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
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
"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
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
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
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.
Halting decline: Back to Church Sunday is one initiative, taken by
churches in Manchester, to encourage people to return
"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
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
7) More lay involvement in leadership
8) Improvements to buildings
Taken from The Road to Growth