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Shock, horror — the Church is growing

by
07 September 2012

The slow death of Christianity in Britain is exaggerated. And there are confident steps that the Church can take to allow growth to happen, says David Goodhew

SHUTTERSTOCK

IT IS a truth almost universally acknowledged that Christianity in Britain is in decline. But not all universally acknowledged truths are actually true. New research for the book Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the present suggests that substantial, and sustained church growth has taken place across Britain over the past 30 years.

There has been substantial church decline, too, but this is well known. The fact of church growth in Britain has been ignored by most in academia and the media. And it has been overlooked by many in the churches.

Evidence of church growth challenges the Anglican Church to recast its theology and practice in two ways. First, we need to create a theology of church growth and, second, a theology of church flourishing.

The Church is actually growing

HERE are some snapshots.

There are now about one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian, and minority ethnic back­grounds - a vast increase com­pared with 50 years ago.

In one single, medium-sized northern city, York, new congre­gations have been founded at an average of one a year since 1980.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God began work in England in the 1980s. It now has more than 440 congregations, and about 85,000 members.

Even the contemporary Church of England is not immune from church growth. The electoral roll of the diocese of London - the largest Anglican diocese in the country - has grown by more than 70 per cent since 1990.

Yes, some of this is "transfer" growth, a reshuffling of an existing pack of believers (and transfer growth should not be treated as somehow illegitimate), but much is not. Some church growth can be down to immigration, but we should beware of seeing such church growth as "merely" owing to immigration - as if this were somehow second class. We would not speak of the growth of other faith communities, that was owing, to a degree, to immigration, in the same manner.

The new research stands up. There has been substantial decline in British church attendance, but there has been substantial growth, too. In some post-industrial, mainly white cultures - especially where the mainline denominations are dominant - there has been deep church decline in recent decades. This is true for Scotland, Wales, and parts of England. Yet even these areas also show signs of church growth.

The prevalent thesis of creeping secularisation simply does not work for London. Nor does it work for black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities, and for the newer churches. (And it is not the case for many non-Christian faiths.)

Our findings seriously subvert the dominant narrative of academia and media, which continually stresses wholesale church decline. While this story contains some truth, it is very far from the whole truth.

Developing a theology of church growth

THE secularisation thesis has affected far more than just academics or the media. It has bred in many churches, and their leaders, a theology of decline. This leads into a theology of defeat, whereby the Church redefines Christianity; so that shrinking congregations are considered inevitable. Like Private Fraser in Dad's Army, we complain that "We're all doomed!"

Consequently, "pastoral reorgan­isa­tion" is often a euphemism for managing decline. The many parts of the New Testament and Christian tradition which provide resources for church growth are ignored.

A concern for growth in physical and emotional well-being is seen among theologians, almost univers­ally, as central to Christian disciple­ship. But concern for congregational growth is usually seen as of less importance - it is is sometimes ignored, or even seen as rather grubby.

Many churches, church leaders, and theologians have internalised the secularisation thesis, and its narrative of decline and fatalism. So a significant theological task is to jettison the secularisation thesis, and create a new theology of church growth and church flourishing.

A THEOLOGY of church growth could have the following five components:

1. Jesus, crucified and resur­rected, is as magnetic today as he was 2000 years ago. The central doc­­­trines of orthodox Christian faith - incarnation, atonement, resur­rection, Trinity - are as com­pelling as they ever were. Con­verse­ly, all the evidence suggests that offering "Christianity-lite" is unappealing.

2. Growing the Church really matters to God. Seeking church growth reflects the heart of God, who - in Jesus and through the early church - put growing com­munities at the heart of discipleship. It is not the whole of discipleship, but it is at the heart of discipleship.

3. Conversion to the Christian faith is, by and large, good, and is to be sought. We assume that de­bate and changing our views are healthy in many areas of life. We need not be frightened of seeking this in the realm of faith - es­peci­­ally now that the Church has so little real power. Conversely, the pre­vailing relativism (which has serious power in our society) is intellectu­ally problem­atic, pastorally question­able, and needs to be rebutted.

4. Being apostolic is central to Christian identity. Critical to creat­ing a theology of growth is the recovery of the term "apostolic" - being "sent". This stands at the heart of discipleship for all Christians and congregations rather than relating primarily to "apostolic succession", where "apostolic" all too readily becomes a vehicle for ecclesiastical one-upmanship.

5. Be hopeful. God has revived the Church in the past: historical scholarship shows movements of church growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in the Church in contemporary China. Britain is not predestined to become more and more secular. History does not consist of inexorable processes.

TO SAY all this does not mean that there are no problems in seeking a theology of church growth. Talk of church growth can be as redolent of neo-liberalism as of the Christian faith. But the way forward is not to shy away from theological analysis of church growth. It is to develop a thought-out theology.

This would recognise that growth means other things as well as numerical growth. But a theology of church growth would dare to value highly the numerical growth of congregations, and face the theological questions posed by numerical decline. There is some­thing too fatalistic, and too con­venient, about the indifference of many theologians and church leaders to discussing church growth.

