Church Growth is Mainly About Attitude

DEBATES about the Church of England’s Renewal and Reform programme have once again spilled over into the secular media (Press, 19 August). One aspect of this — the support for church-planting — has attracted particular interest. The conversation is currently generating more heat than light. And yet, because there is relatively little robust research on the impact of such planting, much of the debate is based on prejudice rather than solid evidence.

The Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) has, however, produced two pieces of research this year: a detailed analysis of church-planting in east London — published at Easter as Love, Sweat and Tears; and now Church Growth in East London. The first focused on St Paul’s, Shadwell, planted in 2005 from Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), and the four churches that it has subsequently planted.

It rebuts many of the common myths. The growth in numbers cannot be dismissed as “sheep-stealing”. Across the five congrega­tions, there was an average Sunday attendance of 100 before the plant­ing process. The later growth included a further 100 worshippers who did not previously attend any church at all. The trajectory of growth (or decline) in neighbouring churches had been largely un­­affected.

In these five churches, there has been an explosion in social action, as numerical growth has added the capacity for a range of activities, from foodbanks and debt advice to com­munity organising, alongside mosques and schools.

Moreover, those church-plants that engaged in the most social action also attracted the highest proportion of new Christians. Hav­ing received no additional funding from the diocese, the five churches are contributing a total of £300,000 extra to the Common Fund, which enables ministry to be sustained in other contexts and traditions.

THERE is, however, still much hostility to church-planting. This is partly a product of fear. Church-planting today has emerged from a particular tradition — one strand of Evangelicalism — and is associated with one style of worship, and so other parts of the Church are afraid that they will be overwhelmed. The second report, Church Growth in East London, however, offers a more hopeful perspective. It suggests that attitude rather than theological tradi­tion is the key determinant of growth.

There is no one-size-fits-all pat­tern to such growth. It can happen in churches with very different theo­logies and liturgies. It can also be promoted by very different means, using models appropriate to those different traditions and contexts. It does, however, need to be pursued intentionally, sur­rounded by prayer, and informed by experience.

As the report observes, “the degree of intentionality behind growth is related to the likelihood of growth. Those [congregations] that have seen significant growth, it seems, have made structural changes in terms of leadership or ‘models’ of church.”

The churches that are growing most in east London, across a range of traditions, have a “clear vision of their goals”, and are engaged in “conscious self-reflection” on what it means to be both faithful and effective in their local context.

One example of such growth is the sharp increase in attendance at St John-at-Hackney since 2007. Three key ingredients in this have been: a deeper common life of worship and prayer; an enterprising use of assets (including property) for mission; and a commitment to action for the common good with people beyond the walls of the church.

In a similar way to the church-plants from HTB, the experience at St John’s suggests that the relation­ship between action with others for the common good, and numerical growth, is “both/and”, not “either/or”.

Inspired by these examples, CTC has entered into a partnership with our host church (which, like St John’s, is in the modern Catholic tradition). We are testing out the conviction that these same three factors can lead to significant numerical growth in our context as well.

This has involved developing a new “sanctuary course”, which intro­duces the Christian faith through practices of prayer and medi­­tation; housing a lay com­munity in flats around the church; and holding a community-organ­ising assembly in church — which, in turn, is lead­ing to action with other churches, mosques, and schools in the area, on issues such as affordable housing and street safety.

THE research in Church Growth in East London identifies two dis­tinctive factors that have helped the church to grow in the capital: church-planting, and immigration. Planting and missional communit­ies have so far proved easier to develop in an urban context, and the pattern of immigration from over­seas into our city has also swelled attendances.

The success of missional initi­atives in London is, in part, because it is an environment particularly hos­pitable to growth. The evidence suggests, however, that, within each context, attitude also matters a great deal.

In more challenging contexts, imaginative outreach may not lead to any headline growth in numbers. New disciples will be made, but there might be fewer of them than the number of existing disciples who die. The age profile of the Church of England suggests that this is likely to be true of our overall headline numbers for some time.

If anything, such outreach is even more important in these contexts. Slowing the rate of decline may not be as glamorous as planting new churches, but, in many places, it can make the difference that secures a sustainable Christian presence.

WHATEVER our context, a focus on making new disciples — so often dismissed as “bums on pews” — is vital. Indeed, such dismissive lan­guage is theologically indefens­ible. Each of these pews contains a human being, whose life is being transformed by the Spirit through participating in worship and the community of the church.

Moreover, an empty church can­not embark on any of the activities we rightly value: worship­ping God, growing together, show­ing hospital­ity, and acting for social justice.

My concern is not just that the critique made of HTB and its church-plants is unfair. Most of its leaders are remarkably gracious and phlegmatic about this. The real damage is done not to them, but to those of us in other traditions. If the rest of us buy into a narrative of victimhood —”being overwhelmed by a rising tide of Evangelicalism” — we could spend our time carping on the sidelines, instead of develop­ing our own models of imaginative outreach.

If, however, we are willing to learn from others, and are confident in God’s capacity to renew the whole Church in all its richness, a very different future is possible.

This article first appeared on the Church Times website and is reproduced here with permission.

Both reports on church growth are available at www.theology-centre.org.

One Response to Church Growth is Mainly About Attitude

  1. WATERANGEL October 18, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    You are right! Church growth is about attitude. Growth is something which is not static in time and space. I.e. seeds need to be planted tended replanted time and time again , there will be bits that die and come back to life there will be offshoots some offshoots will survive independently and some will create more offshoots. So Church growth is not about the building or numbers in the church, but about the fellowship of believers and the communication between them. Celebrations are always better with more people, church growth is better with more people in more places but not necessarily together, like a spider graph. Angus became a minister at the same time as I became a widow, that was when I faced the Church without walls and realized I did not need the walls to create growth or grow, I needed people who had the right attitude in maintaining a Faith when everything was lost, the growth would come from within, it was an internal resource I could take anywhere. But I am not particularly on anyone’s numbers list yet I am on a few which somewhat shows that such record keeping is inaccurate. It is quite possible for a Christian to be a member of more than one churches building and fully participate , even the clergy do this if clergy in rural areas are managing 3 Churches they need to all be fully functioning communities but can they all numerically grow or do they put more attention to one at the expense of the others? Attitude is one of those things that is about the internal resource of Faith. Mission is simply sharing that what we know from our internal resource so church growth cannot be measured by numbers inside the Church building. Despite the many figures that come out about whether Christianity is diminishing in this country, I really do not believe it is Spirituality is more freely recognised and accepted in this country today than it has ever been but it is not in the buildings because the building restricts the Free Spirit, for those who work and serve daily in the Church their growth often comes from the free spirit that shares with them within their building. The church without walls is growing.

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