Church growth or consolidation?

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a parent in a fairly middle-class suburban family. You managed to get through university and find a spouse and a job and have some kids, and you’re settling down, after a fashion. You find a neighbourhood you can just about afford to buy in, perhaps with help from your parents, with schools that are probably going to be okay… and you move there, and you work all the hours you can, as does your spouse, because that’s what’s required if you’re going to have a decent standard of living.

You were brought up going to church but you drifted away in your teens and while you were at university, and didn’t really go back while you were in those limbo years of moving around from one shared house to the next, trying to save up for a deposit. But now it seems important. You want your kids to grow up with the sort of community support you had, and you’ve grown up enough to realise that avoiding God forever isn’t going to work, and so you look around at your local churches. There are loads of them, so there’s no need to commute.

They’re all struggling — but what church isn’t, these days? — but eventually you settle for one, St Whosit’s, that seems to have people who are sortof friendly, and worship that is orderly and predictable. It’s a little off the beaten track and doesn’t get as much passing traffic as the church near the station. The congregation is on the small side with forty people on average, the service sheets are old and tatty and someone decided printing small black text on deep purple would be a good idea, the heating is completely inadequate and the lighting isn’t much better… but the vicar seems nice and is always ready to listen to you. So you come to church for a while and you have your two children baptised and when they’re old enough you start bringing them to Sunday School.

The Sunday School at St Whosit’s is also small, and has been run by the same two volunteers for thirty years. After a while someone asks you to stand for the PCC so you do that: you’re not sure if this is what God wants you to do, but it’s certainly needed. And you find out that there’s no limit to the amount of work that needs doing, and the church just doesn’t have the resources to do most of it. The vicar is part-time already, there isn’t a parish administrator, there are no associate priests or other sorts around to cover services even. You’re the only person your age making a significant contribution, because most other people your age don’t even have your resources; the other people who are running things are mostly retired. There used to be a youth group but it sortof collapsed, and you can see that if this doesn’t change your kids will probably want to stop coming to church at some point.

You’re pretty busy with work and your kids have started going to school and having all the extracurricular activities, and the homework, which go along with that, and you can’t afford to pay for childcare much; you end up juggling late hours with your spouse and it’s all really hard work. You’re constantly exhausted, but you hope it’ll get better as the kids get older and more independent. So you keep pouring your own time and energy into St Whosit’s, even though you’re really tired, and the little arguments and difficulties along the way start to feel personal. Some of your favourite people, the ones who were most welcoming and friendly, die or move away, and you start to feel even more lonely. The vicar retires, everyone has to step up and do a bit more, and it’s tiring and discouraging; but you hang in there because it might get better. The diocese decides to change the nature of your priest-in-charge from half-stipendiary to house-for-duty, and everyone feels unhappy about it, but the position is filled and it looks like things will improve. The new vicar is very different and some things change, but it still feels like you’re on a treadmill, running running running all the time. The Parish Share goes up instead of down for some administrative reason that isn’t clear to you, so the “extra” resources you thought you’d have in exchange for your new vicar not working as many hours don’t exist. (In actual fact, your new house-for-duty vicar works far more than their designated “Sunday plus twenty hours” or whatever is in their working agreement.) Then the roof starts to leak. Maybe your parish is merged with another, better-resourced parish: but they feel under-resourced themselves and working together goes very slowly, it mostly feels like adding another layer of complexity for very little access to new resources. The Bishop keeps talking about how there’s a shortage of priests and we need more lay ministry in future, but you can’t figure out where this army of lay volunteers is going to come from.

You start to wonder why you go to church at all: it just feels like work to you now, and like nothing you do at St Whosit’s makes any difference to anyone, never mind God. The only answer you find is that it would let everyone else down if you quit. You start to wonder where you can find solace, where you can connect with God. But you don’t want to just walk away, and you definitely don’t want to move your kids to another church without good reason.

One lunchtime you go to a sung Eucharist at a cathedral. The greeters are friendly but anonymous; the liturgy is superb; there is evidence of the church community making a real difference locally, with pictures and information boards about night shelters or soup kitchens or other obvious outreach. The preaching is top-notch and speaks to you in a way you haven’t felt spoken to for ages (mostly because you’ve been out in Sunday School during the sermons and not heard them). You feel like the money you put in the little yellow Gift Aid envelope is going to a good cause. You feel like what you contribute makes a difference to something bigger than yourself. You feel safe crying here, with sorrow or with joy. It feels… good, and right, to listen to God in this place. So you keep going back, and eventually decide that, despite the commute, you’ll drag your kids along to this place on Sunday mornings. They make new friends and maybe sometimes it’s a bit anonymous but at least everything isn’t such a struggle all the time.

