Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Lent Blog 12: Churches growing and declining

Here are a couple of confessions for Lent.

For starters, I've never been a great fan of "church growth" programmes. For just about all of my life as a active Christian (since 1977 in other words) there have been people writing books, resources and running agencies that claimed they could solve church decline. Many of them contained some useful insights, some good common sense, and the occasional moment of inspiration. But anyone who thinks that out there somewhere is a pre-packaged solution to his/her church's problems is deluding themselves. Churches can't escape the hard work of looking at their own particular set of circumstances, context, resources, problems and opportunities and taking responsibility for their own mission.

Church growth thinking, inevitably, also puts a huge emphasis on numbers. But numbers can be deceptive. A figure I sometimes quote is that when I was in Coventry, our Usual Sunday Attendance (which is what we called it in the 1990s) grew from 38 when I arrived to 46 when I left 8 years later. It was counter the national and Diocesan trend, but hardly spectacular. What it hid was that 18 of the original 38 died in that period. Just keeping level required 18 new people to attend the church on a regular basis. Even a 'declining' church might be 'growing' - just not yet keeping up with the rate of loss! Those stats also hid the fact that the children's work had grown significantly, as adult attendance is often regarded as the only important statistic.

My second confession is that I'm not a great enthusiast for the term Fresh Expressions. I am a great supporter of new and creative ways of meeting for worship, learning, prayer and fellowship; I just think that slapping the FE badge on everything that looks remotely new isn't always very helpful. Looking back at my time at University, I think our Monday evening hour which included meditative prayer, music and creativity (which we called GodSpace) probably fitted the Fresh Expressions bill. Students and people from a variety of local churches attended. We just thought it was a good thing to do. Likewise our Sunday evening gathering, which had seating in a coffee-shop format and self-service drinks and food throughout probably met the 'cafe church' description. It just seemed a good way to organise the chairs (and the urn) on a Sunday night. I just think that good stuff is probably more likely when it's accidental or spontaneous, rather than following a formula from a book.

Ok having said all of that, the Fresh Expressions initiative has lots to inspire anyone who is feeling stale and short of ideas. I just discovered the Fresh Expression blog, and read the latest entry by Will Sudworth: How the mighty fall, and why some churches never give in. It's an interesting translation of insights from the business world into the working of the church. Very readable food for thought.

No comments: