It’s a good sign. The Church Times is publishing a four-part series of articles on the state of the Church of England. The news is mostly discouraging, but never mind.

The series began last week with an article by Linda Woodhead describing her research into people’s attitudes to churches. Apparently only 9% of religious believers accept the authority of their leaders, and they are mainly Baptists and Muslims. Old people turn up their noses at churches because they are boring and stuffy, young people because they discriminate against women and gay people.

It’s a good sign because the Church Times has printed it at all, let alone so prominently. Two years ago they would not have. I well remember the situation at that time, because the English dioceses were voting on the Anglican Covenant. Every vote in favour was awarded a big splash. The votes against were tucked away at the bottom of a page and barely mentioned. The editors knew what those in high places wanted to read, and provided accordingly. I very much doubt that there has been a change of editorial policy; the prominent space given to these research findings suggests a real change of mood at the top of the church hierarchy.

This week’s spread, the second in the series, is about ‘leadership and structure’. We hear a lot about the clergy: older, more women, more unpaid. There are references to Archbishop Justin Welby’s comment (which by now he must regret) that good clergy make for growing churches. Add to this the personality studies, and there is something for every clergyperson to feel inadequate about. The most noticeable thing is that extravert clergy get bigger congregations than introvert clergy. According to the studies, most clergy are introverts.

However I wonder how much this tells us. If maximising the number of people in your church is your only task, okay it matters; but otherwise isn’t it a bit like saying that butchers who are keen to sell beef sell more beef and butchers who are keen to sell lamb sell more lamb?

Within the churches there is a huge literature about church growth: how to attract people, what kinds of ‘fresh expressions’ bring people in, what kinds of clergy increase attendances. Every time some figure or other goes up, everyone gets excited. The discourse seems to me to be predominantly inward-looking. It starts with concern to increase attendance figures, and it therefore judges success on that basis. Yet nobody thinks attending church services is an end in itself. There must be a reason why people should attend, but that’s where the discourse stops. This is the problem. Nobody is going to start attending church services simply because somebody else is anxious about declining numbers. Instead of spending so much time talking to each other, working out what kinds of services and clergy get people to attend, shouldn’t we be spending more time talking to other people and explaining why we think churches are worth attending?

Why are we so bad at this? I suspect that the reason is something like this. There is a traditional narrative, but most church people no longer believe it; or if they do believe it they know it is unpopular. I don’t want to define the traditional narrative too closely because it varies, but the ingredients I’m aware of are:

  • You will go to hell if you don’t go to church and/or believe what church leaders teach
  • Going to church is a moral duty
  • Going to church is for people zapped by a particular type of conversion experience
  • Going to church sucks you into a sub-culture with a distinctive mindset.

If I read the situation correctly, there are still some people, though not many, who promote churchgoing in ways like these; but there are far more people who have had bad experiences of them. Others seek to encourage churchgoing in ways which are nothing to do with Christianity: the local church as a group of supportive friends, services that make you feel better, etc; but if that’s all we can say about them, we can hardly be surprised that many people choose not to attend.

I remain convinced that everyone is enabled to relate to the divine in some way or other. For many, a communal act of worship is a natural way to do it. The problem is that the institutional church has put nearly all its eggs into this basket, and often behaves as if church services are the only things it really cares about.

What I think we need is a new generation of what we might call ‘liberal evangelists’, who can
  1. talk the language of ordinary people
  2. explain why Christianity is true, and
  3. explain why Christianity is important.

Of course different Christians have different views about why Christianity is true and important. The different views need to be publicly expressed and discussed. I suspect that one reason why we are not good at this is the widespread idea that there is only one true version of Christianity so we should all agree with each other. This idea obviously discourages people from opening their mouths.

The kind of liberal evangelism I would hope for needs to be conducted on the level of public debate, wherever opportunities arise, without worrying about whether the people we are speaking to are likely to attend church services. First we need to change public perceptions of Christianity. If we achieve that, public perceptions of churches will change anyway, and the kinds of people who would benefit from attending services will find their way to them of their own accord.