All other factors being equal, this may be true. A “good” vicar or minister in a situation where a growth in church membership is possible is probably more likely, on the whole, to see that growth happen than a “bad” or mediocre one. Assuming growth in church membership is a good thing (more on that assumption later), this is self-evident.
So what? All other factors are rarely equal, or even acknowledged.
While a “good” vicar — or other community leader — may be able to help a church grow, there are many factors in church membership growth which are far beyond the personal control of any minister or group of people. These include:
- Migration into or out of an area
- The easiest example I can bring to mind is the Industrial Revolution. Inner city and suburban churches grew and grew, while country parishes suffered a sad lack of population, especially among the younger generations. It isn’t that the city churches were especially good or led by especially good people, it’s just that they happened to be in the right place.
- Bad personal experiences of church
- Lots of people have had bad experiences of church. When this has happened a lot in a particular area, or because of an abusive previous church leader in a particular place, there is only so much a new leader can do to heal fractured relationships. This is especially true if the damage has involved manipulative and harmful forms of “evangelism”.
- Wider perception of a denomination, Christianity, or religion in general
- When headlines are about child abuse, fundamentalist clerics, “religious” terrorism and so on, there is only so much that can be done locally to counter the idea that it’s perhaps best to steer clear of church. Sensationalist lies, or even truths that only represent a slim minority, are always going to sell more papers than the better news of what a church is doing to help and serve their local community. For example, to someone who isn’t involved or following the smaller details, it can look an awful lot like the C of E simply isn’t interested in equality for women, given that we haven’t managed to get them into the episcopate yet.
- Many people I know don’t live where they work and many don’t worship near where they live, either. The networks of friendships and relationships which may lead to a lasting commitment to Christian faith often do not end up with more people getting involved in the same local church as the people who are an inspiration or example to them. That is to say: members of “your” local church could be awesome evangelists who are inspiring all kinds of people to make a commitment to following Jesus Christ, and you’d never know, because they work in Central London and live hours away and there is no reason for them to come to “your” church.
Good leadership is definitely important, but it is only one factor.
In any case, is growth of church membership really what the Church of England, or any church, should be working toward? Should it really be a primary goal? Should it really be what we measure? I am not sure that it should.
I recognise that any denomination needs membership to survive; I know that buildings and stipends cost money, and this has to come from somewhere. Believe me, I know.
I know, too, that we are told to go out and make disciples. That is very clear.
Being with other Christians to share in God’s word and sacraments (however you want to understand that term) is part of Christian discipleship, and that is one purpose of church communities. We gather to worship God together, learn together, eat and drink together, and coordinate our work in the world. Churches exist so that discipleship can happen.
But going to church does not magically make a person a disciple.
What, then, should we do about the decline in church attendance and membership?
I think a good first step is to admit that evangelism (sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ) is not the same thing as recruitment (membership drives). If we focus on the former, our denominations may or may not survive in recognisable form, but we will be fulfilling the commandment to make disciples.
If instead we focus on recruitment, and lose sight of building the Kingdom of God in order to maintain our Beautiful Buildings and Infrastructure, we may end up with an institution which is a sort of church-shaped box, devoid of life and truth: where hypocrisy is the norm from church members and leaders, where there is a lack of confidence in teaching or exploring basic doctrine, where there is a culture of turning up on Sunday morning for a bit without really letting what we do and learn there affect the rest of our lives, where we try to manipulate people into being more like us to ensure the continuation of our comfortable clique.
Of course, some people might say that the C of E and many other mainstream churches have already reached that point. I can certainly see why. For myself, if I thought that was true, if I thought we were beyond all hope of following Christ, I wouldn’t stay involved.
Rather than pinning church growth on “good” clergy, I think it is time to ditch the worry about how we are going to survive tomorrow, and take a long, hard look at best (and worst) practice in evangelism.
As I consider myself a returner (or even a convert) to Christianity, I will use my own story as a sort of case study for this. Anecdotal evidence is only anecdotal but it is as good a place to start as any. Watch this space.
The greatest gift one person can give to another is to know you are loved.