THERE is little disagreement that church growth needs to be a
priority at the moment. But the question is: what kind of
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
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
Hot food would be provided by the church at the beginning, and a
simple celebration would close the event, with a song, talk, and
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.
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
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
Put differently, whether the Church can rediscover its historic
vocation to be not just a Church in England, but a Church of
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
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
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
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.