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Secularisation and (alleged) church growth

14 September 2012


From the Revd Dr John Williams

Sir, - I was surprised to read in the article by the Revd Dr David Goodhew on church growth (Features, 7 September) that "we must jettison the secularisation thesis, and create a new theology of church growth."

While it is always good to read encouraging news that challenges the perception often given in the news media that the Churches are in terminal decline, it cannot be right to assume that sociology, in the form of the secularisation thesis, and theology, in the form of an understanding of church growth as the work of God, are simply opposing diagnoses of what is going on.

The classic form of secularisation thesis did indeed argue that modernity brings about religious decline, as the world is progressively released from domination by religious beliefs and institutions, and that this decline is both inevitable and irreversible. Very few sociologists of note, however, have continued to believe this over recent years. This older, cruder version of the thesis has been largely jettisoned already; but this does not mean that secularisation is a non-event, opening the way for religious resurgence and church growth to be celebrated in its stead.

Instead, secularisation has been unpacked as a whole complex of social and cultural changes in the wake of modernity, all of which, in their different ways, have an impact on the presence, part played by, and practice of religion in our society; and the Churches do not have the option of simply "jettisoning" this: on the contrary, for church growth to be theologically well-founded and durable, the sociological currents to which the Churches are subject need all the more carefully to be researched and understood.

To mention just a few such factors affecting the shape of the Church as it is emerging in the 21st century: declining commitment to highly institutional forms of membership; the voluntaristic ideology that leads people to expect to be able to choose a form of religion that suits them; and a shift to a more experiential mode of spirituality that is mistrustful of credal orthodoxies.

"A theology of church growth" cannot exist in a sociological vacuum, and so growing Churches cannot avoid tackling the impact of phenomena such as these, and thinking theologically about them. It was ironic that the same issue as contained this article also featured a review of the new book by Canon Professor Robin Gill, who has done an immense amount over almost 40 years to explicate the relationship between theology and sociology for the Churches' benefit, seemingly without the Churches' always taking a great deal of notice.

Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ministry
York St John University, Lord Mayor's Walk, York YO31 7EX


From the Revd Geoffrey Squire

Sir, - What do people mean by "church growth"?

One priest went to look around a parish with a view to becoming its next incumbent. There, he found the churchwardens and others bubbling over with comments about their new growth during the past eight-year incumbency. The priest was, however, a wise man, and asked to see the church registers.

There he did note a very modest growth in the total attendance at "services", but he also noted a massive decline of almost 75 per cent in the attendance at Sunday eucharists during the same period, with no regular communicants below the age of about 60. He also discovered that there had been no first communions and no confirmation candidates during that period.

The heart of every church is the local eucharistic community; but the people of that church had been so blinded by a modest growth in numbers at "services" that they failed to notice the catastrophic decline in that which really matters.

If we are considering growth or decline, we should look not just on overall numbers, but at what is happening to the eucharist, which is, of course, the Body of Christ in every place.

Little Cross, Goodleigh, Barnstaple, Devon EX32 7NR


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