Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Growing Churches and Good Vicars - blog round-up and thoughts

"lots of local churches are growing in numbers, they are being extremely effective in their local communities, partly the things they've always done... and in some of the needs that have arisen over the last few years in terms of poverty and deprivation..

"we are falling in numbers, and there is a change in the attitude to Christian faith generally across the country, that is unquestionable and we need to be realistic about that

"we need to specialise in what we do, which is the worship of God and seeking to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ.... around the country the main effort and impact of the church comes from the local churches, working incredibly hard."

"Of course there are churches that are doing better and churches that are struggling more, depending on area and on leadership. But the reality is that where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches."

the Church "needs to be very flexible in how it engages locally, and it needs to be very clear about its intention of growing its numbers. It doesn't happen accidentally. All the research we've got is that if we don't actually set out to grow the number of people and draw people to the reality of the love of  God, in Jesus Christ, it doesn't happen. It's not a collateral benefit to existing. So you've got to be very intentional, and you've got to be very flexible about how you do it"

I've struggled to find a full transcript of Justin Welbys comments on church growth on New Years Eve, but the full interview is here, and a lot of people have already had their say on the 'good vicars' comment. For example:

Excellent piece from Jo Neary, from a rural Dorset context: Good vicars equal growing congregations - maybe. But perhaps the challenge this year is to try to be a good vicar and enable people to grow: in faith, in hospitality, in leadership and in discipleship.  This year has to be about growth, but it may not be about numbers.

Rambling Rector questions whether you can be a 'good vicar' and keep the rules and regulations imposed by the CofE, whilst living with the pastoral demands of the community. 

David Scott wonders what is a good vicar and a growing church anyway, and thinks that measuring growth is opposed to the New Testament. I disagree with him on the last point - Luke seems to spend most of the days after Pentecost doing headcounts and reporting numerical growth, it clearly is important.

There's a good debate on Peter Ould's post, and on Ship of Fools. I liked this comment: The minute you start to talk about the necessity for congregations to grow, those (clergy) whose congregations aren't growing start to talk about how it makes them feel a failure. It's important to be supportive to colleagues. However, it's equally important to have a vision for growing our congregations. Not for the sake of numbers, but because every number is a person.

Kelvin Holdsworth focuses on local leadership, and recognises that it's a more complicated equation than good vicar = church growth. I found this helpful: within what he was saying was something rather important which is that vicars – clergy generally matter. Should they be miserable, unsupported, unloved and sad there is almost no chance of a church in their care thriving. Clergy matter an enormous amount and if one wants churches to grow one does need to think about clergy rather a lot.
The short version is, clergy matter. And so do bums on pews. The two are related. But oh, oh – it’s complicated.
St Mungos Edinburgh has some reflections on the headwinds a 'good vicar' faces that mean the equation doesn't work out, but concludes Church growth, whether that a small little family sized fellowship, or large mega church is complex.   But I do agree with the Archbishop’s general principle the church growth is very dependent upon leadership.
Vic the Vicar thinks it's good medicine

Good post from The Blog of Kevin, pointing out the other things that Justin Welby says: that the key things in the local context are flexibility and intentionality: When we came to this church, the congregation knew when everyone was there, so the welcomers closed the door and sat down. When we begin to expect and anticipate newcomers, it changes how we approach the welcome. Intentionality. From nothing for kids at all, we went from a kids colouring table at the back, to kids sitting at the front on the mat, to a regular kids group. Intentionality.

Geoff Read notes that a focus on mission and numerical growth means an uncomfortable culture shift for many in the CofE.

Artsy Honker helpfully distinguishes between evangelism and recruitment, and calls for more work on what 'good' evangelism looks like. She adds some personal reflections as someone who left church, her experience of what put her off (ouch.....), and then came back, exploring the key factors. Worth a read.

Church Times opinion piece from Adrian Newman, writing from a Diocese (London) which has growth at the heart of its vision to 2020.  it is only partially about the numbers. Growth cannot be an end in itself. Like the Church, it must serve a higher calling. Hmm, yes and no, every '1' in the numbers is a person, a person who is worshipping God, (hopefully) growing in faith, supporting and being supported by other Christians, and engaging in ministry and service to the world. The calling of the church is to call people to follow Jesus, to baptise and make disciples. Healthy growth (not just people shopping around for a more convenient church to be part of, but actually responding to God), is a sign that our highest calling is being fulfilled.

The reality is more nuanced than the soundbite, but I'm glad that at the beginning of a new year
 - we are talking about leadership, and the need for it in the church, and what good leadership and pastoral ministry looks like. 
 - we are talking about church growth, alongside the reality of decline, rather than ignoring it or relabelling decline as 'spiritual growth'. That's going to be painful.

Personally, I need to be careful. Our church has grown steadily for several years, so I'm going to hear Justin Welbys comments about good vicars and growth in a very different way to someone whose church is shrinking. They aren't easy comments to hear if you're working your socks off and seeing little or no fruit.

Not all good leadership has to come with a dog collar. The vast majority of the gifts, energy, time vision and resources of the church are the 'ordinary' Christians. It's not all down to vicars (thank goodness), but there are some key tasks - e.g. setting vision, spotting talent - that enable the gifts of others to flourish.

And there are also different ways of being good: Alice Manns The In Between Church explores the dynamics of different sizes of churches, and argues that certain styles of leadership work better in certain contexts. I guess that will also apply to the social, ethnic and class background of a place, as well as the size of the church. 

I know that in a few years time, if our Diocesan financial system and interregnum policy doesn't change, we may well see some decline (we have a 'parish share' system which means that growing churches face an invoice from the diocese which rises 10-15% a year for a church that's growing 3-5% a year. In the long run that will mean cuts to the staffing and ministries which have enabled our growth in the first place so that we can pay the Diocesan bills, which in turn will choke off the growth.) So there are structural, as well as local, headwinds which the local leader and church will struggle with. I know good vicars whose churches aren't growing - as several of the bloggers above note, it's complicated. 

And finally, the Church Growth Research Programme will be publishing its results at a conference on Thursday. It sounds like there's an embargo on it all until then, but there might be some material which has a bearing on this debate.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about the importance of leadership which isn't ordained, but (alas) too often that is squashed by insecure or inadequate clergy who are like the cork in the bottle. I'm glad to be part of a church where that isn't so—and yes, it's growing.