Can we grow? Yes we can

by
28 February 2014

The Church is not in an inevitable spiral of decline: there is a realistic hope of growth, say David Goodhew and Bob Jackson

SHUTTERSTOCK

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 prioritised evangelism.

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:
 

1. THEOLOGY

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 Church.

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 Church.

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 of England.

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 and 2012.

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, even unproblematic.

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.
 

3. RESEARCH

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 not.

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 to decline.
 

4. STRATEGY

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 your own.

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 growth.

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, Nottingham.

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