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C of E should try this recipe for growth

07 June 2024

There is a better way to reverse decline in attendance than merging struggling parishes, argues Christian Selvaratnam

MANY who have attempted to make a classic French sauce know the frustration of trying to rescue a split béchamel. What should we do? Start again from scratch? Or desperately try to salvage it by mixing harder, adding a splash of boiling water, or perhaps some cornflour? Anyone who has tried any of these methods will know that they can be hit and miss, sometimes resulting in a sauce spoilt by artificial intervention.

Delia Smith offers a trustworthy alternative — certainly one that has always worked for me. Her method for fixing a split sauce involves starting with a small new roux, the essence of the sauce, and slowly adding back the damaged liquid. Gradually, this renews the entire mixture by incorporation. It takes patience, but, in time, a new roux can save the day.

There are different schools of thought about the most effective interventions to stimulate growth in declining churches. When dioceses such as Liverpool are reporting that at least 70 per cent of their parishes are in sustained numerical decline (News, 10 May), and that they feel that they are exploring “last chance” options, this is clearly one of the most strategic mission questions that the Church is facing. Finding a way to fix the Church of England sauce is crucial.

ONE increasingly common approach focuses on reorganisation and amalgamation for growth. In this method, several churches are combined to form a supra-parish: a mission unit or minster church served by a team ministry.

The hope is that merging struggling parishes will not only reverse longstanding and sustained decline in church attendance by freeing more time for evangelism, but also reduce costs by consolidating staffing and streamlining governance and support services.

The potential organisational benefits of this strategy might be plausible, but growth in the Kingdom of God may not work in this way. It feels a bit like a “Mix harder, and hope for the best” approach.

Frustratingly, it typically takes about five years to determine whether strategic restructuring is successful — an indication that is especially critical if the approach is untested. This delay is partly because of the honeymoon effect that often accompanies any new strategy.

There is, of course, another approach to church growth, which the C of E has been actively engaging in for more than 20 years: church-planting. This “Start from scratch” method has many merits to commend it. Church-plants typically engage effectively with unreached people, are almost always younger than the C of E average, and are often more diverse: qualities that have been identified as crucial for the whole Church (News, 27 November 2020).

They also seem to be highly effective at generating local leaders and ordained vocations. In my anecdotal observation, churches involved in planting seem to generate naturally more new leaders than longer-established parishes — sometimes ten times or more. This last point is particularly relevant, since many struggling parishes are finding it increasingly hard to find lay leaders and church officers.

Church-planters instinctively focus on developing a single healthy community (a new ecclesial roux), which can multiply and spread to form additional congregations. This approach also opens the door to incorporating lay leadership for congregations, a common practice in the global Church and one that initiatives such as Cultivate, Myriad, Mustard Seed, and Seedbed are currently championing.

In the amalgamation method, merging parishes into bigger units introduces new challenges in complexity, significantly raising the bar for the leadership and ministry skills needed to be effective. This approach also presumes that limited resources are the principal reason that parishes are not growing, whereas, in my experience, missional disciples usually find ways to be fruitful, even with limited resources. Like a split sauce, the challenges in declining churches cut deep, I suspect, and will not be resolved through simple reorganisation.

ALTHOUGH perhaps more challenging and messier, a better way to renew the parish might be found in reproducing the missional health found in growing and multiplying churches.

An example of this is seen in the revitalising effect that new churches in the Victorian era had on the parish system. Today, benefices such as Saint, in Hackney, and the Antioch Network, in Manchester (News, 14 December 2018), have become effective team ministries in this way; and their effectiveness stems from an overflow of mission and vocations, not merely organisation. Perhaps we need more mixed-ecology projects such as these: effective church-plants spreading their impact, and diverse networks of churches reproducing renewal through the parish system.

Utilising some of the wisdom found in church-planting practices offers tactics and strategies to reverse decreasing numbers and encourage the Church to grow. Rather than merge parishes that have been in sustained decline, and hope for a different outcome, it is better to explore proven ways to rejuvenate missional culture.

Could it be that our clergy and lay leaders at the forefront of church-planting (and Delia Smith) hold some of the insights we need today to renew the whole Church?

The Revd Dr Christian Selvaratnam is the Dean of Church-Planting at St Hild College and the author of Why Plant Churches? Theological and practical reasons (Grove Books, 2023) and The Craft of Church Planting: Exploring the lost wisdom of apprenticeship (SCM Press, 2022) (Books, 13 October 2023).

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