 

Recasting Anglican practice: towards a theology of church flourishing

Clarifying how church growth works takes far more space than is possible here, but the new research suggests the following six things:

1. Church growth is intentional. The past 30 years have shown that churches that pray, plan, and work for growth, actually grow. And those that do not pray, plan, or work for growth, decline.

2. Use "trade routes". Just as the first Christian churches sprang up along the trade routes of the Roman Empire, contemporary church growth tends to happen along "trade routes" such as transport networks, and the internet. Contemporary trade routes, on a macro and micro scale, need to be indentified and used.

3. Value cultural variety - especially ethnic variety. Growing churches are those most adept at translating the gospel into the various cultures of contemporary Britain - especially its burgeoning ethnic diversity. Contemporary Anglicans have critiqued previous generations of Anglicans for failure to welcome the Windrush genera­tion. The dramatic growth of contemporary ethnic minority churchgoing - largely outside mainline denominations - suggests that we still have much to learn on that score.

4. Be humble. The evidence of this new research suggests that many non-mainline churches are ahead of the mainline ones. They may or may not be congenial to us personally, but, before we try to remove the sawdust from the eyes of such denominations, Anglicans should examine the planks obscuring our own vision, and be humble enough to learn from them.

5. Be realistic. Areas with static or shrinking populations, little ethnic diversity, and low economic dynamism have tended to see less church growth. That does not mean giving up on such areas. But it suggests that we need to be realistic about those contexts which are toughest. It is harder to grow a church in Middlesbrough than in Middlesex.

6. Be unashamed. Christianity has less meaningful power in Britain now than it has had for centuries. But that could be a good rather than a bad thing. Christians do not need to be ashamed of their (now) humbler Church, nor of their ever-subversive Lord. The example of the Church in China - which has seen great growth in the face of severe opposition and hardship - is a reminder that the God of surprises wants to grow the Church.

Learning the lessons of church growth

POINTING to church growth is as subversive as it is necessary. The notion that all British churches are in inexorable decline is a myth. To say this, is no cause for ecclesiastical triumphalism. The Church has a great deal to be humble about.

But there is room for a humble hopefulness. The fact of church growth in contemporary Britain is a challenge to the Anglican Church to let go of the fatalism fostered by the secularisation thesis.

Liberated in this way, we could pursue the business of growing churches with enthusiasm and confidence.

The Revd Dr David Goodhew is the director of ministerial practice, Cranmer Hall, St John's College, Durham.
Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the present, edited by David Goodhew, is published by Ashgate at £17.99 (CT Bookshop £16.20); 978-1-4094-2576-2.

 

A new vicar, the Revd John Wood, arrived at St Ann's in 1994, to find a congregation of 90, and buildings that were semi-derelict and unusable, with car parks used by drug dealers and prostitutes.

By 2010, average Sunday attendance had risen to 410, in six congregations. The church's annual budget has risen from £30,000 to £630,000, and it now has responsibility for a staff team, including many employed by various social enterprises. All buildings are in good order.

The locally grown leadership is well spread across the various ethnic and language groups represented in the congregation.

The main church houses four varied congregations, including a youth service, and there are two further plants on housing estates in community centres.

A renewed relationship with the church school, plus a more family-friendly worship style, has led to a significant increase in the numbers of families and children. Child numbers and ministry have recently grown even further, through a new emphasis on regular pastoral home-visiting. The youth team sees up to 300 unchurched young people a week.

The social ministries include: a counselling service in schools; youth clubs; help with clothing and equipment for families in need; work with people with mental health issues; and a night shelter for the homeless.

The church acts as an office base for ministries, and is open and welcoming to visitors every day. The growth in attendance and membership in 2010 was the most rapid for some years.

 

In 1996, the Revd Nicholas Wheeler arrived at St Michael's to find it had been suffering a prolonged near-death experience. The congregation was down to 12, the church building was falling down and permanently locked, and the church hall had been occupied by squatters for 12 years.

The church, next door to a large supermarket on a main road, was unlocked and made available to visitors each day. Small improvements made it a more attractive worship space. A garden was created by the side. The church worked with partners to regain and rebuild the hall as a centre for the community.

Relationships were repaired with the local school, and a Sunday school began. Friendly invitations and welcomes, helped by the open church's being manned through the week, and by the new priest's getting known in the parish, meant that new people kept on arriving on Sundays.

New ethnic groups began to find a home there, including a number of different groups of asylum-seekers, who were quickly given reponsibilities in the church. Two non-stipendiary ministers have been ordained, and there is a pastoral assistant who focuses on community ministry.

Under the new priest, the Revd Philip North, the current mission action plan is to prioritise a transition from pioneer clerical leadership to corporate leadership. This church also has a large banner outside with its strapline: "Making a family out of strangers".

There are now at least 30 nationalities represented in a transient and fast-changing congregation. Mr North estimates that about 300 people see St Michael's as their church, although, because of the nature of church life in the inner city, weekly attendance is 100 to 120.

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