There are just ten minutes to go. I sit outside, absorbing the stillness. Two joggers pant past, seemingly oblivious of anything that is about to take place. To my right, a church tower rises majestically behind winter-stricken trees. Suddenly, from this architectural focal point of the village, multiple resounding bells shatter the silence.
I’ve come to St Peter and St Paul in Farningham, Kent, to pay a surprise visit to a rural church. I know what I’m expecting: timidly warbled hymns, a lofty-sounding sermon and few people.
My boots crunch on the gravel path between the gravestones as I approach. Then, a young, energetic vicar – his black and white cassock and surplice billowing in the wind – swiftly appears through the aged wooden door and extends an enthusiastic welcome. There are further friendly greetings as I step inside the warm, brightly lit 13th century nave. Before I know it, I am in full flow with a young mum, who tells me her 12-year-old son can’t wait to follow in her footsteps in the centuries-old art of bell-ringing.
Sixty people from toddler age to over 80 have gathered here for family worship, which consists of old and new songs and a lively, interactive, Bible-centred message followed by refreshments and conversation.
‘That’s not what you were expecting, is it?’ an elderly congregant asks me. ‘We’re on a winning team here, you know.’
UNDOING THE STEREOTYPE
It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. Jerry Marshall, CEO at the Arthur Rank Centre, an ecumenical base for the national rural offices of the Church of England, Methodist and United Reformed Church, says: ‘Some Christians would assume the rural church scene is traditional, old-fashioned and elderly. There’s some truth in that stereotype, but there’s also a lot that’s false.’
Similarly, negative preconceptions are often held of small churches. In Hilary Taylor’s book A Toolbox for Small Churches, Patricia Took writes: ‘The wider evangelical world has for many decades been shaped by larger congregations. Too often the wealth that is to be found in these small communities is forgotten.’
A small church is a different animal altogether
In the context of church life, small is rarely considered good. Taylor, the small church enabler at Small Church Connexion (SCC), a Baptist initiative to assist small churches, says: ‘In 2004, I went to talk to a big church about SCC. Someone said to me afterwards: “It’s such a waste of time. Why don’t you just shut them down or merge them with a big church?”’
Yet authors Martin Robinson and Dan Yarnell write in Celebrating the Small Church: ‘It is unlikely the activity of a few larger churches, no matter how creative they might be, will be enough to meet the missionary challenge of our age. It is essential that churches of every size are mobilised for mission.’
HEALTH BEFORE SIZE
Indeed, small is the normal expression of Church both in the UK and on a global scale. In 2013, the Church of England reported that the average weekly attendance in the UK was 38 adults in its 16,000 plus parish churches. In November 2014, of the 516 churches in the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), 355 (69%) had fewer than 50 members and 221 (43%) had fewer than 25. The URC and Methodist traditions also have many churches with 40 people or fewer.
In A Toolbox for Small Churches, Taylor writes: ‘There is an assumption that a church of 70–100 members is a typical-sized church and that a church of 30–40 members should therefore be regarded as an emaciated version of this “normal” version. A small church is a different animal altogether.’
She thinks the key question isn’t so much about size, but whether a church is healthy: ‘What’s the perception of healthy? Well, it’s usually big, lots going on, lots of people, hopefully lots of children and activities. There’s a band, screens and the latest songs. That kind of stuff seems to be what people think health looks like, but actually that is just froth on the top. It’s not necessarily about the guts of the gospel, faith, discipleship, mission and service; what I would call real church.’
It is unlikely the activity of a few larger churches, no matter how creative they might be, will be enough to meet the missionary challenge of our age
I pay a visit to ChristChurch Redbourn in Hertfordshire, which was brought back from the brink of death by nearby independent ChristChurch Harpenden. On this particular morning, I count around 45 people minus the children. I note that the entire service is centred on outreach, mission and evangelism. Its weekly programme includes outreach events for men, youth, older people, and women and children; all part of its Real Lives outreach initiative this year.
