‘Without growth, you might walk alone’

by
22 May 2015

Pat Ashworth went to a church-growth conference in Liverpool

DAVE JONES PHOTOGRAPHY

Light crowd: a packed Liverpool Cathedral during the city's annual Light Night festival last Friday

Light crowd: a packed Liverpool Cathedral during the city's annual Light Night festival last Friday

REFLECT, change, and adapt were the watchwords of the Bishop's Growth Conference, held by the diocese of Liverpool at Aintree Racecourse on Saturday, attended by more than 400 clergy and parish representatives.

The choice of venue invited analogies of fences to be jumped, and races to be run, but there was serious engagement with the urgency of the task described by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, as "producing a community naming the name of Jesus, holding up the Kingdom to a nation drowning in affluence and inequality . . . but through which the Kingdom of God and its values run like threads of gold".

One of the Church's core marks was that it was a growing community, he told the gathering. The Reform and Renewal reports showed that it was aware of needing to take growth seriously, but it should do it with the aim of making a bigger difference, he said.

He described the diocese's "Growth Planning Framework" checklist for parishes as "an instrument to bring wisdom out of you. It is through you that the revival of the Church will come."

The meeting was addressed by Canon George Lings, head of the Church Army's Research Unit, which in 2012 chose Liverpool as the first diocese to be surveyed on growth factors in the Church of England. The city's population rose by 2.5 per cent between 2006 and 2012, and average weekly church attendance fell by the same amount during that period. The proportion of the population served by the diocese was less than two per cent: "a mission time-bomb", Canon Lings said.

He gave stark figures on the demographic: 75 per cent of 80-year-olds had some church connection, but only 25 per cent of 25-year-olds.

In Liverpool diocese, 3000 people were part of a fresh expression of church, and perhaps the future of the C of E was about the birth of new, young churches, Canon Lings suggested. He emphasised that all traditions could go down this road. The majority were small - about 40 people. They should not be "re-badgements" of existing church communities, or "something more for Christians".

But it was not all about new, young churches. The meeting heard encouragement from Canon Janet Roberts, the Vicar of St Nicholas's, Blundellsands, which had been through a tough time. Initiatives such as Toddler Church had brought in 85 families. People were looking for "a place to belong, a sense of community", and parents in their thirties and forties were seeking a sense of values for their children.

"We're not doing anything different now, but [it's all happening] because the church is ready to grow, working with what they wanted to do."

Anglicans did the ordinary very well, Canon Lings observed. The Revd Andrew Stott, Team Rector in the 4Saints Team, described the enriching "ground-up and not top-down" move to team ministry that followed the loss of one stipendiary from the four parishes of a cluster, all of whom had a similar vision for church growth.

"On our own we can't, but together we can," Canon Lings responded. "Sometimes you have to surrender things in order to go beyond where you are."

The meeting, concentrated into three hours of attentive listening, was led to reflect on comfort zones and places of challenge. People departed with a buzz.

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