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Looking for inspiration? Why not take a lead from the drug-dealers

03 July 2015

Listening: churches need to start from where people are, argues Nick Ralph


A PARISH best engages new people, with all the opportunities that this presents, when it chooses to start listening to those outside its normal orbit, and has something to offer them that they might want.

It is about listening to demand, not just supplying more of what we think people should have. Supply and demand might sound, for some, too much like an economist's or accountant's approach to church growth; but I believe that it is important for the Church of England.

For the past five years, the Council for Social Responsibility in the diocese of Portsmouth has been running a "rapid development programme" for churches, to help them to engage with their communities in new ways that are also sustainable. It is workshop-based, and runs over a period of weeks (hence, "rapid" - at least in church terms).

The programme is deliberately challenging. We do not start with the problems - the leaky roof, or the old hall - but seek to help churches to start thinking about how to engage new cohorts of people. It is led by opportunity, and the opportunities vary with every context.


DESPITE the Church's problem with, or even antipathy to, defining "success", we have to find areas of agreement about what it could mean, and do something that might actually achieve it. The alternative of doing nothing seems particularly unhelpful, and more like head-in-the-sand denial.

We often ask the churches with whom we work what other non-church organisations or people they consider successful in their area. They choose, partly, the frame of what is meant, although we always start with a background around the level of cultural and social change that all communities have experienced.

We ask them to identify the things that those "successful" people are doing right (and then, later, what the church has done that has also been successful). It is almost always something that they have never considered systematically before, and the answers are always revealing.

In one case, a vicar who claimed to have no skilled volunteers in his congregation, talked about a cookery group led by a charismatic individual who inspired people, was great at marshalling new volunteers, and was having to put people on a waiting list to join. It turned out that that person was on the PCC, but she had not been engaged in rethinking the church's mission.

In another case, one inspired vicar talked unexpectedly about the drug-dealers who were endemic in his area, but who were successful because they went to where people were, supplied what they wanted, and were available when they wanted. It might have been a surprising example, but there were some interesting, if unusual, lessons.

A different example from several communities we have worked with would be the number of them that have thriving new community choirs, but dying church choirs.


WHAT these examples have in common is that the people identified were responding to the values and hopes of what people in those places actually wanted - they were much more demand-led.

At the moment, this seems an impossible idea for the Church of England to grasp. Instead, it appears wholly wedded to supply-side solutions: supplying more of what we want to give them - whether more Fresh Expressions, more priests, heritage, or bad coffee - to the exclusion of any other narrative. We need to break out of this bounded thinking. More of the same will result only in more of the same, and we need to hear new voices, not merely amplify the existing ones.

Of the various programmes currently being discussed for investment from the Church Commissioners nationally or in dioceses, most (if not all) are based on these sort of supply-side solutions. There seems to be a sort of casting around, trying a variety of things to see which one, if any, might work. This approach runs like a fault-line through the heart of our current thinking. It is not that they are wrong in themselves; it is that they are not responsive to what people want.

They are all initiatives that we want to establish (our supply), but they are not based on whether any new people have actually expressed interest (their demand) - whether it fits their values and hopes, and what might be a sign of the building of the Kingdom.


THE problem is that, in having a gospel to proclaim, we can seem arrogant and hypocritical. The Church is the only place where the "customers" (please try not to get hung up on this word) are always wrong - and we have to set them right in some way. The idea that we might actually respond to demand, or see where people are collectively and spiritually itching, is absent.

Where it might be present, any sort of consultation has primarily been only or mainly internal. With an increasing gap between those in Church and those outside it, this is dangerous territory: an increasingly out-of-touch group of people, becoming smaller by the day, and largely older, are making decisions about what should be available to others whom they don't know, haven't asked, and about whose lives and concerns they know little.

Before I am accused of relativism, I am not trying to suggest that we start from where people are at and leave them there, but simply that, in order to start a relationship with new people, it is vital to have some idea of where they are starting from, and what matters to them.

Currently, we appear to have little interest. We need to start with where people are, then work out possible journeys from that - and it is not as if God is not already working "out there".

What I am advocating is a deep process of engagement and listening, involving the whole community - people both inside and especially outside the Church - before we expend too much on any particular programme.


IN ATTEMPTING to work out what will resonate with people today, as opposed to what worked 20 years ago, it is important to understand something of the depth of the changes in cultural and social norms that has occurred, whether or not we like them.

For this, we need to look at some of the results of the most recent national Census, (ons.gov.uk/census) which gives general data for the country as a whole, and also some useful local data broken down to areas such as wards.

There is also the British Social Attitudes Survey (bsa.natcen.ac.uk), the most recent of which dates from March 2015. With all the necessary caveats, given the polling during the election, there are also consistent results of various polls from organisations such as YouGov (particularly those at faithdebates.org.uk/research), ComRes, (comres.co.uk/our-work/poll-archive), and Ipsos Mori (ipsos-mori.com). We should perhaps also consider commissioning a national poll or two of our own.

It is vitally important to look not just at the religious polling, but a variety of other aspects as well, to get a more rounded understanding of how things have changed.

What is worth looking for here is not just the static data - how many people there are of a particular age in a particular place - but also the dynamics: where people go for leisure, what they do with their time, how many are working on a Sunday (often a high proportion), what the issues are that they worry about most, how much debt they are in, and whether they can afford to meet or take their children anywhere.


ANOTHER important aspect is to understand how much of the differences can be explained by the varying values of different age-groups. Generational analysis suggests that Baby-boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y/Millennials each have their own ideas about values and social norms, and they are different in important ways.

Young people, for instance, are not without values; it is just that theirs are different from ours. But unless we understand them, we will not connect with them. A helpful analysis of this can be found in the book Mind the Gap! by Graeme Codrington and Sue Grant-Marshall (Penguin, 2011: there is a summary on mindthegaptraining.com, which also has training packages designed for churches).

Parishes might look at this information, but also open conversations with local people with whom they do not normally connect, to get insights into wider issues, as well as honest perceptions of the Church from outside.

One parish in an area of disadvantage found that there were many one-bedroom homes with men in them, many of them single parents, but seeing their children only on a Saturday.

They did not have the space to put them up, and they could not afford to take them out; so the church set up Messy Church on a Saturday afternoon for them to come with their children. Almost immediately it was full.

In another community, church-people spoke to a local businessman, who welcomed the contact (and this was the typical response received by all churches doing this), longed to see the church initiating something wider than itself, and offered suggestions about how it could go about it.


CHURCHES need to consider what they are being told, and how they are being told it, as well as how they might better serve people sustainably by engaging with those issues which resonate, and are not just for their own benefit. We need to disrupt the narrative that the Church is interested in the wider community only when it needs something - usually money for its own support.

The problem is that the Church is too full of its own anecdotes, and fails to hear the voices of those largely beyond its reach (Generations X and Y especially). There may be a different response from people in different circumstances, and that in itself would make demands on the Church to tailor its response.

The issues, values, and views of those in their twenties and thirties are vastly different from those close to or in retirement. But, whatever we might find, unless we listen, we are bound to fail - and we will waste a large amount of resources, and isolate ourselves further.

If we think that by supplying more of what we currently do, or what we think people need (but which they don't), we will somehow be successful (whatever we might mean by such a term), we are deluding ourselves.

The old rabbinic wisdom of two ears, one mouth - for listening twice as much as we speak - seems, right now, to be a good place to start.


Canon Nick Ralph is Social Responsibility Adviser at the Portsmouth Diocesan Council for Social Responsibility (rapiddevelopment.org.uk).

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