THE POSITIVES OF PETITE
So what are the benefits of belonging to a smaller church? A Baptist Union questionnaire asking this very question was sent to 125 small churches across the UK. The positives, which scored highly, included: prayer needs can be shared with people who are likely to understand them, pastoral support can be offered quickly and decisions can be made informally.
‘In small churches there are roles for people,’ says Jane Thomas, who attends a church with around ten members in Barnes, London. ‘There is a family feel. You can nurture lifelong friendships, have a place to serve; a sense of belonging. What we’ve got is quite precious.’
‘It’s all about group dynamics, that’s the point,’ says Taylor. ‘How you relate when you have 40 people is different from how you relate when you have 70. When it gets nearer to the 100 mark the leader becomes more like a manager or delegator than a close-knit pastor. So roles change depending on the number because they have to.’
Graham Dunn, pastor of Barrow Baptist Church in Barrow upon Soar says: ‘Essentially, the larger you are, the harder it is to build community. Church can become consumerist once it reaches a certain size it’s like the Tesco-isation of church. The local deli closes down even though it might have done years of really good work. So there’s a price to be paid.’
Taylor goes to Ashford Common Baptist Church, which has around 20 members. ‘With a small church you take risks with people. You can say: “Come on, have a go, step out!” People from our church have gone on to become home group and worship leaders elsewhere because they had training in a small environment. What’s the worst that can happen? If you’re leading and it all goes pear-shaped, people are going to love you anyway.’
Small and rural in numbers
There are more than 10,000 rural Anglican churches in this country, accounting for 65% of Church of England churches, and if other denominations are included, the figure comes to more than 15,000.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics calculate that the current population of rural England is 9.3 million, and that it continues to grow by around 50,000 people each year. Marshall says: ‘The UK is unique in being the only country where the rural population is actually growing. Everywhere else in the world people are moving to the cities.’
SMALL CHURCHES UP AGAINST IT
Yet there is no denying that many small churches struggle. A recent survey from the FIEC shows that the smaller the church the greater the rate of decline.
Speaking at a recent Small Church Connexion conference, Matt Squires, pastor at Waltham Abbey Baptist Church, said: ‘In a small church you can feel like you’re trying to do everything; changing hats several times a day. Like Moses, we can feel all washed up. We can feel like giving up, that God has forgotten us.’
The FIEC identified three key factors that contribute to decline: lack of leadership skill and loss of vision; failure to adapt to their cultural context; and the loss of young adults who leave and don’t return.
FIEC operations director, Andrew Nicholson, says: ‘Sometimes the process of decline is irreversible because the church is so unwilling to change. The church building may be dilapidated or the population centre has moved so there isn’t community around the church anymore.’
Yet there is hope. This year, the FIEC is launching a Church Revitalisation Initiative for its smaller churches and hopes that in time it might become the go-to for other small churches seeking revitalisation. Nicholson says: ‘Instead of planting new churches, the purpose is to revitalise churches that have the capacity to change. In this way we can get something going quickly because there’s something on the ground already.’
It is hoped that the initiative will be taken up by at least 50 churches. It could mean closure for some so that assets can be redirected to other gospel works, while for others it might result in mergers with nearby churches. For those that are willing to change, revitalisation similar to the ChristChurch Redbourn model could take place.
‘Churches find it very hard to die,’ says Nicholson. ‘However, in cases where the church has decided to finish it’s a bit like a seed dying in the ground then releasing the assets of that church to where God is blessing and moving. It’s a brave church taking that decision. We don’t see it nearly often enough.’
A SLOW BURN CRISIS
On the rural Church scene there is a similar mix of struggle and hope. Marshall describes the situation facing the rural Church as nothing less than ‘a slow burn crisis’ and yet there is a striking passion and commitment to rural ministry in the face of significant challenges.
The most common issue for small, rural churches is the lack of resources, both human and material. Just over 70% of rural Anglican churches are now in multi-church groups of up to 11 churches, which are often under one minister who moves between the congregations.
In her recent report, ‘Released for Mission: Growing the Rural Church’, Canon Dr Jill Hopkinson quotes one parishioner who said: ‘Our parish priest has 13 churches and spends half his life in a car! If he’s only seeing the people who go to church once a month he’s never going to meet the people who don’t go to church.’