Or maybe one evening you go to an “informal” service at a charismatic evangelical church a few miles away. It’s too far to walk, and as it turns out, it’s huge. You’re not sure you get on with the worship band, and the way the place is full of well-off white people who all look the same is a bit weird after the more diverse congregation at St Whosit’s, but something about the way these people pray for one another is compelling, not really your cup of tea but it feels genuine. And they’re very friendly, without even a whiff of asking you to be on a rota, and it’s full of people who are a bit younger than you. Eventually you find out they have a ‘formal’ service earlier on Sunday mornings, which has more people your age (and quite a few who are older); it’s a bit strange, but lets you sing a hymn or two. And everyone is so friendly, and the provision for children is excellent — a huge Sunday School with different classes and they have things like a sensory room for people who need quiet space, but also there’s a good follow-on for young adults, teenagers who feel like they are too old for Sunday School but don’t necessarily want to go sit with their parents. And they’re friendly: did I mention how friendly everyone is? So friendly. So maybe you start bringing your kids here, and they make new friends, and it isn’t perfect but at least it isn’t such a struggle all the time.

St Whosit’s is a sort of amalgam of many churches I know. These churches run on a shoestring, and often have few resources. Their volunteers are drawn from the small pool of those who have time: mostly people who have retired. They tend to underpay any staff they do have. Because of their size they don’t tend to get curates, so new clergy aren’t really being trained in how to minister in their contexts. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult for them to attract many new members! I think this is because both the short-term and long-term experience of people who did not grow up going to that church is negative and tiring and frustrating rather than life-giving, and the people who grew up going there don’t see any reason to change (or don’t think they can afford to spend the resources required for changes). When they do grow, it’s because there are people there who are able to form friendships with newcomers despite all the other stuff; or perhaps because of some localised baby boom.

Larger churches tend to employ more staff, part-time and full-time. They can also draw from a much larger pool of volunteers, with a wider range of skills. They are large enough to “deserve” a curate from time to time, which means that new clergy get on-the-job training in their sorts of context. If there’s nobody there who will form some kind of enduring relationship with newcomers, they’ll flounder eventually, but the initial experience is often much better, perhaps good enough to keep numbers up even when people leave. (I don’t know of statistics on who leaves these larger churches and why.)

Statistics from 2014 show that attendance at cathedrals has been growing in recent decades, as has that at churches which manage a long list of activities which would be far beyond the means of St Whosit’s. But “The vast majority of converts come from other Christian denominations, rather than non-Christians or people with no religion.” I would be uttery unsurprised to find out that the vast majority of church growth isn’t even due to people from other Christian denominations, but from other parts of the Church of England.

I respectfully submit that the growth we see in larger, better-resourced churches is not due to their success at evangelism but due to a consolidation effect where people who were going to go to church anyway go to the ones that are better-resourced and less frustrating. That consolidation is directly linked to the economic shifts of the last 50-ish years: away from a large swathe of middle-class families where one parent has a paid job and the other doesn’t, toward a much smaller middle-class where people are scrambling a lot more and, in families with two parents, both of them will have jobs.

What I don’t know is how to respond to it.

9 thoughts on “Church growth or consolidation?

  1. This is a great blog, a detailed description of a church I recognise very well as it describes the first church I went to when I became a Christian when my children were little. And we did move to the Cathedral, though not from any perception it was ‘better’, but because our older son became a chorister and it was easier to support him if we moved churches completely.

    What to do about it? I’m not sure either. There’s a major administrative workload for any church, perhaps more paid admin staff might help free up lay and ordained people to deal with ministry? There’s an expectation that an effective church is a numerically growing church. I’m not sure if we can reverse that at this stage, but maybe we could celebrate smaller congregations as well?

    I became a Christian at my St Whosits. Having looked at larger and more active churches when I started to ‘seek’ in my thirties, St Whosits was the church where they noticed me, encouraged me to come back, and (to an extent) valued me. The vicar gave me individual confirmation classes which enabled me to explore all sorts of questions that my enquiring mind had about the Christian faith, and he pointed me to all sorts of answers, and gave me an idea of the scope of Christianity. So I am very grateful to St Whosits.

