Fresh expressions of Church that meet in pubs, cathedrals with good choral Evensong and churches with reasonable numbers of young people all have a good chance of growing, according to a new report by the Church Army’s research unit. But, with such diverse role models for success, the findings of the Church Growth Research Programme, reported in January at the Faith in Research Conference in London, provide no silver bullets or easy answers for those passionate about pursuing church growth.
Analysis in the Christian media largely portrayed the findings as good news and, to an extent, they are. The report states that in the decade leading up to 2010, 18% of churches grew. But the fact remains that the Church of England is in decline. About 27%of churches declined in the same period, with the rest staying where they were in numerical terms. What may be good news for the Church is the opportunity this research provides to pursue strategies that work. ‘The facts are always friendly,’ Rt Rev Paul Bayes, Bishop of Hertford told Christianity. ‘We need to know the truth before we can respond to it.’
For every one person sent to a Fresh Expression, 2.6 more people join
That truth may surprise some people. The report is at pains to point out that no single factor leads to church decline, nor is there one single recipe for church growth. It is surprisingly simple and unequivocal, however, in identifying factors that have no impacton growth. These non-factors include the theological tradition of the church and the gender, ethnicity or marital status of the church’s leader. This may come as a shock to both conservative evangelical and liberal pluralist cheerleaders, who have long argued that their particular tradition was the key to attracting new people to the Church in Britain.
An approach that does seem to work is the Fresh Expressions ‘model’ ? if one can call such a diverse range of non-traditional and new types of church a model. From churches in pubs to messy church or café church in existing church buildings and those meeting in houses, fresh expressions of church share a few key characteristics. The most important of these are arguably their missional and contextual nature: successful fresh expressions are aimed at the unchurched and at meeting their needs where they are by ‘listening to culture’. The report also defines successful fresh expressions as being ‘educational’ and ‘ecclesial’ in that they focus heavily on the formation of disciples and they do not see themselves as stepping stones to ‘real’ or traditional church, but as new ways of being church for people who might otherwise not engage with it.
The report’s validation of the Fresh Expressions approach through evidence of growth should put to rest old resistances to the model, according to Rev Dr Michael Moynagh, director of research for Fresh Expressions. ‘There have been quite a lot of people in the Church, both at a leadership level and sitting in the pews, who have been a little sceptical about [Fresh Expressions],’ he told Christianity. ‘People have often said to me: “It’s just another fad.” The figures show that this is not just a flash in the pan. Something very remarkable is going on at grassroots level.’
But, before you head to your church council and demand that all work be relocated to your local Costa Coffee, keep in mind that the report identifies cathedrals as one of the other demonstrable areas of growth.
For a long time, the narrative surrounding growth in cathedral worship has centred on the supposed desire for anonymity in those flocking to Evensong in Britain’s great Christian buildings. The usually unspoken criticism inherent in that narrative was that such growth was somehow unhealthy or unsustainable. The report shows that cathedral attendance, while unsurprisingly influencedby aesthetic and contemplative factors, is strongly driven by their ‘friendly atmosphere’. ‘What Fresh Expressions and cathedral work have in common,’ bishop Bayes told us, ‘is a sense of intentional friendship and providing a proper welcome. That’s mission.’ The report showed that an active intention to grow numbers was a significant factor in growth.
It reveals some fairly simple recipes for failure, too. Churches with very few young people and churches that were clustered as part of a group under one priest or leader were significantly less likely to succeed.
The key question around this report is not whether it is good news or bad for the Church, but whether the Church is willing to act upon the evidence it provides and make the necessary changes, in attitude as well as allocation of resources.