Church Growth in Britain 4: The Nations

Three final chapters look at Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, offering some helpful different perspectives on church growth. Ken Roxburgh notes that the recent narrative of decline in Scotland is even more catastrophic than in the UK in general, before looking at five congregations in Edinburgh that have nonetheless grown to some extent. The case-studies are deliberately denominationally diverse: an ecumenical congregation; ‘Ps & Gs’ (St Paul’s & St George’s Episcopal Church, to non-locals); St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral; Morningside Baptist Church; and Destiny new church. Ken notes that the growth generally – although not exclusively – happens within the evangelical and charismatic wing of Scottish Christianity, and also that each of these success stories features a city centre congregation that has been conscious in identifying a mission strategy into its community, and aggressive in pursuing the strategy through, for instance, the appointing of dedicated staff.

Paul Chambers looks at Wales, first noting that the ‘secularisation thesis’ never applied very well to Wales, which managed to respond to rapid industrialisation by staging a major revival… He proposes instead a critical paradigm borrowed from Bourdieau, which focuses on the interactions of symbolic capital within different fields of action. The overarching field is unquestionably secular, and so inhospitable to church growth; congregations that grow do so because they find a smaller field of action, typically a local community, in which they become deeply involved and connected. The collapse of the old South Wales economy, particularly coal mining, has left needy communities in which local congregations can make significant connections if they try.

Claire Mitchell looks at ‘Evangelical vitality and adaptation’ in Northern Ireland. She follows Christian Smith in using social identity theory to examine and narrate the changes in evangelicalism, although of course Smith was working on American evangelicals. Late modernity, on this account, creates a particular, pressing, need for belonging amongst disassociated people; groups – of whatever sort – can survive and flourish by becoming subcultures with strong social identities, and by defining themselves against ‘out groups’. Mitchell suggests that Northern Irish evangelicals have done this in a number of different ways, and shown great adaptability in a rapidly-changing political and cultural context in so doing.

In different ways, these three essays all point to the idea that church growth happens to congregations that are intentionality situated within their local cultural context – either in targeted missional engagement, or in conscious self-differentiation, or (most likely) both.

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