  2. I’m vicar of a church which, size-wise, could be St Whosit’s. There’s a lot of life here, and, I hope, not too much of the feeling of exhaustion you describe, but there are inevitable struggles because of the numbers, though many of those who come here do so because they know it is small enough for them to count and be noticed (small churches like mine have their own inward migrants, from large churches where no one knew who they were!) It’s the kind of church I feel called to serve in, and I think you are spot-on about curates not being trained for places like this. You have to be fairly robust, and able to turn your hand to anything, because there are always gaps to be filled. (I say that it’s not that you want to be a one-person band, but that you have to be able to play all the instruments). You have to have sorted out in your own mind that Sunday Attendance figures aren’t a measure of your own worth, because many of these churches, especially in rural areas as mine is, have self-limiting factors built in – no loos, or money to put them in, inflexible ancient buildings, a small population, and diminishing sense of local community. People can now get in their cars and go to the nearest megachurch. You also have to be rigorous about looking for what the church could be doing better, though, and be proactive about things like social media and church websites – there are lots of ways of deepening people’s engagement with church without all the flashy programmes a larger church can put on. One of the things I love about working in smaller churches, though, is the way you have to work together – all age, all backgrounds etc – and frankly that seems to me to be far healthier than the kind of segmented existence I see in larger churches, where every age group has its own meetings, and where there is some separate space and time for every conceivable interest group. It’s harder working together, but it feels authentic. What would really help smaller churches is administrative simplification (or centralised systems we could tap into) and a shift in focus from the idea that numbers = success = a sign of the blessing of God, so that those who feel called to serve in them don’t have their morale constantly sapped.

  3. Great blog – so recognisable and exactly the sort of Church I came to be vicar of 3 years ago. But things are changing rapidly as we stopped trying to do church, and instead tried to be church. We now focus our mission around the neediest in our community, and that is the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Most of regulars have left, but new people have come, and not just asylum seekers. Challenges abound, as does love, laughter and tears. It’s not posh, or academic or even trendy, but it is authentic and there is nowhere in the world i would rather be right now.

  4. Thank you for this very true-to-life and thought-provoking article.

    ‘What I don’t know is how to respond to it.’ – I can’t say that I have any clever solutions. However, I do know that the vocabulary we use in telling a story can make a big difference. To give just one example, a story of long-term illness is quite different if it’s told as a story of courage in adversity.

    So what I wonder is this: How would your story (or indeed any story about the church growth/decline) be changed if we used words and phrases that are missing from this account – words like: “Jesus”, “Christ”, “Holy Spirit”, “gospel”, “good news” and “salvation”?

    1. Tim,

      I’m going to assume that if someone has a long-term illness, you don’t tell them off for not being cheerful or courageous enough in the face of adversity. I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of “encouragement” and it’s patronising at best. The last thing someone with a long-term illness needs is to be told off for not having a positive enough attitude.

      I’m also going to assume that you agree that without churches — that is, the Body of Christ — growing past a point of maintenance (or indeed the gradual decline we’ve seen), responding to the Holy Spirit is going to be harder, telling people the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is going to be harder, and fixing the leaky roof at St Whosit so that people can worship together without getting soaked is going to be harder. In fact, that’s kindof the point I was trying to make in the first place. Mission requires resources. I didn’t leave out these words because I don’t care about them, but because I take them as read.

      So, in answer to your question: you can use those words as much as you like, but words without action don’t mean much to most people. The frustration people like my hypothetical churchgoer feel will remain and perhaps be intensified. “Strengthen/renew your relationship with Jesus,” they’ll be told, while the people who are best-equipped to help them do this have less time to spend because the entire parish is stuck in the treadmill I described.

      That said, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about Jesus! I do think that more emphasis on what God is doing in and through churches that are typically thought of as “small and struggling” (because of low numbers or low funds) could be a very positive and encouraging development: but I am wary of it turning into “triumphing over adversity” scolding.

      Similarly, I believe prayer is the most important thing any of us can do — but I don’t think trotting it out without examining the situation is a very helpful answer to “how can we fix the roof and the heating so that people will actually want to come to St Whosits?” especially if it comes from another member of the Body of Christ who happens to have resources that could be put toward, say, the roof and the heating. I didn’t mention it in this post because the “if things aren’t working out for you, then you obviously aren’t praying hard enough” idea is rampant enough already (I speak from personal experience of this with regards to disability).

