Church growth is not just for Evangelicals

by
08 December 2017

Tim Thorlby challenges stereotypes about Catholic parishes

EVEN within the Church, stereotypes abound. Many of us hold surprisingly firm views about people we have never met, and churches whose services we have never attended. One of the joys of primary research is the chance to dismantle some of these myths and provide a clearer view as to what is really going on in churches.

In 2016, the Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) published new research on Evangelical church-planting in east London, Love, Sweat and Tears (News, 8 April 2016, Features, 21 April). This confirmed the widely recognised image of Evangelicals as people who like to plant churches, but it also revealed that the way they work is not at all how people often imagine.

All of these Evangelical churches were planted in deprived areas, not suburbs; most of their members were local; one parish was cross-tradition; every parish was reaching people who do not attend church; and all of them were involved in social-action projects that served their local communities. In other words, much more interesting than the rather lazy stereotypes that are sometimes offered about Evangelicals.

 

IT TURNS out that lazy stereotypes do not work with Anglican Catholics, either. CTC’s new research report, A Time to Sow, shows clearly that churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition can, and do, grow.

We picked seven case-studies of Anglican Catholic parishes in the dioceses of London and Southwark which have demonstrated recent and consistent growth. They include both traditional and modern Catholics.

At all of our case-study parishes, Sunday attendances have grown — typically at rates of between five and ten per cent per year. Attendance at midweek services, or other new services, has also grown significantly. Most of these churches have also been experimenting with different kinds of services and activities as they reach out to their communities, including Messy Church and Choir Church.

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The “habits of growth” displayed by these faithful Anglican Catholic churches are also almost indistinguishable from the habits in evidence among Evangelical churches near by, which are also growing. The liturgies, language, and church culture might be different, but a number of key habits are shared. These include being welcoming and family-friendly, developing lay leadership, and being proactive in engagement beyond the church’s walls. In particular, the practice of community organising is being harnessed by a growing number of churches to develop the congregation and act with its neighbours for the common good. The different church traditions have more in common than many realise.

The biggest stereotype to take a hit from this research is the idea that to grow churches in deprived neighbourhoods is “too difficult”, or that growth should somehow be excused for those priests who labour in such “challenging” areas. Every one of our growing case-study churches is located among the 15 per cent most deprived parishes in England.

There is a school of thought which sees church growth in deprived communities as inherently problematic: there are not enough middle-class people with appropriate skills to run the church; there is not enough money; people in these communities have other more pressing priorities in life; and so on. These poorer congregations are largely seen as the passive recipients of generosity from those who might be willing to serve them.

And yet, in our seven case-study churches, we found congregations willing to give, able to lead, and happy to grow. They may, indeed, have less disposable income and professional skills than some churches, but they have other talents, good networks, and no less energy. They have something to offer. To be a “church for the poor” is to cast the congregations and their communities as incapable and limited. To be a “church of the poor” is to enlist the congregation in the work of leading, serving, and growing: an altogether more rewarding and joyful endeavour.

As Bishop Peter Wheatley writes in the foreword to the report: “Many clergy have learned to preach, teach and pastor but not how to run an effective organisation where their people feel they are hosts not guests.”

The report tells seven stories of hope for Anglican Catholics, which illustrate how church growth is happening today in ways faithful to the tradition. More widely, these are stories of hope for the Church of England, if it means that growth might come from any quarter. The research also offers an underlying story of hope for our poorest communities, suggesting that churches that are willing to do so can connect in powerful ways.

 

SIGNIFICANT changes are required if this hope is to translate into reality across the wider Church. The report makes clear that growth is not currently typical of Anglican Catholic churches, and the C of E certainly has a long way to go before it could confidently describe itself as a Church of the poor. An agenda for change is sketched out in A Time to Sow, calling for priests who are willing to lead growth, a commitment to lay leadership, and greater collaboration.

But, if the Church is willing to prepare the ground, sow the seed, and make the change, it is possible that the future could be rather different from what the stereotypes might suggest.

 

Tim Thorlby is the development director at the Centre for Theology and Community in east London, where he leads the Centre’s work on research and enterprise. theology-centre.org

Listen to him talk more about the research on the Church Times Podcast.

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