David Goodhew from the Centre for Church Growth research took us through some of the strands of research work currently going on. A few headlines and comments:
- The bulk of people who become Christians - 80% - have done so by the age of 25.
- Tracking affiliation to the Christian faith as declared in the census, for each age cohort the line is basically flat - i.e. there's very little change from age 20 to age 80 as people age. But with each new age cohort, affiliation is lower. Once people reach adulthood, their views are basically set for life.
- 54% of immigrants to the UK are Christians, and black and minority churches are one of the fastest growing sections of the UK church, with over 1/2m members, and 1m black and ethnic minority members in all churches. In the borough of Newham, population 300,000, over 200 new churches have been started up in the last 20 years.
- 2950 new churches were opened in England in 1989-2005, 2680 opened in 2005-10.
- There's some interesting clustering of new churches/ church plants in certain areas, e.g. along 'trade routes' (e.g. more going on in York than in Hull). Mapping church plants within Dioceses shows clusters in certain areas, as though having local examples of new initiatives and fresh expressions of church triggers other people to have a go.
- The CofE doesn't have much of a theology of church growth, there's a challenge to make the case that "numerically growing the church is theologically respectable". We're good at quarrying the tradition for spirituality and liturgy, but how about for mission practice and evangelism?
- Being a fully sacramental church means taking baptism as seriously as communion. "a church that is eucharistic but not baptismal is semi-sacramental."
- our definition of mission is probably too broad. We're happier to talk of Fair Trade as mission than evangelism. Within the '5 marks of mission', it feels like some are more equal than others "we need to jack up the church growth end, as it just gets swamped by the rest...we need some positive discrimination."
Overall it was just encouraging to hear stories of growing churches in the UK context, the CofE can get fatalistic, or so used to decline (after 100 years of consistently experiencing it!) that we cease to believe in the gospel and give up. I could relate to what he said about evangelism/church growth not feeling theologically respectable, that echoes conversations I've been involved in within this Diocese, that people would rather talk about growth in 'depth' than growth in numbers, as if one were superior to the other. Jesus called us to do both: making disciples involves people becoming disciples and growing as disciples. There's nothing theologically superior about closing a church in a generation with great pastoral care whilst everyone else in the parish went untouched by the gospel.
There are various strands of research currently going on within the CofE, with an anticipated report at the end of this year. These include in-depth profiling of 4000 churches to identify the key features of growing churches, material on cathedrals, church planting, multi-parish benefices and team ministries. The FX research is being published diocese by diocese already - see my report on George Lings for some of the data from this.
Here's other posts from the Diocesan church growth strategies conference, including Justin Welby, James Lawrence & Bob Jackson.