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Numbers game

15 March 2013

We are a small church - small in number, that is - but our building is not small. And we are under pressure from the diocese to increase numbers to make ourselves more viable and improve our building. Are we the only ones up against the numbers pressure?

IN THE past 20 years, the Church of England has been under significant financial pressure, and this has passed from the Church Commissioners to the dioceses, and, ul- timately, to the parish churches. And there is, rightly, a sense that if you have a deficit you can either decrease expenditure or increase income. But expenditure continues to rise; so I suppose we have to increase numbers to increase money.

But I think that the attitude to financial stability and local churches is often - at least for smaller churches - part of the problem. The gospel is not about increasing numbers so that we churchgoers can be a little more financially stable and sustainable. All too often the church functions as a club, out for its own self-interest - not loving our neighbours as ourselves, but loving them in the hope that they will help us keep our church.

What I am trying to say is that the financial-sustainability issues are about supporting the life of the church, not directing the way we go.

I think that there is far less strength in the preaching and prophetic mission of the Church than there is in the "numbers" strand of our life. We have spent far too much time in the quagmire of issues, and far too little time loving God and our neighbours.

For example, what does the parable of the lost sheep say about numbers? It must apply to the resources of the church, and the shepherd does not spend his time on the successful, well-established sheep: he is out there, concerned with the lost and the alone.

This is not a subject to which there is any easy answer; but I think that it is a question for the Church at large for today. And I suspect that many more of our successful, number-filled churches could well adopt the parable and lend their support to the churches where the two or three are sacrificing a great deal to maintain the gospel in their parishes.

We had - do we still have it? - a theology of presence, of being among people as an ongoing witness of Christ among and alongside them, regardless of their ability to respond or contribute. In our inner cities, where broken lives find discipleship the greatest challenge, it is like being beside the pool of Bethesda and turning away because those present cannot meet our sustainability criteria. The gospel is simply being with them.

I am on the side of the small churches in isolated communities (and not just the tiny rural parishes, but the deserts of the inner city also) where the challenges and engagement are beyond possible, and we have to depend on God. Those of us who remain in those little places may find more grace in the theology of the Desert Fathers than in the ecclesiology of success and numbers.

Let us find ways to make the gospel of grace, hope, and lost sheep, or outsiders and the lonely, more important to us than the finance and the numbers and the administration.

Let us accept help everywhere we can possibly get it, but let us not lose our gospel imperative.


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