Saturday, 29 September 2012

Churches - Radical or Reactionary?

I have been disturbed, as I think any Christian leader ought to be, by the number of articles I've read lately about the decline in church attendance. There has been quite a bit of moaning and groaning about churches (and especially church leaders) being too ostrich-like and burying their heads in the sand rather than facing up to the visible facts and the statistics that show that the mainstream denominations will shrink to an alarming degree by 2050 or thereabouts. The Revd Dr Patrick Richmond recently informed the Church of England's General Synod that the average age of a member is now 61. Figures put together for the Church Commissioners suggest that the number of Sunday worshippers will fall from 1.2m in 2007 to 125,000 by 2057.  The Research and Statistics Department of the Church of England has challenged these figures but, however you do the research and the interpretation, it does seem you cannot avoid the conclusion that fewer people attend services on Sundays and fewer people are involved in the life of the mainstream denominations in traditionally recognised ways. So, goes the rhetoric, churches should be trying out radically new ways of doing things - or stopping doing things altogether to concentrate on new kinds of relationship with Christ and with one another. All this is very understanable but sounds just a little bit reactive and panicky to me. A cooler-headed approach may be needed to get the statistics right in the first place, then to interpret them against the very complex backgrounds of social change and internal church politics which are exerting their influence on the shape of the twenty first century Western church. 

Firstly, then; the right kind of stats. If you look at a lot of the research, it shows the
Sunday attendance of people who could be said in some way to have identified themselves as 'core' members. In the C of E we don't even measure all the weekday services (and I don't mean weddings and funerals but times throughout the week when people get together to pray, worship, celebrate or gather round some identifyably Christian activity.) We also don't measure all the times when the community meets the church - the special services, lectures and events that lots of non-regular attenders come to. We are setting up a Church Observatory in our diocese and one of the first questions we have asked all our parishes is, 'What do you think we should be measuring?' Until we know what the important, life-giving contacts with the community are, we can't begin to resource them and plan for them properly. We need to start looking at all the after-school services, cafe church meetings, cell groups, tea-and-worship events for the elderly and so many other things that churches are doing, but not on Sundays.

Secondly, not all the evidence does show decline. David Goodhew, who is on the staff at Cranmer Hall in Durham, has edited Church Growth in Britain 1980 - Present (published as part of the Ashgate Contemporary Ecclesiology Series.) This volume paints a somewhat wider and different picture in which diversity appears to be one key to church growth. David and his colleagues' work has been endorsed by a range of theologians and leaders from across the denominations and it shows that there has been substantial church growth in the UK since 1980. The growth pattern is complex, multi-ethnic and can be seen across many different social and geographical contexts. It provides an experiential critique of the media and academy-driven notion that secularisation has effectively killed off all but the dregs of Christianity. The book powerfully demonstrates that, while there is decline in some parts of the church, this is balanced by the vitality of other parts. Undertsnading this requires a radical change in our way of assessing Christianity in the UK. I have to say this entirely backs up my own impression of what is happening which is earthed in 25 years' ministry in inner city, suburban and rural parishes. I have seen really ordinary churches change and grow, I have seen Christians from some of the newer and some of the ethnic minority churches become the catalyst for Christian growth in an area and I have seen churches 'revived'  by the most unlikely people from the young man with Downs Syndrome to the deeply faithful elderly lady who surprises everyone by 'doing change' better than people half her age. God's rainbow people!

Thirdly, I think the shape of churches is changing. A higher percentage of those who do get involved in church life are active and take on responsibility than was the case 30 years ago. There are far more cell groups, study groups and groups meeting for prayer and discussion. The concept that some of these groups hold themselves accountable to one another in quite a deep way over their Christian discipleship is growing - this was not something you heard much about in my parents' generation. Movements like third order oblates, the Northumbrian Community, Cursillo and the Rejesus - 'back to basics' movement are having a significant impact alongside the large Christian festivals like New Wine and many others I could mention. In this area of Yorkshire, I see signs that Christians are reconnecting with the deep roots of British Christian spirituality. At grass roots level, we have moved perhaps not so much beyond as around the divisions that stemmed from the Reformation in the sense that we no longer see them as 'life-giving' to the different denominations but more as historical stories which are signs of how deeply people once cared and still do care about their faith and its expression.  The communion of saints who have gone before us and the places that were significant to them are increasingly giving inspiration to today's pilgrims and we are beginning to dig the history out more creatively.

