AT A conference on church-growth strategy last year, the
Archbishop of Canterbury said that he saw no reason why the Church
of England could not double in size in the next 15 to 25 years,
provided it renewed its spirituality, forged stronger unity, and
We agree that substantial church growth is possible. Studying
the decline and growth of the Church of England leads us to
conclude that there are solid grounds to hope that it will grow in
the next two decades. Those who say that the Church will inevitably
shrink rely on misleading generalisations, and questionable
analysis. We base our confidence on four foundations:
GOD wants his Church to grow numerically. Only God grows the
Church. Our job is to collaborate with him, and not get in his way.
"Growth" in the Christian life means growth in holiness, and growth
in service to society; but it also means the numerical growth of
The New Testament is full of positive references to numerical
church growth. The core doctrines of Christian faith presuppose
communities of believers growing numerically as the means by which
faith is incarnated.
One of the Holy Spirit's key tasks is to be fuel for numerical
church growth. It is surely no accident that those churches that
most emphasise the Holy Spirit are the ones that are currently
seeing the greatest numerical church growth.
Church history is littered with saints who grew the Church
numerically: Cuthbert (who preached as well as prayed), Francis and
the friars, Hannah More, and the Sunday school movement.
Taking numerical growth seriously enables churches to become
fully sacramental. Often, the word "sacramental" is a synonym for
"eucharistic". But that is to be only semi-sacramental. Many
churches (High and Low) do not fully prioritise baptism.
Seeking numerical church growth has, as its natural corollary, a
far greater emphasis on (and far more frequent administration of)
baptism and confirmation. Such an emphasis makes us more
sacramental - and more faithful to the practice of the historic
Seeking the numerical growth of the Church is not something
theologically disreputable, or mere pragmatism. When Christendom
still existed, growing the Church could lead to oppressive
behaviour. Now, when British élite culture is overwhelmingly
secular, such a danger is much reduced.
Christians can unhelpfully play off "Kingdom" and "Church" as if
they were separate, even antagonistic, realities. But that is bad
exegesis. "Kingdom" is bigger than "Church", but they overlap. The
Church is the sociological outworking of following Jesus. God the
Holy Trinity wants his Church to grow numerically. We should not be
embarrassed to seek the same goal. Numerical church growth is
central to a balanced theology.
2. HARD DATA
EMPIRICAL research shows that there is significant church growth
happening across England - as well as elsewhere inside the Church
Churches in Greater London, of all denominations, grew by 16 per
cent between 2005 and 2012.
The electoral roll of London diocese grew by more than 70 per
cent in the two decades to 2010.
There are now 2250 Messy Churches registered, and 350,000 to
550,000 people attending Messy Church across the denominations -
there were none in 2004. Sixty per cent are Anglican.
Across ten Anglican dioceses, there are 477 fresh expressions,
whose combined attendance is 21,000.
Weekly attendance at cathedrals rose by 35 per cent between 2002
In a survey of 1700 churches, conducted by Professor David Voas
for the Church Commissioners' church growth-research programme, the
majority of respondents stated that they had grown numerically in
the years 2008 to 2013.
The diocese of Leicester's average attendance by adults grew by
11 per cent from 2009 to 2012, and by children by 38 per cent.
No, it is not like this everywhere; but the existence of decline
does not mean that we should ignore the growth that is taking
place. At the very least, the situation looks patchy. But, overall,
the numbers look to be on the turn.
Christians have been told so often that the Church is declining,
and doomed to oblivion, that we easily internalise this message.
The result is a kind of "decline theology", where Christianity is
redefined so that numerical decline is assumed to be inevitable,
Being concerned to grow numerically then becomes seen as somehow
"bad form". Not only is this bad theology, there is much empirical
data to rebut such fatalism.
RESEARCH over the past 15 years has given us a much better
understanding of the key factors that lead to the growth of the
churches. We know that churches and clergy who intentionally seek
numerical growth see more growth than churches and clergy who do
We know that growing faith among under-25s is crucial to growth.
We know that churches that start new services, and plant new
congregations, are more likely to grow.
We know that churches across the spectrum of traditions can
grow. We know that, if you can raise up larger numbers of leaders
(ordained or lay, paid or unpaid), churches are more likely to
grow. And if you cut the number of clergy, churches are more likely
THE Church of England is finding a new unity behind the priority
to grow the Church numerically. Many churches have Mission Action
Plans, and many dioceses have growth strategies.
Wherever we go around the country, we find that churches that
have implemented good practices over a sustained period have grown
numerically as a result. Whole dioceses that have had some sort of
strategy in place for a while are beginning to grow consistently,
year after year.
FOLLOWING Christ is good news: it is purpose in a confusing world,
forgiveness in a blame-filled world, and it is hope beyond death in
a world afraid of its mortality. And God has so made us that
following Jesus can be done only in community. It cannot be done on
The most important reason why there is hope for numerical church
growth is that God wants his Church to grow. In a culture where
many voices that say church growthis impossible, or unnecessary,
churches and leaders need a robust theology for numerical church
God insists that we collaborate in his growing of the Church.
And such partnership requires serious prayer, and the generation of
a meaningful strategy - local, diocesan, and national. The top
priority in that strategy is the discipling of under-25s.
To help us in such work, we should remember that the Church is
not without wisdom on what makes for numerical growth. Every
congregation, everyone of us who exercises ministry in the Church,
can do something right now. There really is hope for the Church of
England. A sizeable minority of the Anglican Church is already
growing, and that could become the majority - if we work and pray
to this end.
The Revd Dr David Goodhew is the director of the Centre for
Church Growth Research, Cranmer Hall, Durham. The Ven. Bob Jackson
is the director of the Centre for Church Growth, St John's College,