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Numbers have always mattered

03 July 2015

The numbers: David Goodhew argues that numerical growth has always been central to the Church's mission


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 traditions?

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 obesity.

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 always did.

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 Church.

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 godly way.


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 its meaning.

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 an either/or.


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 year.

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 not."

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 people good.

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 by God.

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 congregational life.

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 ecclesiastical doom-mongering!

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 £18)).

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