Reality Check

“The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches.”
@ABCJustin earlier Today.

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.

Meanwhile, consider what @CottrellStephen said today on You and Yours:

The greatest gift one person can give to another is to know you are loved.

10 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. I don’t think good vicars automatically lead to growth but bad ones usually inhibit it. So it is good practice to remove bad things in churches rather than having occasional great moments. Bring the lowest standard up rather than having false peaks. For a bishop this may mean a responsibility to look long, hard and supportively at under-performing clergy.

    1. That’s as may be — but evaluating clergy performance in terms of membership without examining other aspects of the work or other factors that affect membership is still a mistake. Clergy with shrinking congregations may not be underperforming at all.

  2. I think that the ABC used an unfortunate choice of words when he sought to attribute Church growth as purely being down to ‘having a good Vicar’.

    I find that disturbing that someone in the ultimate leadership position in the Church that I cherish and belong to could ignore the whole picture in favour of a quite narrow perspective on growth.

    ‘Going for Growth’ was the mantra in my last diocese and their concentration on that was at the cost of vocations and building discipleship, the key element on sustaining the mission of the church.

    In the year 2013 there was little vocational discernment going on, and neither was there any lay training for ministry. The Bishop said when I wrote to him about my concerns, that the diocese was in a state of transition towards the Evangelism and discipleship building needed to ‘Go for Growth. (my interpretation is tat this had meant a concentration on community building local evangelism through ‘fresh expressions’ projects. This combined with changes in personalities meant that resources for vocational exploration, discernment and training didn’t receive the priority that they could have had in different circumstances).

    He had the grace to apologise if I or others, had been disadvantaged by this and that things would be better in the future. To late I’m afraid as I have now left the diocese.

    The foundation of mission must be building disciples, and also actively promoting vocations to serve in the wide range of roles needed to allow a church to grow organically as new disciples arrive, are welcomed and are developed. This takes time, resources and available Clergy or Lay leaders to help build that growth, to fulfill God’s mission.

    If we approach mission and evangelism on a purely Clergy/PR/Promotional direction than we are failing the great majority of those without faith and those who’ve made a commitment to serve, but find themselves locked out by the closed door of opportunity.

    As a church the things that we do, particularly in worship need to be done to the highest standards, with good music, performance and pastoral care of the highest order – this can’t be done alone by a ‘good vicar’ they need a team of committed disciples to serve alongside them to bring it all into balance. If we lose sight of that, we might as well pack our bags and head for Rome.

  3. I’ve experienced good leadership, bad leadership then good leadership. All had elements of both at times. All wanted growth. None really achieved it. I believe it’s relationships that are the key to growth and sadly as humans we make dreadful mistakes at times. Hurt people aren’t attractive. Cliquey people aren’t attractive. The leadership is at the mercy of both as are we who belong. Until we sort our relationships out I think growth will be really hard.

    1. I agree that good relationships are important to healthy discipleship. But even the best relationships won’t always lead to growth in church membership if many other factors are acting against it.

      1. Yes it is a mixed bag. So what is the key to growth? And will we ever get it right? I just think an unattractive set of relationships is a stumbling block. I’m even considering if I want to belong myself! With so many things to achieve and get right will growth ever happen.

        1. I don’t think there is any one key to growth, and I don’t think there’s a magic formula that can be applied in every context to produce growth in membership. When it does happen we are more willing to attribute it to our own actions than to, say, demographic migration.

          Yes, poor relationships are a significant stumbling block for many. More on this in the next few days as I write about my own experiences!

          But the church, any church, is full of frail, flawed human beings who make mistakes and hurt one another — just like the rest of the world. We should (and many do) strive to do better, but the expectation that church will be a safe and pleasant place for everyone, or that all relationships will be good or attractive, is unrealistic. And it becomes one more thing we use to beat each other up with, one more thing we blame one another for if things aren’t going well.

          I don’t think we have to be perfect to worship God, or to get on with helping make God’s Kingdom real and evident, or to go out and make disciples. I do think we need to learn as we go. If the relationships where you are are truly toxic, it might be worth taking a look at why, and deciding whether another context would be a better place for you. But that’s an individual and personal decision, not one I can offer any special insight on.

  4. I’ve been in a church with a manipulative and IMHO ‘bad’ vicar where discipleship flourished in house groups led by lay people who knew the vicar would eventually go but the underlying structure of the laity loving people into the kingdom would endure. I don’t like all this focus on vicars, which in addition puts impossible pressure on individuals.

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