THE Church of England must celebrate people whose churches grow from 40 to 50 rather than perpetuate the idea that church growth entails three figures, a webinar from its evangelism and discipleship team heard this week.
The session explored the findings of a survey of 405 parish priests in “mid-sized churches” (of between 20 and 60 worshippers), who were asked about factors that helped or hindered growth. The team of seven incumbents who conducted the research were responding to a request from the secretary-general of the General Synod, William Nye, who acknowledged two years ago that mid-sized churches had been “overlooked” by the national church institutions (News, 26 July 2019, 24 January 2020).
The Vicar of Malvern Link with Cowleigh, in Worcestershire, the Revd Phillip Johnson, told the webinar that those who responded to the survey were “incredibly surprised to be asked any questions at all. . . They felt pretty universally that this particular group in the middle was ignored. . . If you were small, there was a worry that you might keel over. If you were big, then they were celebrated in every way.”
They were also surprised to be asked about what was going well: “We spend a lot of time worrying and wondering about what is not working as opposed to what is working.”
Mid-sized churches are defined as the middle third of churches, about 6000. Their congregation size has fallen since the July 2019 General Synod meeting to between 17 and 57, as the average size of church has shrunk further. The Vicar of Petersfield, Hampshire, and acting Archdeacon of the Meon, Canon William Hughes, observed that those who attended them often felt that they were part of a small church. “But, if you put them all together, that’s a congregation of 200,000, which is a lot of people. . . The diversity between them is glorious.”
It has been calculated that, if each mid-sized church grew by five people this year, it would cancel out the annual decline in the Church of England’s numbers.
Fr Johnson’s main message was the importance of “size culture”: discerning the right size for a parish. He was aware of “huge pressure” in conversations about church growth to worry about whether a church could reach the hundreds: “People were beating themselves up that they weren’t able to get there.” Yet, for some churches of 40 or 45, the right size might be 50; many people had successfully grown churches in this way, he said.
He had observed that some churches that grew very quickly had shrunk back down. One factor was that it was much more difficult to maintain relationships in a church of 90 than a church of 60. Structures needed to grow with the congregation.
In the diocese of London, a quarter of churches are mid-sized, of which 97 per cent are not currently growing — mainly owing to “churn”. The Archdeacon of Charing Cross, the Ven. Adam Atkinson, spoke of the importance of celebrating leaders who could grow churches from 40 to 50, “instead of then going on and moving jobs and taking on a church in the hundreds. . . The Church of England, the Kingdom of God, needs you to deploy your gifts in that way. Don’t feel constrained by having to fit according to someone else’s pattern of what constitutes growth.”
Responses to survey questions about what clergy were doing to help their churches to grow elicited a huge variety of activities, from bell-ringing and the daily Office to Alpha courses. The only statistically significant factor was that they had been done with the intention of growth. “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it with an intention,” Canon Hughes advised. “Choose where you are going to apply your energy, and where you are not going to apply your energy, and do it with purpose.”
The greatest danger, the survey results suggested, was loneliness. “People in these churches, because they are not surrounded very often by large staff teams, tended to be in danger of being lonely and isolated,” Fr Johnson said.
He called for “structured, protected space” for relationships. Chapters were a source of support if they were “a place of refreshment, conversation, and friendship. There is a danger that we take all of our structures and make them all about strategic planning or missional activity. There has to be a space for being.”
The findings were good news for dioceses, Canon Hughes concluded. “We can almost hear, in the interviews, people feeling more energised about their ministry just by being given the opportunity to talk about it. The expertise, the answers, are there in 6000-odd parish churches, and, if we can give people the chance to tell the stories . . . we will all be richer for it.”