In the first article in this series, I outlined the dire attendance scenario the Church of England is facing in the coming years. I made a pragmatic case for the liberal wing of the church to move from a general attitude of scepticism to one of constructive engagement with church growth, then offered suggestions as to some areas of strength which liberals might bring to bear to the work of growing churches.

In this second article I shall look at some recent research on church growth, what it may have to tell us about the ways in which liberal churches might approach the task of seeking growth, and reflect back as I do so on some of the liberal strengths identified in the first article.

The Church Growth Research Programme

I remember precious little from my mathematical physics classes but a phrase that has stayed with me was ‘non-trivial problem’. This modest sounding phrase meant a problem whose solution was so complex that it would require a breakthrough in mathematics or computing.  With so many variable factors and with so many odds stacked against the church, we might think of church growth as a ‘non-trivial problem’. In recent years, however, the church has worked hard to commission robust research work to identify ‘what works’ in the arena of church growth, church planting, fresh expressions etc. In particular, the work of the Church Growth Research Programme (CGRP) has been applauded by many as offering reasonably reliable and robust conclusions to work with. You can find presentations and reflections on the ongoing work of the groups involved in CGRP at churchgrowthresearch.org.uk.

In one of the first reports commissioned by the CGRP, From Anecdote to Evidence, Professor David Voas and his team identified a number of important factors associated with growing churches. The strength of From Anecdote to Evidence is that it began without any a priori assumptions to test. Rather, those who filled in the research questionnaire were asked to feed back on a plethora of factors about church life. These were then correlated against the data offered by each church about their recent rates of growth or decline. Only where there were obvious commonalities and trends did the team draw conclusions. The weakness, of course, is that it is difficult to separate cause and effect. For instance, is it that churches with strong youth work are likely to grow, or is it that growing churches will tend to have a large number of young people around and hence generate strong youth work?  Be that as it may, the conclusions of From Anecdote to Evidence seem useful and are convergent with another recent and robust examination of growth in Anglican churches in the USA which I will also refer to in this article.

Growth is not limited by tradition – Liberal churches CAN grow

The first thing to say here - and perhaps to the surprise of everyone, not least liberals – is that the CGRP is clear (once the demographics are evened out) that church tradition is NOT a predictor of growth. This is good news indeed for liberals. Contrary to what we may have heard from others, or thought about ourselves, we are not inevitably doomed to decline. There are stories to be told of liberal churches around the country which are growing strongly. The Faith Communities Today report in 2010 from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research drew exactly the same conclusion in the US context. 

Churches that have a clear mission tend to grow

Having established that liberal churches are capable of growing, and just as likely to grow as churches of any other tradition, the CGRP also discovered that what is crucial is having clarity about the mission and calling of a local church. A clear sense of the identity of a church will draw people, whereas a general, diffuse or non-specific identity will tend not to lead to growth. This is common ground in both From Anecdote to Evidence and in the Hartford report. Churches which ‘go with the flow’, which do not clearly identify their uniqueness, are less likely to grow than those who are able to express their identity with focus and clarity. This is both about self-understanding within the church and the way the church communicates itself to the outside world.

For liberals, this creates a paradox which needs some resolution. The liberal strengths I wrote about in the first article in this series included an appreciation of the openness and ability to listen which is a hallmark of the liberal tradition. Liberals take pride in being responsive rather than pro-active, and in listening before speaking (when we’re on our best behaviour!) How, then, do we present a clear mission statement to the world when our mission is contingent on an encounter with the world and when that encounter might even change us as much as it changes the world? Perhaps the answer is in pointing clearly to those liberal values (listening, openness, inclusivity, flexibility etc) and being very clear about them. There is a real and creative challenge for liberal churches and PCCs to work on here in beginning to articulate flexibility and humility with real clarity. For instance, how about a strapline like ‘St Blog’s, the listening church’?  There are ways of being clear about liberal identity and I believe this is a key challenge for us all.

Churches that are intentional about growth tend to grow

Linked to this, the reports from both sides of the Atlantic show that churches which are intentional about growth tend to grow. This is probably quite a challenge to liberals as we have, in the past, been relaxed about growth – but the research evidence is clear that being intentional about growing actually helps in the process of growing and hence needs to become a part of that clear church identity. This will be a real challenge to a movement whose theology has embraced thinking of the crucified God and which has reacted strongly against a gospel of success and prosperity. We will need to do some deep and creative thinking to find within a language to help liberal churches gain some comfort around the language of growth – another key area of challenges to the theologians amongst us. Many of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom are agricultural and domestic stories of growth and abundance – perhaps we should begin to find ways to embrace such motifs as the mustard seed which spreads like wildfire and provides shelter for the birds of the air? Or again, the Luke-Acts account of the early church living in basic ecclesial community, with the Lord adding to their number day by day. There are, I hope, authentic ways of speaking of the growth the Spirit brings to the church, without selling our soul either to the market or ways of being church which violate our integrity.   