Fourthly, I do think we should be very, very concerned about two groups within the church. Young people need to be respected, listened to, given their voice and also discipled - taught the Christian story and encouraged to 'try living it out' for themselves. The Church of South India decided to allocate 30% of its resources to work with people under 30 and this has apparently changed the demography of the church beyond recognition (is that what we are afraid of?) I do think that the statistics (and the attitudes found in some churches) indicate that we are seriously failing the next generation - but even there, there is plenty of work going on on the periphery of church life and sometimes in the centre that is bearing fruit. How do we re-prioritize exploring the faith with young people? We identify those usually, but not always, younger Christians who can inspire younger people and we support them, encourage them, join in where we can. Or put more simply, we take at face value what Jesus said - that the key to the Kingdom of Heaven is a child-like disposition (see 'Children and God's Kingdom' blogpost 30th September.) Perhaps we should also require all clergy to get involved in supporting work with young people - no excuses! With training,  we can all learn to help, be it as background supporters (Trustees etc) or frontline youth and children's leaders.  And also, we need to have a good look at how we are supporting ministry among older people who, all the research shows, are at that stage of life where spirituality and ultimate questions about life and meaning make it much more likely that they will want to discover more about what it means to live through faith.

Fifthly, if you think about it, you have to be pretty radical to be a committed Christian of any kind in the UK today. You have to be strong enough to withstand the onslaughts from secularisation, materialism and 'own goals' like the disgraceful behaviour revealed in the Chichester report and the endless vacillation over women bishops. Frankly, belonging to a small church, faithfully worshipping and carrying out the tasks needed to make the church 'live' and serving your community and your colleagues because you believe that Christ is asking you to do this is not exactly mainstream behaviour in our society and often calls for sacrificial decisions. To keep doing it over many years takes a deep, personal faith, persistance, discipline and humility of a counter-cultural sort. Yes, Christians are radical people - or at least they follow a radical Saviour into demanding places. To be a Christian is countercultural and wise church leaders recognise the cost of this in everyday life before berating people who find it hard to change; churches should be, and often are, places of mutual support and it is usually through God's grace experienced in fellowship with one another that we grow in spiritual depth and the church grows in numbers.  

Lastly, I have kept to the very end my observations about structures and formulas. They have some responsibility for not always being helpful but they are not, in my opinion, the main reason for decline. Clinging on to outdated structures is a symptom of a community in decline, not the cause. We, in the Church of England need to simplify our ways of relating and working and some of our legal and synodical processes, and we need to do this quite urgently and quite quickly. However, we need to do it on the basis of the actual evidence about what it happening across the country, not on the basis of anecodtal evidence, not on the basis of saying that 'because a thing is happening here, it will automatically happen there' and not on the basis of assuming that the structures are the answer. I very much hope that the opportunity to create a new diocese in West and North Yorkshire will allow us to ensure that we have people with expertise and ways of working that will support what the churches actually need.


  1. Janet, have you seen Ken Howard's 'Paradoxy'? We're having a discussion about it in the Anglican Communion group on LinkedIn. I think it can go beyond the conservative/liberal split with which it is most concerned.

    I also think a major indicator of whether a church is a vibrant faith community comes not only from the number of attendees (and as you rightly point out, 'what counts?' is a major question). It's also a matter of whether the church is seen as a valuable resource to the community in which it's set. This is an important consideration in any kind of pastoral reorganization, especially in Anglican Christianity, where care for place has been a guiding principle.

  2. Hi Wendy, thank you for this information. I've looked at the Paradoxy site which looks very interesting. I'll look forward to exploring it further and joining the linkedin conversation in due course.

  3. Indeed! Love to have you in the dialogue.