*** DEBUG END ***

It’s not just about the numbers

28 February 2014

The Church of England has an unhealthy fixation on numerical growth, says Martyn Percy. We should be more concerned with quality, not quantity

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 Jesus.

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 wider audience."

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 this.

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 on.

Maybe. The Charge of the Light Brigade had vision, courage, objectives, and some strategy; but the rest, as they say, is history.

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 quality.

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 mission-minded middle-managers.

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 leadership.

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 for.

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 decline.

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 College, Cuddesdon.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)