This last week has been a statistical flurry in the CofE - we've had to fill in our 'statistics for mission' form and send it in to the Diocese (membership, number of baptisms, weddings and funerals, Sunday attendance etc.) and at the same time the CofE published its membership stats for 2005, with accompanying press release.
The national stats aren't great. Average weekly bum on pew count is down 17,000, of which 4,000 are children, and average Sunday congregations have dropped below 1m for the first time in centuries.
The accompanying publicity has highlighted the good news stories - the fact that about 15 Dioceses have seen their attendance grow over the last year, and rising Christmas attendances. On the second of these, CofE folk have got very excited over the fact that Christmas attendance in 2005 was up 6% on the previous year, but nobody has noticed (or maybe they did notice but didn't want to say) that Christmas Day was a Sunday, and whether that made a difference.
One or two issues I'm mulling over:
- it's important to keep people's morale up, so I guess focusing on the positive is defensible, but then it also encourages people just to keep plodding on as they are, because the ship isn't sinking just yet. How can we encourage people, and get real, at one at the same time?
- it would be interesting to see if the Dioceses which have grown have anything in common in terms of mission strategy. There's lots of data on what individual growing churches have in common, and in recent history London Diocese has been the only growing Diocese in the CofE, a fact that was put down to it insisting on parishes having a thought-through mission strategy. Interestingly, London isn't one of the growing Dioceses in the last couple of years. I still think having a mission strategy is a good thing, and part of my job is encouraging churches to have and use one, but it would be interesting to get behind the detail and see what's happened where.
- about 1 in 3 churches are reported to have started a 'fresh expression' of church in the last 5 years. This is a routine question on the 'statistics for mission' form. I wonder if the currency is being devalued here: fresh expressions are supposed to be about new forms of church for people who aren't connecting with what we currently do. I wonder if people are just rebranding their family services as 'fresh expressions' because they think that's what the bean counters want to hear. Our church runs a cafe service, which I guess is a fresh expression, but I wouldn't say its a radical reworking of church.
- My diocese, the very nice Bath and Wells, continues to shrink. 900 adults and 900 children left between 2004 and 2005. Frighteningly, the figure for children represents 1 in 4 of the children who were going to church in 2004. That is meltdown. One of my goals as a Deanery mission facilitator (I do wish I could think of a less business-speak title, but haven't yet!) is to see our Deanery growing, after 5 years where membership has declined. It will be interesting to see whether there is any impact once there is a mission encourager in each Deanery.
The worry with all of this is that we end up focusing on numbers, instead of on Jesus, and on human strategy rather than the Kingdom of God. However, often we say we're focusing on the Kingdom when perhaps that's a bit of a smokescreen for not knowing what God wants us to do, or knowing but not doing it.