Sally Gaze, a rural rector who chairs the national Fresh Expressions rural round table, wrote in a recent article: ‘Rural Christians can sometimes feel that they are the poor relation compared to larger urban and suburban churches. Musical excellence is often out of reach, we may not have a venue equipped for contemporary worship and community needs, we may lack the critical mass of people to engage in some kinds of ministry.’
Small church: what to read
Celebrating the Small Church
Martin Robinson and Dan Yarnell (Monarch)
A Toolbox for Small Churches
Hilary Taylor (Thankful Books)
Small Church, Big Vision
Lynn Green and Chris Forster (Zondervan)
Being Church, Doing Life: Creating Gospel Communities Where Life Happens
Michael Moynagh (Monarch)
SMALL AND RURAL CAN BE MISSIONAL
Simon Mattholie of Rural Ministries, which works to encourage and resource rural churches across Britain, says: ‘We are meeting an increasing number of entrepreneurial men and women who have been called by God to missionally connect with their communities and grow the kingdom of God.’
One example is The River Rooms in Coltishall village on the Norfolk Broads, a former Salvation Army hall, which has been remodelled and refurbished by BroadGrace Church and now serves as a joint public and church space.
‘BroadGrace has always wanted to be a church that fitted into the local community, showing how Christ is relevant and significant in village life,’ a statement from the church says. ‘Our building project is an opportunity to further this vision. We have worked with A Piece of Cake, the popular village coffee shop, and they have already moved into half the building. We plan to make space available in the other half for “hot-desking” offices, other local businesses, community groups and charities as well as church use.’
Dynamics of Community
In a big world, the small church can remain intimate.
In a fast world, the small church can remain steady.
In a smart world, the small church can remain plain.
In a complex world, the small church can remain simple.
In a noisy world, the small church can be a place for listening.
In an anonymous world, the small church can call us by name.
Michael Langrish, in Changing Rural Life
Caroline Hewlett, vicar of Swaledale with Arkengarthdale in the Yorkshire Dales, has started experimenting with Forest Church. ‘It’s basically a way of doing Messy Church in the open air. We have bats in one of the churches but instead of getting rid of them we allow them to be a feature. We have information about them and do bat walks.
‘We also have an ancient churchyard, which was very overgrown with no paths, so the only way to get the grass down was to do old-fashioned scything. People from the community joined in and that has grown into a group that meets once a month. We also now have beehives, church honey, and run birdwatching.’
MAKE OR BREAK
With a third of rural priests set to retire in the next ten years, Marshall says the next decade is ‘make or break’ for rural churches. ‘If we don’t face up to this challenge we may lose a great deal of the Christian presence in rural areas,’ he says.
‘We need to reimagine how we do rural ministry. To date, there has been a lot of moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic. You know, we’re a bit short of priests so we’ll just give this guy one more parish but for no particular strategic reason. So we need to have a fresh look at how we organise ourselves.’
Mattholie says we need to begin by considering our communities and their needs, and then formulate churches around this: ‘Very often in the rural context people begin with a church and ask: “How might we attract people to what we’re already doing?” Unfortunately, this risks replicating the problems that we’re experiencing as a nation in terms of decline.’
He adds: ‘At Rural Ministries, we’re not about keeping churches open simply because they’ve always been there, but rather enabling Christians to ask the mission-shaped questions, such as: “In light of who we are and where we are, what is the good news for this community and how might we express it?”’
Church can become consumerist once it reaches a certain size. It’s the Tesco-isation of church
Rev Dan Yarnell, national coordinator for the Fellowship of Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Ireland, says larger churches must look to strategically partner with smaller ones in the name of mission.
‘What I wish for is more joined-up thinking and strategy where larger churches intentionally work with smaller churches; not to take them over, but to assist them in their own mission,’ he says. ‘They are often strategically located to contextualise the gospel best. We can never fully see the re-evangelisation of the UK without smaller churches.’