Church growth in Britain 2: Mainstream churches

The section on mainstream churches contains chapters on the London diocese (of the Church of England) (by John Wolffe and Bob Jackson); Catholicism in London’s East End (Alana Harris); Baptist growth in England (Ian Randall); growth in (Anglican) cathedral congregations (Lynda Barley); and reverse mission (Rebecca Catto). For me, the study of London Anglicanism is the single most interesting chapter in the book. By giving a comparison with Southwark (the diocese that covers the Anglican parishes of the London urban area south of the river Thames, roughly), where a steady decline has only very recently stabilised, the authors are able to demonstrate that London’s growth is not an inevitable result of demographic changes in the capital. The simple story of immigrant-driven growth must apply roughly equally across the whole urban area, and so if London has been growing as Southwark has declined, the story must go beyond that. (What knowledge I have of patterns of immigration into the capital suggests that actually Southwark should benefit disproportionately from immigrant driven growth if that were the only story.) So what has driven growth in London? Wolffe and Jackson identify three structural factors – and behind all three, the purposeful and expert leadership of the two most recent bishops, David Hope and Richard Chartres. The turning point was around 1990 – the low point in electoral roll figures (at 45 000); in 2010 the electoral roll stood at 77 000, a 71% increase in two decades. In the same period Sunday attendance has risen 15% (compared to a 10% decline in Southwark). This is probably a significant undercount, in that those involved in midweek services or fresh expressions of church, both of which have mushroomed in the last two decades, are unlikely to find their way onto the electoral roll very rapidly. It might be reasonable to postulate a doubling of regular worshippers within the diocese of London since 1990. Hope arrived as bishop in 1991; he first changed the criteria for the appointment of new priests, who were no longer to be chosen for their ability to care for the existing congregation, but for their ability to mobilise mission. ‘Every major individual church growth story since 1990 began with the appointment of a new incumbent chosen with mission and growth in mind and tasked to lead it.’ Next, Hope asked every parish to produce a ‘mission action plan’ (Wolffe and Jackson repeat the joke I remember from the time, that none of those three words had previously featured in the vocabulary of the average Anglican parish…), and appointed people to give the parishes support in the development and implementation of the MAP. Third, the system of calculating a parish’s required contribution to the diocese based solely on its numbers was discontinued. This system had rewarded failure and penalised success (falling numbers saved you money and vice-versa); in its place came a system of negotiation which would challenge failure and allow growing churches to request to keep a greater proportion of their income in order to cement growth. Within the parishes, clergy have been released (by changing social expectations) from many traditional and time-consuming roles within the local community and able to focus their efforts on areas of perceived need; London clergy tend to be younger, and involved in strong interchurch networks, such as New Wine; a model of church planting that has emphasised the revival of fading congregations by transplanting leadership and a new congregation from a growing neighboring parish has also been a significant motor for growth, in that a significant number of shrinking congregations have been revitalised. Ian Randall’s study of Baptist growth in the period makes some fairly similar points. Charismatic renewal was significant in changing expectations, as was the Church Growth Movement: decline was no longer to be seen as inevitable, by some at least; the denomination, because of its congregational heritage, was much less wedded to a Christendom model of ministry, and so found it easier to move towards a missional orientation; the rise in interest in the Anabaptists helped and hastened this. Gifted and visionary national leaders – notably David Coffey – put the structures on a missional footing; church planting was a significant motor; the denomination was aided by the rise in black majority and immigrant Christianity. As a result, in the period in question the Baptist Union of Great Britain recorded growth, albeit generally modest, but certainly fared much better than any other mainline denomination nationally. Cathedral congregations are an interesting contemporary story, which I had heard but never seen figures or analysis. Lynda Barley provides both. The figures are slightly frustrating, because they would seem to involve...

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Church Growth in Britain?

David Goodhew (ed.) Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (Ashgate, 2012) I suppose most of us in academia have a list in our heads of books that ought to be written: there are positions that you know to be true, but that have not yet been demonstrated to be so to the satisfaction of the academy. This book crosses off number one on my list of such books. I have known for years that the standard public narrative of catastrophic church decline in contemporary Britain is at some level a misrepresentation: it is based on collecting statistics concerning Sunday attendances from mainstream denominations; but most vibrant church life in Britain today is not happening in mainstream denominations on Sundays; most of it is happening beyond the ‘mainstream’; that which is happening within is not generally happening on Sundays. This book tells those stories in academically credible ways, and so offers a significant corrective to the prevailing public narrative. For me two themes stood out in the book. First, any of us who have been around the evangelical world know many individual stories of church growth, but to try to place these in a national context, and to seek to measure the extent to which growth in the lively parts of the British church is offsetting decline in the moribund parts, is both ambitious and fascinating. Second, the story of growth in Black majority churches is not news to anyone with open eyes (which apparently excludes almost all media commentators on contemporary British Christianity…); for me, other stories of growth I knew had often seemed occasional and unconnected; to have them placed in some broader narratives of patterns of growth was very helpful. So what is the book about? Well, what it says on the tin: church growth in Britain since 1980: where it has occurred and (as far as can be discerned) why. The underlying theme is that the standard public narrative of church decline is an inadequate picture – not false, but needing qualification from another story. The basic point can be easily made: I do not know, presently, how many church congregations are active in my home town of St Andrews. Were I to be talking about Edinburgh, that might not be a surprise, but St Andrews is a very small community – about 20 000 inhabitants. There are three parish churches, two episcopal charges, a Free Church, a Roman Catholic parish, the university chapel, my own Baptist congregation, and a Vineyard church. Beyond that things get more difficult. There used to be two different Brethren congregations; I believe only one is still meeting, but I have no firm evidence for that belief. There used to be an independent charismatic fellowship; I have heard nothing of them for a few years, so assume they have folded, but I could be wrong. In recent months we saw advertising for a new Nigerian church; I think it is presently meeting, but I do not know. That reflects Sunday mornings. During the week there is a second university chapel which holds services during termtime; I know of homegroup type meetings which attract people not presently involved in any other congregation; much student Christianity happens outwith the town churches, for good or ill. It happens that, if we were to plot the Sunday attendances at the ten relatively mainstream congregations I have listed, I believe that they would show a slight increase over a decade; given the other uncertainties, that figure must be suspicious: if two other congregations have closed, and one new one begun, even the Sunday figure is difficult; if other things are happening during the week, that complicates matters further. Traditionally, however, we calculate church attendance by contacting mainline churches only and asking them to count ‘bums on pews’ on a given Sunday. Goodhew’s book is largely, although not exclusively, about the hinterland, the ecclesial activity missed by the mainline congregation Sunday census count. One of the themes of the book is that in places – London; Birmingham; York – the hinterland is becoming bigger than the foreground. In other places this may not be true, but to focus only on the mainline churches is, even in a small rural Scottish town like St Andrews, to miss much of the reality of what is going on. The book is topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion from Goodhew; I will look at these at the end. In between are three sections, on mainstream churches, new churches, and Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I’ll spend a blog post on each...

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