THE beguiling attraction of the very first Christian heresies
and heterodoxies lay in their simplicity. They presented the most
attractive solution to any immediate and apparently unsolvable
problems. For the first generations of Christians, these usually
lay in the sphere of doctrine and praxis.
For us as a Church today, the presenting problem appears to be
declining numbers in our congregations. Ergo, an urgent
emphasis on numerical church growth must be the answer.
Right, surely? But wrong, actually. The first priority of the
Church is to follow Jesus Christ. This may be a costly calling,
involving self-denial, depletion, and death. Following Jesus may
not lead us to any numerical growth.
We are to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and
strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. There is no greater
commandment. So the numerical growth of the Church cannot be a
greater priority than the foundational mandate set before us by
Karl Barth observed, more than 50 years ago, that the true
growth of the Church is not to be thought of in mainly extensive
terms, but rather those that are intensive. He argued that the
vertical (or intensive) growth of the Church does not necessarily
lead to extensive numerical growth. He went on to say that "we
cannot, therefore, strive for vertical renewal merely to produce a
Barth concluded that, if the Church and its mission were used
only as a means of extensive growth, the inner life of the Church
lost its meaning and power: "The Church can be fulfilled only for
its own sake, and then - unplanned and unarranged - it will bear
its own fruits."
Many parish clergy, and those working in all kinds of sector
ministries, already know this to be true. The Church does not exist
to grow exponentially. Mission is deeper than that. The Church
exists to be the body of Christ.
THE pastoral theologian Eugene Peterson once said that the one
thing he had learned in mission and ministry was how complex
measurable growth could be. He draws on the theologian, essayist,
poet, and farmer, Wendell Berry, learning that "parish work is
every bit as physical as farm work - it is about these people, at
this time, under these conditions."
The pastoral turn towards an agrarian motif is arresting. Jesus
told a number of parables about growth, and they are all striking
for their simplicity and surprise, especially the allegory of the
sower. This should probably be the template for all diocesan
Mission Action Plans, because Jesus is saying to the Church, "Have
regard for your neighbour's context and conditions.
So, you might work in a parish with the richest soil, where
every seed planted springs to life, where the seasons are kind, the
vegetation lush, the harvest plentiful. But some places are stony
ground, and faithful mission and ministry in that field might be
picking out the rocks for several generations.
The question the parable throws back to the Church is this: what
kind of growth can you expect from the ground and conditions you
work with? This is where our current unilateral emphasis on
numerical church growth can be so demoralising and disabling.
Is it really the case that every leader of numerical church
growth is a more spiritually faithful and technically gifted pastor
than his or her less successful neighbour? The parable says "no" to
I mention this for one very obvious reason: if we continue to
place the heterodoxy of numerical growth at the heart of the
Church, we risk eroding our character, and our morale.
SOME will argue that if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every
time. Better to have a target and a plan than just keep plodding
Maybe. The Charge of the Light Brigade had vision, courage,
objectives, and some strategy; but the rest, as they say, is
So, the key to understanding numerical church growth might be to
engage in deeper and more discerning readings of our contexts - the
soil we seek to nourish and bless - so the seeds can flourish.
There is work to be done on the ground.
Factors producing numerical church growth and decline are always
complex. But the Church might need to do some basic maths. In the
secular world, one plus one equals two. But counting whole numbers
in the Church is not straightforward.
Is a newly baptised infant one unit, in terms of believers? Does
the person who comes every week, but has more doubt than faith,
count as one, or a half? Is the regular, but not frequent
churchgoer, one, or less than one? And what about the person who
comes to everything at church, but has a heart of stone?
We know that God counts generously. The poor, the lame, the
sick, the sinners - all seem to be promised a whole seat at God's
table in his Kingdom. That is why Jesus was seldom interested in
quantity; the Kingdom is about small numbers, and enriching
Fortunately, God is loving enough to tell us plenty of
counter-cultural stories about numbers: leaving the 99 and going
after one, for example.
God's maths is different from ours. No one denies the urgency of
mission, or the need for the Church to address numerical growth.
But the Church exists to glorify God, and follow Jesus Christ.
After that it may grow, or it may not. Faithfulness must always be
put before the search for success.
OF COURSE, we need leaders who can ride the cultural waves of our
time. But we also need other leaders who can read the tides, and
the deeper cultural currents of our age. Our recent emphasis on
numerical church growth has led to the unbalanced ascendancy of
It is hard to imagine a Michael Ramsey, William Temple, or
Edward King receiving preferment in the current climate. The
veneration of growth squeezes out the space for broader gifts in
leadership that can nourish the Church and engage the world.
As with all things Anglican, it is a question of balance. There
are no bad foods, only bad diets. And the continued over-emphasis
of numerical growth skews the weight and measure in the body of our
This is a more subtle disproportion than it might at first
appear. It was said of the late Cardinal Basil Hume that "he had
the gift of being able to talk to the English about God without
making them wish they were somewhere else." The value of this gift
should not be underestimated.
And, for our national mission, this is precisely why we need a
leadership that incorporates space for the holy and devout: the
gentle pastor, the poet and the prophet, the teacher and the
theologian - and possibly a radical or two for good measure.
The Church may not always draw near to such leaders. But the
nation often does - especially those who do not usually go to
church. For the first time since the Reformation, we now have no
bishops who have held a university post in theology. The nation may
not notice this explicitly, but, at a subliminal level, it will
certainly sense the lack.
So, for the sake of national mission, and our credibility, we
may want to intentionally develop a broader range of leaders than
the singular objective of numerical church growth currently allows
BUT let us return to numbers. There are some anomalies. The
2010/11 Church Statistics show that many dioceses that had
well-developed mission strategies showed continuing numerical
Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover one diocese that
had enjoyed significant numerical growth - a whopping 17 per cent
in average weekly and usual Sunday attendance. Ironically, this was
led by a bishop who had seemingly little in the way of experience
in mission and ministry.
Like Basil Hume, the bishop had not been a parish priest, and
could not tick any of the boxes that indicated he had led any
congregation to numerical growth.
The diocese was Canterbury. And the bishop was someone who also
had the gift of being able to talk about God in public. Having a
knack for imaginative, reflective, and refractive public theology
and spirituality does, indeed, intrigue and draw people in who
might not otherwise pay attention to the rumour of God.
By welcoming some teachers, poets, and prophets among our
leadership, who point us imaginatively and compellingly, to Christ,
we might yet discover an even richer, more effective purpose in our
mission. And, in so doing, we might find some other routes to
numerical growth along the way.
Canon Professor Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon