Where we fail, we can grow

by
02 November 2006

The Church of England's numerical decline is mostly related to its own failings and weaknesses, says Archdeacon Bob Jackson in his new book. But far from being bad news, it means that plenty can be done to shape a thriving church for the 21st century.

'The road to growth is unglamorous. The gradient is undulating, and the view ahead winds only slightly uphill'
THE Ven. Bob Jackson, Archdeacon of Walsall and growth officer for the diocese of Lichfield,  spent six years as an economic advisor to the Government and 25 as a parish priest, a balance he considers "about right" for someone offering a guide to how local churches can thrive and grow in the 21st century.

They are sound credentials for writing The Road to Growth, published on Wednesday, a book he describes as "practical and realistic, containing hard-won lessons mined from the coalface of parishes up and down the land". Looking back on his challenging first book, Hope for the Church , published in 2002, he is gratified that he is now beginning to get reports of what people are doing as a result of it. It leads him to reflect: "I think I've been a bit afraid of being a prophet before my time, but actually I think I'm a prophet whose time has come."

Two years as a member of Springboard - the Archbishop of  Canterbury's initiative to mobilise the Church for evangelism - researching church growth and disseminating the findings, convinced him that he could use his skills and experience as a trained economist to help the Church of England start making decisions based on evidence. It came as "a whole new sense of call".

He does not dismiss "ideas books" on how to address the problem of decline, but suggests: "Ideas get you just so far. We've had so many bright ideas, and some of us have rushed round trying to implement them. But you work out whether a bright idea is a good idea by looking at the facts and figures."

He fully acknowledges that the surrounding culture is more challenging for church growth than it used to be, and that the market for people's time and spiritual yearnings is more competitive. Nevertheless the facts and figures convince Archdeacon Jackson that the future of the UK Church lies in its own hands.

"All the evidence I collect tells me that much or even most of our numerical decline is actually tied up with our own failings and weaknesses. Perversely, that - if true - is an incredibly optimistic conclusion, because it means we can change that. We can do something about it."

In a defining chapter, he punctures the notion that decline is inevitable because of post-modernism or because the younger generation is not religious or not Christian. In a critical analysis of what works at parish level and what doesn't, he cites diocesan policies such as long vacancies as inhibitors of growth.

Dysfunctional team ministries, short incumbencies, and the discouragement of young ordinands are all self-inflicted wounds, he argues, returning to the figures for evidence before offering an alternative, practical, and often visionary approach.

As for interregna, the figures show clearly that churches with an incumbent are, on average, growing, and that long vacancies bring huge losses. "You can save the stipend for a few months, but if you've got rid of 20 per cent of your givers in order to do it, then in the long term it means that you're shutting down," he says bluntly.

Another significant research finding is the extent to which the method of calculating parish share is affecting growth. He cites a vicar who launched a family service at a different time on Sunday, for families from the nearby estate: it proved very successful, but the treasurer asked him to give it up because it doubled the parish share, and the church simply couldn't afford it.

"I want a world where the road to financial solvency is to grow the Church," Archdeacon Jackson says simply. "London has a system of bids and offers. I want to see if we can actually move away from the idea that it's a system of taxation to an understanding that this is about Christian giving and receiving. That may be a little idealistic, but those who are moving in that direction are probably doing better financially than those who are trying to have a really tight system of tax and subsidy."

Archdeacon Jackson has a light touch, a sense of humour, and the knack of delivering unpalatable truths without censure. The Bishop of London writes in the foreword that he found the book "a stimulating aid to self-examination and also repentance for certain aspects of my own practice as a bishop over the past decade."

The eight points for church growth that Archdeacon Jackson puts forward are encouragingly attainable. He says: "It doesn't mean churches have to become Charismatic or Evangelical. They can hold to the core of what they've got, but it's possible to make that sort of change whatever your tradition."

 Practical strategies fill the book, from small external organisational changes to sensible service patterns - "Churches with a good service pattern do better than those without."

Even job advertisements come under scrutiny: experience shows that when an advert is well framed and stands out, quality candidates do apply, but many advertisements are still saying: "This is the parish of X, we want a nice new vicar." It is an unpalatable fact that "less desirable churches in the North and Midlands can take years to attract a single candidate".

He does not blame the clergy - many with working spouses are less mobile - but muses that it does "still seem slightly remiss of God to be calling all the clergy to the South and too few to the North".

In his own diocese, the new "Going for Growth" slogan is modelled on the success of Wakefield in designating itself "the missionary diocese of Wakefield" . "It was much derided in other dioceses, but clearly attracts quite a group of talented young clergy. You can see it in the attendance trends; it comes up clearly in the Wakefield statistics," he observes.

"I think we're beginning to enter a new era where what attracts the clergy is also what most of the churches need - someone to be a leader in mission, who sees the job as being the leader of a missionary Church rather than a Christendom pastoral model. Where we've been doing that, we've been getting some decent lists of quality candidates."

He owns to having a very strong sense of God's infinite creativity when he looks at a church congregation, and an awareness  that every church is unique. There are no templates. "It would demean churches and demean God if I were to say: 'Oh, this is a Type 3B and this is a list of things that Type 3B churches have to do.' It ain't like that," he says with conviction.

"I think my technique is to listen hard, think and pray, share some general stuff with a church, and then say: 'You might like to think about this list of questions. Then it's over to you - it's between you and God now, what's right for you at this time.' To diagnose too quickly is arrogance."

God honours the resolve, he believes, of those who refuse to lie down and resign themselves to the way things have been going, and who want to extend God 's kingdom by growing the Church. And the heart of being an Anglican, he says, is: "We're here for everybody. We're not just one narrow segment, we're not a sect. If we are here for everybody in a multicultural world, we must be multicultural in what we do."

Ultimately, his aim with The Road to Growth is to "help transform fragile signs of hope for the Church into a solid road to growth". Archdeacon Jackson warns in conclusion: "The road to growth is unglamorous. The gradient is undulating, and the view ahead winds only slightly uphill. It is a long road, not for the impatient quick-fix merchants.

"Not many of us are athletes - we may be spiritually fit enough to walk, but we are a bit arthritic for running. We are dragging heavy weights of institutional and heritage burdens, of creaking organisational systems and world-weariness behind us. We have been ridiculed and written off. We squabble among ourselves about the direction we should take.

"Yet, miraculously, we remain in every place and are gaining ground in many. The survival of the Church of England in every locality, and its moving forward in many, is living proof of the existence and power of God."

The Road to Growth: Towards a thriving church by Bob Jackson, Church House Publishing, £12.99, 0-7151-4073-6, CT Bookshop £11.70.

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"The most important good practice for the growth of the Church is to allow God to do his work. Jesus will draw all manner of people to himself through being lifted up on the cross. It may be a folly to some and a stumbling block to others, but to those whom God has called, it is the power and the wisdom of God. Churches that promote and advertise themselves, while keeping Jesus in the background for fear he will put people off, or because they are not quite sure of him themselves, or because the buildings, the music, and the traditions form the limit of their interest, have got the whole thing the wrong way round. Usually it is Jesus who attracts people and the Church that puts them off."

Eight changes that lead
to growth

1) Planting congregations
2) Worship less formal, more relaxed; better music
3) Better provision for children and young people (family services, better groups, paid staff)
4) Improving welcome and integration - front door
5) Better small groups and pastoral care - back door
6) Regular use of evangelism courses as part of an evangelism and incorporation strategy
7) More lay involvement in leadership
8) Improvements to buildings

Taken from The Road to Growth

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