WHEN talk of church growth crops up, it is usually followed by
questions - especially when among clergy.
Is talk about church growth intolerant? Is it an unbiblical
bypassing of the centrality of the kingdom? Does it connect with,
and draw from, doctrines such as the incarnation and the breadth of
Christian tradition? Or is church growth one of those hobby-horses
of larger Evangelical churches, having little to do with other
Or, what happens when you look at human experience: when a
church grows, does that growth actually do any good? Shouldn't we
be trying to be "deep" rather than "wide"?
In short, is church growth an unspiritual "bigging yourself up",
as one ordinand once declared to me?
These are good and proper questions. But there are answers to
them. This article draws on a new study by a dozen academics,
Towards a Theology of Church Growth, which argues that
talking about church growth can be done in a way that is godly,
nuanced, and rooted in a wide range of Anglican traditions.
BEFORE we dig into the theology, we need to look at our own
context. If you are reading this from a church that is bursting at
the seams, you may need to be careful about the language of "church
growth". It can become an unspiritual "bigging yourself up".
But most churches in the C of E are not bursting at the seams.
Here, as in much of the Western Church, warning of the dangers of
church growth is like warning a starving man of the dangers of
Rather, we live in a climate where academics and media routinely
state that churches "must" expect decline. Daring to hope that a
church may grow, and working towards this end, is deeply
counter-cultural. The Church increasingly relates to the main
powers in society in the same way as it did in the first centuries.
It should "seek the welfare of the city" but its God is often not
that of the wider society. Now, as then, to trust in Jesus as Lord,
to pray, to hope in the resurrection of Christ, and to form
congregations runs against the grain. At root, arguably, they
Yes, we need to support the wider society; but no, we don't need
to conform to the wider society. Being a Christian could be defined
as being creatively subversive.
Then there are the old fears that to evangelise is to appear
exclusive or intolerant. There is some wisdom in this unease:
Christ's followers must treat all people with profound respect. But
this respect does not mean buying into a pluralism that sees all
viewpoints as of equal validity. Different faiths view many things
profoundly differently, and treating other faiths as equally valid,
or as a "pick and mix", where you can take what you choose,
distorts the message of those faiths. Pluralism is itself an
ideology which seeks to convert people to its tenets.
THE Gospels show that Jesus's central concern was the Kingdom of
God. I once asked 20 Oxford ordinands whether they thought the
Kingdom was more important than the Church. All but two assured me
that it was the Kingdom, not the Church, that really mattered.
The other two ordinands had the gumption to see that it was a
trick question. Contrasting the Kingdom and the Church is not
something that scripture does. The Kingdom means more than founding
congregations, but the local congregation is absolutely central to
the establishment of the Kingdom.
The New Testament is, overall, incredibly positive about
churches. It depicts congregations as "messy churches" where things
often go wrong. But they are, none the less, described as spiritual
houses, holy priesthoods, the body of Christ.
The New Testament is, to a significant extent, a history of
congregational growth. Jesus and the Early Church saw
congregational growth as good.
The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, shows how the
doctrine of the incarnation is deeply tied up with growing the
Because connecting with Jesus is a huge blessing, and, since you
can only do that within a community, and since sacraments such as
the eucharist are central to that connectivity, then growing
churches is good, too.
The Church in the first centuries believed deeply in the
incarnation - and in growing churches numerically. The Revd Dr
Graham Tomlin, with regard to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and
Professor Alister McGrath, with regard to eschatology, show how
these central doctrines bolster the case for growing the Church;
but also offer much-needed counsel on how to grow the Church in a
MANY in the contemporary Church see themselves within "Celtic",
"Franciscan", or "Prayer Book" traditions. St Cuthbert, one of the
key figures of early Christianity in England, is well known as a
person of prayer. But he was deeply committed to growing churches,
too. The comment often attributed to St Francis, that one should
"preach the gospel at all times but use words only when necessary",
is often taken to mean that Christians should focus on humanitarian
work rather than numerical growing of Christian congregations.
The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes shows in her study of the
medieval Church that St Francis was profoundly committed to growing
churches. His invention of the Christmas crib was intended as a
means to transmit faith in the far-from-pious environment of
burgeoning medieval Italian cities.
Thomas Cranmer's resonant Prayer Book was intended to connect
the good news of the gospel with the many who had little grasp of
Thus, to be truly Celtic, Franciscan, or Prayer Book requires a
commitment to numerical church growth. To espouse these traditions
(and many other traditions within Anglicanism) without caring about
church growth is to be untrue to them.
