Where the Spirit pleases

by
03 July 2015

The location: what happens if growth happens elsewhere, Stephen Spencer  asks

BRENT CLARK

THERE is little disagreement that church growth needs to be a priority at the moment. But the question is: what kind of growth?

The Reform and Renewal documentation sent out by the Archbishops' Council places a priority on reversing the decline in church attendance, which is described as being "one per cent per annum over recent decades", linked with an "age profile of our membership [which] has become significantly older than that of the population" (GS 1976.8).

The documents call on the Church to work for "numerical and spiritual growth". So the touchstone of growth is to be whether the C of E can reverse the numerical decline in attendance at its services and lower the age profile of its "membership".

Experience at local level suggests, however, that genuine growth and church attendance are not necessarily the same thing. For example, a few years ago, one fairly typical medium-sized parish church recognised that its parishioners were no longer coming to its Sunday services in decent numbers. It decided that it must go to them.

The PCC chose to do this through the two church primary schools, because these provided great points of contact with a large number of families. The idea was to open after-school clubs in the schools, on four days of the week, with a paid children's worker planning the activities and taking a lead, and a dedicated group of volunteers from the congregation assisting her.

The clubs were designed to be fun and lively, within a broadly Christian ethos, with a "circle time" at the end offering a thought and a prayer. They were an immediate success, building up to a combined membership of about 60 children. The volunteers described how much they enjoyed them and how much they got out of them.

The PCC then began to ask how all these children and, it hoped, their parents, could be drawn into church. It concluded that the Sunday-morning eucharist was too long and too passive for the children and their parents; so it opted for a weekday Messy Church, meeting after school and replacing the after-school clubs that week.

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Hot food would be provided by the church at the beginning, and a simple celebration would close the event, with a song, talk, and prayer.

This also proved to be successful, with on average 80 children and parents attending. A good time was had by all, although the volunteers found the catering tiring, and some of the leaders began to wonder whether the whole event was really deepening commitment and discipleship, or whether it was just a big crafts party, with a free meal thrown in.

So, after two years, the PCC made another decision: it sent another children's worker back into the schools, this time during class time, with the co-operation of the head teachers, to run Godly Play sessions for each class. These would have just two adults present, the children, in small groups, being given time and space to experience and express their own spiritual awareness and questions. Over a two-year period, nearly 400 children would be reached in this way.

Once these sessions had begun, the Godly Play leader reported back that the children had demonstrated a depth of spiritual awareness and questioning that took her breath away. Here was something that Messy Church had not been able to provide: a direct encounter with God.

 

THE point to note is that this spiritual growth was not taking place in church. While it was happening, the Sunday-morning congregation was still in gradual numerical decline. The question presses in whether this was church growth. Judging by the Reform and Renewal documentation, it seems not.

Others, however, have a different perspective. The South African missiologist David Bosch wrote in 1991 that mission "cannot simply be the planting of churches or the saving of souls; rather, it has to be service of the missio Dei". This "affects all people in all aspects of their existence. Mission . . . takes place in ordinary human history, not exclusively in and through the Church. . .

"The missio Dei is God's activity, which embraces both the Church and the world, and in which the Church may be privileged to participate" (Transforming Mission).

This perspective suggests that any growth in people's connecting with God, in the community as much as in the church, is a step forward for mission, and something for the church to celebrate.

The goal of mission, by implication, is not growth in the size of the instrument of that mission, the Church, but the growth of God's Kingdom of faith, hope, and love in the world at large.

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SUCH a shift is supported by the recognition that the current pursuit of congregational growth for its own sake could be a hiding to nothing. Contemporary British culture has moved away from the notion of regular commitment.

Sociologists have, for some time, been pointing out that membership of all voluntary attendance-based organisations, from political parties and trade unions to football teams and village institutes, has been in decline. In the past, these have relied on a sense of obligation among their members; but we have moved from a culture of obligation to a culture of consumption.

In this setting, the churches have fared better than most - something that should be celebrated rather than condemned as failure. Nevertheless, the trajectory for membership is likely to be only in one direction - despite pockets of growth in urban areas arising from immigration, and from church-planting by a few big churches.

The real question, then, is whether the churches are to fight ever more vigorously against this, becoming more counter-cultural and ultimately sectarian - or whether they can embrace inculturation, and find fresh ways for the Christian faith to flourish.

Put differently, whether the Church can rediscover its historic vocation to be not just a Church in England, but a Church of England.

 

THE sociologist Linda Woodhead has pointed a way forward for Christian mission, calling attention to the Church's entry-points into society, "those places where the rubber of Christianity meets the road of real life: in homes, playgroups, schools, and other places where children are socialised; in the occasional Offices, and the new personal and civic rituals that are developing; in railway stations, shopping centres, hospitals, and other sites of chaplaincy; in our built heritage, and in cherished traditions" (Comment, 23 January).

This shifts the aim of the growth agenda from a congregational focus - of filling and caring for the ark of safety - to a societal focus, of helping the wider community to be touched by God's salvation, becoming yeast that leavens the dough of society.

So a church's primary call would not be to recruit others to join its regular membership, but to become an agent of change in the wider community, and especially in the hearts and minds of the population.

Those who fear that a loss of focus on congregational growth will imperil the parish system might note that, as we have seen, aiming for congregational growth itself is not going to save the parish system.

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Fulfilling a societal role would, however, as a by-product, draw new people into involvement with the church and the parish system, because the church would now be seen as a vital instrument in that mission.

The mission of God is not to save the institutional Church. It is an instrument, not the goal of God's mission. The mission is to help the people of the world find the God who saves them. If the Church embraces this servant role, how-ever, then newcomers may be inspired to join in and play their part.

 

The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer is Vice- Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Mirfield, and the author of Christ in All Things: William Temple and his writings  (Canterbury Press 2015).

This article is a revised version of an address given to an Affirming Catholicism conference in Newcastle in May.

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