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Strategy or truth in mission?

21 February 2014

THE news about church growth is patchy. Some Fresh Expressions are doing really well; others have died; amalgamations of parishes tendto lead to decline. Churches with younger clergy gain numbers, and so do those where clergy have served for a length of time. But it is tough if you are middle-aged and new to a multi-parish benefice.

The Church's current drive for growth seems obvious to those who accept the stark paradox of either growth or extinction; but the growth strategy does not seem to be underpinned by any conviction other than that of keeping the institutional Church in existence.

The promotion of growth as an end in itself pre-empts the question why this matters. The answers given are characteristically fuzzy: the Church is good for society; spirituality leads to a meaningful life; communities need the cohesion that the Church offers. All this is true, but it misses the point.

What matters more is whether the Christian faith is true. If it is true, it is worth our deepest commitment, loyalty, and passion; if not, however useful it may be, we might as well give up, and pour its resources into social services.

Those who drive the growth agenda seem to fight shy of this fundamental issue. There is almost no worthwhile Christian apologetic on offer to wrestle with questions of truth. The banalities of the Alpha course have replaced any serious engagement with the culture we live in, except to imitate its endless quest for new experiences in the erroneous belief that this has something to do with spirituality. (Perhaps the new Pilgrim course will do better.)

The problem is that, as the poet Michael Symmons Roberts says, the words "spirit" and "spirituality" now mean little more than heightened emotion. We worship our feelings, when we should be purifying our desires.

Christian faith is more than emoting, and doing empathy, and getting gently high on God and one another. It is conviction, discipline, virtue, resilience. It needs clergy and lay apologists who have intellectual grit, as well as personal warmth. It needs a new evangelism, which is less at sea with the creeds, and less anxiously defensive about scripture.

Above all, it needs some minds that are critical, divergent, and angry with mediocrity in Church and society. We need to be reminded that Jesus was not always nice. The quality of Christian conviction in the end counts for more than being strategic and "intentional" (whatever that might mean) about mission.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.


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