low that the capacity of Christianity to influence society in any significant way is simply exhausted.
This is not to say that Christianity has no influence at all. The culture of this country, as of Europe in general, is saturated in Christian presuppositions, and this will remain so for a long time. But, if Christianity is to continue to influence, it needs to interact all the time with a changing culture. That presupposes a vibrant Church, involved with society at every level. The peril for a Church that is ceasing to be engaged is that it starts to make a virtue out of a necessity, and withdraws into itself.
The situation is also unique. I sometimes hear people speak about Britain as a primary mission field, comparable to the one the Early Church faced as it moved into the Roman Empire. This is misleading.
Christianity is not a new challenge to our society. It is half-remembered by people in Europe as one of the many gods that seem to have failed them — the gods of religion that visited such grief on Europe in the religious wars of the 16th century; the gods of nationalism that replaced religion as the focus of national identity, and led straight to the battlefields of the First World War; the gods of the totalitarian ideologies that created the gas chambers and the gulags. Christianity looks tired, and comes with baggage.
Much of Dr Brierley’s census uses denominational categories. But the more revealing analyses are those that use a different typology, one that cuts across denominations. There seems little doubt that the growing congregations are those that combine a rather conservative theology and ethics with a more Charismatic (or emotional) spirituality. Such congregations are found across the denominations.
But — and the most recent census did bring this out — the growth of these congregations tends to be at the expense of others. They are not so much converting non-Christians as drawing Christians away from other churches. As these churches weaken, the worshippers that remain, who are not attracted by Charismatic worship and conservative theology, are gradually lost.
The net result is the paradox of our time: the more we encourage church growth, the more we precipitate overall decline. The end result will be an even smaller Church: at the margins of the nation’s life, conservative and Charismatic, existing in a few large urban and suburban congregations.
The growing churches grow because they combine two things: theological and ethical certainty in an uncertain world; and a spirituality that is concerned with the cultivation of the emotional self in an emotional culture.
The first shows itself in the hard line taken on a few token issues — usually ethical — such as opposition to homosexuality or abortion. The second is about shoring up vulnerable souls whose fragile emotions are constantly being battered in a turbulent world.
The fragile soul has to be told all the time that God knows, cares, forgives, loves, supports — and it has to express its gratitude in worship with emotion. Those Christians who find difficulty with both the certainty and the emotion are finding themselves increasingly squeezed out. A few find homes in more distant cathedrals; many simply slip away and join the ranks of the occasional attender or the unchurched.
All this has implications for the missional strategy of the Church of England. The Church will need to be counter-intuitive. It has to recognise that the quickest way to shrink further is to concentrate exclusively on numerical growth. The urgent task is not how to encourage growth — growth is happening — but how to ensure that the growth of the few does not lead to the collapse of the many.
This is the challenge to the growing churches. They need to be clear-sighted about where many of their new members are coming from, and to find ways of supporting other congregations that are weakened by their strength. They need to acknowledge that there are Christians and former Christians who are put off by moral and doctrinal dogmatism and by overtly emotional worship. But, if they take seriously the need to minister as well as to evangelise, they might be able to find ways of sustaining other congregations.
The question is whether we are mature enough to have such a discussion.
Canon Dr Alan Billings is Vicar of St George, Kendal, and St John, Grayrigg, and Director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University.