Another linked finding from the Hartford research is that while CGRP is correct in that there is no correlation between theological identity and growth, there is a concentration of growing churches at the extreme ends of all theological traditions. i.e. for liberals, those churches which adopt a very clear ‘progressive’ agenda are more likely to grow than those at the milder end of liberalism. However, in my experience this effect may be linked more strongly to the issue of clear identity, rather  than the attraction of the extreme. Those at the extreme ends of all traditions automatically have a very clear position. This makes it all the more urgent that those who don’t find themselves comfortable on the extreme become comfortable with the uncomfortable task of being clear about their identity.

Churches whose leaders and congregations adopt change tend to grow

‘How many PCC members does it take to change a lightbulb?’
‘Change? Over my dead body! My grandfather donated that bulb!’

CGRP has shown us that Liberal Churches can grow and are just as likely to be able to grow as other traditions. It has shown us that clarity about our mission and purpose is a very important factor in growth and that naming growth as part of that identity helps the process of growing. Another significant marker among churches which are more likely to grow is the capacity of leaders and people to be open to change and to continue reflecting on experience such that change becomes part of their continuing life together. The Hartford report from the USA confirms this finding too. This is something that liberals, in theory, ought to be really good at, an openness to change being one of the core identities within liberalism as a philosophical or political concept.

Another linked finding is that churches which innovate, creating new opportunities for people to join through Fresh Expressions, will tend to grow. There are some excellent examples of liberal Fresh Expressions to be seen around the country, for instance groups offering experimental spirituality, Christian approaches to mindfulness, LGBTI worship communities and many more. I’ll return to this theme more fully in a future article devoted to this topic. I believe we are now starting to see the emergence of the natural fit between the flexible and responsive liberal praxis which I wrote about last time and Fresh Expressions.

Alongside innovation is also the sharing of leadership beyond the professional clergy and into a much wider group of people. Again, not being tied in to a single way of doing things and not feeling duty bound to continue handing on a long line of tradition is a liberal strength here, as is the inclusive approach to leadership and the hermeneutic of suspicion which we bring to existing ways of doing things.

Churches which welcome and nurture disciples, young and old, are more likely to grow

Again the evidence from CGRP and Hartford say the same thing here. Adult Christian education and providing a pathway for young people to grow in faith are vital factors in enabling church growth. Perhaps there are equal and opposite forces at work in liberalism here. On the one hand liberal theology has a great track record in engaging with people’s lived experience and bringing it alongside the gospel. On the other hand, so often liberal churches have seen the Sunday congregation as the main place of belonging for their people, rather than the home group/nurture group etc. The message from the research is that people will grow in faith and stay with their churches and hence their churches will grow, if there is more on offer for them than Sunday alone. Perhaps such groups will be an excellent place to explore some of the liberal creativity, flexibility and openness to the presence and work of God in the world, which I wrote of in the first article.

Every church thinks of itself as friendly and good with newcomers. According to CGRP we need to do more than that. Welcome as a concept and a thought through process for integrating new members into the life of the church is another key difference between growing and declining churches. Being intentional about the experience newcomers get when they come along, follow up, recent arrivals gatherings, invitations to events, all these things really make a difference. In the end, church growth is simply the difference between the numbers joining and the numbers leaving church. If we can do more to make those who join us feel welcome and included, then there will be a big impact. Looking back to the liberal strengths I wrote about last time, perhaps a peculiarly liberal insight on this is that we should expect our welcome process to include an element by which the newcomer, their talents/needs/identity will have some real impact on the rest of us, rather than their simply being absorbed by the existing group.

Conclusion

There are huge challenges liberal churches will need to face if they are to have a future. I hope in a small way this article has fleshed some of these out. In the third and final article in this series, I shall look more widely at what sociologists of and commentators on religion are saying about the future shape of the church and, in the light of the liberal strengths identified in the first article and of the growth factors identified in this second article, I will look at what lines of strategic development liberal churches and organisations might fruitfully pursue in the fast changing religious context of modern Britain.

Meanwhile, a prayer from the Society of St Francis: 

Give to your church, O God,
a bold vision and a daring charity,
a refreshed wisdom and a courteous understanding,
that the eternal message of your Son
may be acclaimed as the good news of the age;
through him who makes all things new,
even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.