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Higher hopes for the harvest

by
11 December 2015

Stephen Spencer looks at fighting talk about Church of England numerical growth

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What Makes Churches Grow?
Bob Jackson
Church House Publishing £19.99
(978-1-7151-4474-9)
Church Times Bookshop £18

 

Towards a Theology of Church Growth
David Goodhew, editor
Ashgate £19.99
(978-1-4724-1400-7)
Church Times Bookshop £18 (use code CT143)

 

BOB JACKSON’s Hope for the Church was published by Church House Publishing in 2002, and his The Road to Growth in 2005, combining a range of statistical profiles of the Church of England and of its decline with probing questions about to encourage church growth. But they were work in progress, and now in this volume we have Jackson’s mature reflections on his ongoing statistical analysis.

What Makes Churches Grow? is a handsomely printed and produced volume with a range of tables and graphs that enhance the text. We are greatly in Jackson’s debt for all the gathering and analysing of church data he has done over the years. The big message of the book is that a range of statistical evidence since 2000 from dioceses and national surveys seems to point to a turnaround, and that the C of E is now growing, or, as Jackson puts it, has more joiners than leavers.

This is not about numbers attending Sunday services, but the total body of people who attend a wide range of forms of worship during the week as well as on Sundays. Key within this is the growth of Messy Church, which Jackson describes as the largest church-growth phenomenon in Britain in this century so far, a growth that is taking everyone by surprise, and is not centrally driven, but is arising locally.

For Jackson, it is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work "below the surface", away from national media attention: "Growing the church is a divine project, not a human one." Nevertheless, we can help to produce the conditions in which such growth takes place, like a gardener preparing the ground and watering the crops, and most of the book prescribes practical strategies at local and diocesan level for making this happen.

This is an upbeat and encouraging book, a welcome change to the usual predictions of doom and gloom from sociological surveys and the national media. Jackson recognises that this growth is happening in all ecclesial traditions, but there is a polemical dimension to the book, with repeated criticism of an older "pastoral" model of the Church in which the clergy’s ministry was to care for their parishioners.

Instead, he advocates "a missionary Church" in which the clergy are to be leaders in mission and enablers of the ministries of all believers. This is a damaging polarisation, because if mission is not about the pastoral care of people, by the clergy as well as by everyone else, it becomes something shallow and brittle. A more helpful basic contrast would have been between an inward-looking congregationalism, which has been increasingly prevalent in the C of E in the past half-century, and an outward-looking service of God’s mission in society at large, which is something that the book clearly favours.

Jackson’s prescriptions range widely across every aspect of church life. Some need much more justification than he provides, and others lead to a constrictive straitjacket on church life; but the fundamental emphasis on what God is already doing at the local level, and on joining in with that, is to be warmly welcomed.

Towards a Theology of Church Growth, edited by David Goodhew, is a very different kind of book. It comprises substantial and well-referenced papers delivered at a conference at Cranmer Hall, Durham, by an impressively broad range of scholars from the United States, the UK, and Germany, from Catholic, Evangelical, liberal, and Charismatic traditions.

All the contributors agree on the importance and legitimacy of numerical church growth. The volume, as a whole, argues that it should be a central concern for churches and individual Christians. Through reflection on scripture, study of Christian doctrine, and especially study of episodes within church history, it retrieves and brings into focus the theological justification for such growth, especially for the growth of local church congregations.

It sets out to dispel a widespread suspicion of numerical church growth, and suggests that such suspicion often arises from a "theology of decline" which can be found in the work of many modern theologians, church leaders, and congregations, "a theology which needs to be questioned". So, this is a book with an edge to it, one that deserves sustained study and reflection, and a detailed response in due course.

There isn’t space here to engage with the individual essays, other than to say that they present fascinating and illuminating perspectives on how the Christian tradition expresses numerical growth.

As a whole, the volume could never make the pursuit of numerical growth for congregations the primary goal of mission: Christ famously gives priority to "seeking the Kingdom", "making disciples of the nations", proclaiming "good news to the poor", and giving life "abundantly". The Gospels as a whole mention the Kingdom 119 times and the Church only three times.

Nevertheless, the book raises the profile and importance of numerical growth within the Christian tradition in a significant and timely way, and shows that it should be encouraged, welcomed, and celebrated.

 

The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer is Vice Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Mirfield, and author of Creative Ideas for Seasonal Retreats (Canterbury Press, 2015)

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