I want to write something about church growth and people who I work for in faith organisations and churches still talk to me, and yet whilst contentious I think, its needed to be said.
Statistics about the decline of the church and anecdotal evidence have pretty much meant that church growth is the only game in town, (and this is reflected in a previous piece, on bottoms )the yardstick in which every initiative is measured, and where funding applied for has as key outcomes, and even where research by Social justice groups (CUF,Grace project) has to assess whether social justice projects ‘help with church growth’ – to inform that conversation – regardless whether they are good or not.
The same was in the evaluation reports for the fresh expressions over the last 10 years, indicating where growth (numerical) occurred and the causes of this – the key headline being where a vicar was in charge of 1 church, and the employment of a youth worker.
I just wonder whether we’re measuring growth in the right way.
What about the following question…
How do you know if a country is showing signs of growth? – what statistics might you have heard of or know about to indicate this?
One is GDP and this often used and this is the measure for much of the government debate on growth – but have you ever thought about what is or isnt included in GDP and what influences it..?
The second world war had a wonderful effect on GDP. As do national disasters. Rebuilding a country after flooding in 1950s increased GDP by 2%, as the services required were utilised. GDP is also increased through the increase in Human suffering – therapy, solicitors, one company pollutes the other cleans up – all good for GDP. The families with the most poverty -and in need of services and spend money and consume- are the best for GDP.. those who go for walks and talk are worse for GDP… think about it.. yet how much we rely on GDP as a measurement – and yet probably dont stop to think about all the ways in which it is affected. Yet, its origins were for measuring an economy and its power during the time of war, in 1930. From being a yardstick of power during war, it became the ultimate measuring tool for a consumer society post war, but its prime success was in the war era – its still being used – for the sake of no other viable alternative being offered or created. Its a war time measure, still in operation and clung to. The problem, as Bergen states, with GDP is that simple rankings hide more than they reveal. He uses the metaphor of a violin piece, that if written in 1800 took 4 minutes to play, than in 2019, the same piece even with an orchestra and all the technology involved… still takes 4 minutes any adjustment ruins the tune – even if it taking 2 minutes makes it more efficient.
when you’re more obsessed with efficiency and productivity- its really difficult to see the value of education and care (Bergman)
Targets driving performance in the public sector start to sound ridiculous dont they?.. ‘we have a high graduation rate, therefore we offer good education’ or ‘the economy is growing therefore our country is doing fine..’ As Kelly suggests:
‘productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating and exploring’
Governing by number is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia (Bergman, 2019). And this isnt a political post during an election season. More to reflect on what might seem a standard measure that is uncritically accepted often – yet we rarely think about what it measures or doesnt or what it is affected by – and whether it in itself is good.
Does this resonate for you with ‘church growth’ at all?
I wonder if the warning of a country measured through statistical lenses and that has no vision of utopia – what it is dreaming for- might be stark, or appropriate. A church that statistically grows numerically – might only be increasing due to receiving new members from other churches that have closed. A church that is growing numerically – but who is attending – and are they from local estate communities of lower income – or the wealthier , not that its known – because this data is secondary often.
But then – is this in any way a real sign of growth in a church anyway? more services, and attendance – but what about faith formation, discipleship and how a church increases capacity, depth and responds to poverty locally? or – how might a church be involved in communities like school governers, voluntary groups, business and politics? Are they signs of growth too – as they impact and enable human flourishing in the world too? And not to mention funerals, weddings, ceremonies – and all the 100’s of encounters that people might have who have a moment of faith, lighting a candle, saying a prayer and feeling at home in a drop in. Then theres all the volunteering, the ‘performing’ – and the theological reflecting, growing and training that goes on..- not just for ordinands.
In a church I was in recently – they estimated that 500 people used the building each months for all its activities, yet only 100 attended on a sunday service. In another church its community work hosts more than 2000 per week, employs 7 people and receives £1000’s of funding for its community programmes – yet has less than 50 per sunday. A small church of 8 people, put on holiday clubs in one community that enabled over 100 families during the summer to have food and space to be, space to feel welcome and love and be community, in one of the most challenging estates in the north east. – are these churches growing – or being faithful – or doing good – or acting in a way which looks like the kingdom?
Just thinking about the effort, discipleship, growing that is going on in these- and then what might be measured on a spreadsheet.
Might measuring for church growth be a sign and also a pressure that creates unnecessary anxiety- and at the same time reduces the core function of churches to achieving productivity. If thats ‘the real world’ – then the real world is anti faith. The question is not just about what is measured in terms of church growth – but whether implicitly this has caused the church to lose its dream, its passion, its edge and what it is called to be. A place for spiritual flourishing, a place for goodness, and place that transforms the world. Maybe we have to dream differently about the church that is for the context we’re in- and not take measurements of churches that reflect a bygone way – does the current or future age need new measurements?
If measuring faith and virtue and discipleship is difficult – does that mean we dont bother and just measure the easiest indicator – even if its not complete? – it takes 722 pages of A4 to define GDP and yet its reduced to one figure- hiding so much through its simplicity. Church growth might be doing the same. An empty Sunday church might be a blessing after all, a place of expectation in the void, to not keep the pews full, but keep the altar empty (Craigo Snell, 2014) – a full church on a Tuesday afternoon might just be the spark of hope, faithfulness and goodness…
Craigo-Snell; ‘In praise of empty churches’ in Theatrical Theology, Van der Lugt- 2014
Bergman Rutger, Utopia for Realists, 2019