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.