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
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
The Redeemed Christian Church of God began work in England in
the 1980s. It now has more than 440 congregations, and about 85,000
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
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
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
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
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
Recasting Anglican practice: towards a theology of
Clarifying how church growth works takes far more space than is
possible here, but the new research suggests the following six
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.