Equally, the study of tradition uncovers many resources for
helping churches to grow in a healthy way. The medieval stress on
penance had some downsides. But it shows a realistic awareness that
"weeds" as well as "wheat" grow in the Church. Whatever theological
tradition it draws on, a growing church must lead individuals to
grow more Christlike, and congregations to grow in their service to
the wider community. Growth in individual holiness and service to
the community also should go hand in hand with a commitment to grow
congregations numerically. We need to be deep and wide. It is not
DEE DEE was a member of the church I am part of in Durham. Her
health was shaky, and her educational attainment limited - more
limited than that of anyone reading this article, for example.
Dee Dee found faith in Christ a few years ago and died last
I was struck by a comment by a mental-health professional that
her membership of a congregation had done more for her than 40
years of psychiatric care. Dee Dee befriended a number of homeless
people, and she used to say to them of Jesus: "What he did for me,
he can do for you."
So much, so anecdotal. But this story illustrates a much wider
phenomenon. There is a large body of academic data - medical,
psychological, and sociological - showing that joining a
congregation does you good.
A leading Stanford academic, Professor Tanya Luhrmann, remarks:
"An avalanche of medical data has demonstrated that, for reasons
still poorly understood, those who attend church and believe in God
are healthier and happier and live longer that those who do
This may seem startlingly bold, but a look at the Oxford
Handbook on Religion and Health gives a sense of the weight of
evidence of which Professor Luhrmann speaks. Clergy and lay leaders
necessarily spend a lot of time with those parts of congregational
life where things have gone wrong. So, it can be harder for leaders
to remember the positive blessings that flow from being part of a
church congregation. But the empirical data shows that going to
church, overall, does you good.
Of course, the kingdom is not to be equated simply with health
and happiness. It is about healed relationships - with God and with
each other. But the evidence of which Luhrmann speaks should
caution against the idea that trying to grow congregations is in
some way selfish.
When I was in full-time parish ministry, I always had the sense
that trying to promote fair trade, or a foodbank, was seen as more
"compassionate" than, say, running a course for those enquiring
about the Christian faith. Leaving aside the fact that
congregational decline undermines a church's ability to engage in
things such as foodbanks and fair trade, the evidence shows that
following Jesus and being part of a Christian congregation does
Within that community, we are offered forgiveness, a sense of
purpose, community, and hope in the face of mortality. In a world
where the cultured élite sometimes regard the espousal of Christian
faith as bordering on the pathological, that needs saying.
THERE is much more to say, of course. We need to ask what
practices help and hinder growing churches. We need to work on
accurate metrics of what counts as growth.
These issues matter, but they are not the primary issue. The
Church of England's church-growth research programme stressed that
intentionality is crucial to church growth. Dr Threlfall-Holmes
found the same thing to be true in her study of the medieval
Church. And intentionality takes us back to theology.
There are very strong grounds for saying that growing churches
numerically is epistemologically sound, biblical, flows from the
central Christian doctrines, and is rooted in a wide range of
Christian traditions. The experiential data suggests strongly that
being part of a Christian community does people good.
Yes, our understanding of numerical church growth has to be seen
within a wider understanding of growth in the Christian life. But
thus viewed, numerical church growth is good, and is deeply desired
To say this can be a challenge to many theologians, clergy, and
congregations. It could be that unease about church growth comes
not just from godly scruples, but also from the internalisation of
the hugely powerful narrative of secularisation. This encourages a
"decline theology", in which we acquiesce in the demise of
This "decline theology" has minimal basis in scripture,
doctrine, and the Christian tradition. It stems, arguably, from an
unhealthy relationship with contemporary culture, internalising the
culture's dominant narrative that the Church must decline. Growing
churches is creative subversion of this dominant culture.
David Sheppard became Bishop of Woolwich in 1969. His
predecessor predicted to him that there would be no church in
inner-city London by 1979. Inner-city London has seen the fastest
church growth of any part of the UK in recent decades. So much for
There is no church growth without intentionality. So digging
deep into scripture, doctrine, tradition, experience, and
epistemology are vital. All these sources affirm that growing
churches numerically - when seen alongside the other facets of
growth in the Christian life - is good, and does you good.
As Archbishop Justin Welby says: "Growth is as fundamental as
worship to the health of every tradition of the Church." Beware the
excessive scrupulosity that dismisses the seeking of numerical
church growth as ungodly, or mere pragmatism.
God wants the Church to grow numerically, as well as in holiness
and service to the community. There is a solid theological
foundation for energetic work to grow churches.
The Rev Dr David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice
at Cranmer Hall, Durham. Towards a Theology of Church
Growth, with a foreword by Justin Welby, has just been
published by Ashgate (£19.99 (Church Times Bookshop