What makes churches grow

Church Growth is back on the agenda – but not the 1970s variety from the USA, but rather the new style espoused by the Church of England. Last week I had the joy of reading What makes churches grow? Vision and practice in effective mission (Church House Publishing, London 2015. ISBN 978-0-7151-4474-9) by Bob Jackson, Director of the Church Growth Centre attached to St John’s College, Nottingham. It is a stimulating and challenging analysis of Anglican church growth from which every pastor of whatever denomination could learn.

It is a book full of hope and new life – and statistics: “It’s about how the Church of England is growing under the radar of the media, the critics and, sometimes, the bishops”. Up until 2014 Anglicans in this country seemed to be in terminal decline, but there has been a turn-around and the Church of England is beginning to grow. Cathedrals are growing, and so too are the so-called ‘greater churches’. Thanks to Fresh Expressions of Church and Messy Church, the overall number of congregations is growing.

But how should we assess the size and growth of a church? Jackson replies:

By the number of its people, the depth of its faith, and the power of its ministry… Healthy growth comes in holiness, effectiveness and numbers all together.

Yes, growth is not just about numbers, but it does include numbers.

God apart, ultimately church growth is down to leadership. Leadership is about intentionality and strategy. Instead of being a ‘magic roundabout’ church endlessly replicating the past, ‘gospel-train’ churches are called for, where “the members take stock of where they are, assessing what the church is like and what it does. Then they catch a vision of where they want to be – of what God is calling them to be and do”. Then they develop a ‘travel plan’ and start to travel the line it is constructing into the future.

Over against the current trend in the Church of England to have ‘multi-benefices’, where a vicar might have to look after seven or more churches, there should be a leader for every church.

If you are on a cruise and learn that the captain is actually skipper of seven ships and he is on a different one today, your confidence might begin to wobble as you round Cape Horn.

Every church therefore needs a ‘focal’ minister. However, such leaders don’t have to be ordained or paid. What’s more, they need to have a distinct job-description.

The cure of souls is not to be vested in the focal minister but in the whole local church community. The role of the focal minister is to lead the mission of the church and galvanize the ministry of all.

Training will have to be given to focal leaders, but not the traditional training provided by a theological college – rather training needs “to equip for mission rather than ecclesiastical promotion”.

The book abounds in quotable quotes:

  • “The children are the Christian Church’s most crucial members”.

  • “Postmoderns treat churches like helicopters. They keep their distance for fear of being sucked in by the rotas.”

  • “It takes months to empty a church when something goes wrong and years to fill it when things go right”.

  • “A church relying on the website and emails will tend to attract the middle aged. A church using Facebook, texting and tweeting is likely to reach teens and younger adults.”

  • “Multiplex church can thrive and grow without disenfranchising those who meet with God in traditional ways… A church service in which all ages and types of people are integrated harmoniously together, is, literally, a foretaste of heaven. Unfortunately they are as rare as hens’ teeth.”

I loved his emphasis on the need for:

…a new sacramentalism driven by people passionate about baptizing new believers. This is the primary sacrament. The Eucharist feeds members of the body of Christ but baptism creates them. Repetition of the Eucharistic feeding of the people of God is the easy bit. The baptism of infants is not that difficult either, even if infants do cry. But baptism of the newly believing is the primary sacramental challenge to the priestly calling of the Church…Baptism will be accompanied by serious initiation into the faith of the Church and the commitment of believers, so driving its future spiritual and numerical growth.

Not even a Baptist could have said it better!

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