      I also think there is a place for genuine lament; I could go on for some time about the need for this in our public liturgy and private prayers but it’s probably a digression! However, I believe Jesus cares about our suffering here and now, not only our eternal salvation: else why is his healing ministry such an important part of the Gospel accounts? And if Jesus meets people in need of healing and actually heals them, then are we as the church not also called to a sort of healing work, toward acknowledging the hurt and frustration people suffer and restoring them to some kind of wholeness, whatever that looks like? Not telling them their frustration is down to not using the right language or not having the right attitude.

      So I guess one question is how to use the language you describe, without telling people off.

      Perhaps another way to phrase my lack of certainty about how to respond to the economic and social realities that have significantly impacted the decline/consolidation cycle I have talked about is simply to ask, in each case: What would Christ’s healing look like in this situation, and how can we be open to that?

  5. Thank you for this blog – your description is very recognisable. But perhaps I can add some hope. About a year ago I had access to all the attendance stats of one diocese, about ten years’ worth. They tended to be somewhat random – some completers were optimistic, and others read the guidance differently. Nevertheless they painted a fuzzy picture. About 1/3 churches were growing, a bunch were holding their own (this is still encouraging as death at least will catch up with us) and a larger group were declining. The interesting thing is that growth was happening in small churches as well as large and in “catholic” as well as “evangelical”. This is the hope.

    The declines seemed to of two sorts, (a) drift and (b) large numbers not noticed from one or two of the very large churches. Sad to say, but there was often a link between leadership quality and decline.

    It seemed to me that the report From Anecdote to Evidence had a lot of good suggestions for areas to think about. Of course, no silver bullet, but there were some obvious things (a good welcome) and some not so (lay led new ventures).

    Thanks again

    1. Stephen,

      Thank you — I am sure there isn’t a silver bullet, and also sure that some fairly basic things can help (a good welcome being one of these). I am not sure attendance statistics alone can tell us whether growth that happens in one church at the same time as decline in another is actually consolidation, unless the total growth exceeded the total decline. I am glad to hear that some smaller churches are growing; it would be interesting to compare resources between similar-sized churches that experience growth over a ten-year period, and those that don’t.

      I will admit I am a bit wary of “leadership quality” as a metric: how was this measured? It seems to me that someone who is good at leading a very large church (with more resources) might well struggle with the very different economies of scale in a smaller one, and vice versa.

  6. “The congregation at St Whatsits is on the small side with forty people on average”. For many of us that is large! I live in a rural area where the regular congregations are usually around 15. I attended Eucharist last Sunday at the church in a neighbouring village and the congregation was six plus the celebrant and the organist. Of course, the number did not matter as we all recalled what Jesus taught: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” [Matthew:18:20]. Sadly, the predictions are that by 2025 the rural church will have disappeared and no-one seems to want to ask why. The institutional church is fixated with mission statements and growth strategies spending large sums on gathering statistics but it seems to be reluctant to ask why numbers are in decline. As Rev Dave Tomlinson aptly put it “If I open a shop on the high street and nobody came in to by my products, it would be a bit rich to blame the customers for not turning up”. Research suggests that a significant number of people, even amongst those who state that they have no religion, will say they believe that there is a God. Interestingly, amongst university students who described themselves as Christian but did not attend church, over half said they prayed more once a week – as one commentator noted “that is an awful lot of praying going on! The problem for the institutional churches is that, while many people do not want to cease to be believers and do not want to abandon God, they find that there are aspects of the teaching of the churches difficult to reconcile with their own knowledge of the world – they have become “believers in exile”. It is not a matter of recovering God – he is still very much with his people – it is a matter of the churches learning to reconnect with the people.

    1. Nigel,

      In fairness, I did specify suburban rather than rural. I know rural churches are struggling — as are rural schools, health providers, post offices, shops… It would be interesting to compare attendance decline and population decline. If church membership in rural areas is nosediving faster than population it’s worth considering why: and I think the economies of scale may be involved, as after a certain point it gets harder to avoid a treadmill. If it’s roughly matching population change, then the question needs to be what being the Body of Christ looks like in the context of a very sparse population, and how the rest of us can support that.

      I think statistics are generally more useful in context, though, and if we want to be able to support rural churches and smaller suburban churches, we urgently need to look at apparent growth and whether it might be consolidation instead.

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