Church growth – to grow or not to grow
Years ago, each village in our area had its own co-operative society, and each family had a unique membership number.
The society used to pay a dividend in cash to the members twice a year, and in the summer, this dividend was often used by parents to buy their children new clothes for church.
On this occasion, children faced the congregation in tiers, and sang hymns of celebration to the anxious mums and dads.
The kids were all dressed in their new, pristine white clothes and standards had to be maintained against other families’ appearances.
It was at one of these anniversaries, whilst I was officiating that an incident occurred.
The church official, I noticed, was handing an item from a square box to each of these immaculately dressed children.
To my horror, I realised too late that these were unwrapped chocolate biscuits.
The idea of course, was to incentivize a return visit to Sunday school with the promise of biscuits.
What the official hadn’t taken into account was the parents’ opinion of this strategy, after the kids came home in chocolate-smeared Sunday clothes.
It was safe to say that this tactic for church growth did not last the test of time.
Whilst Christianity undoubtedly has an impact on society, attendances in UK churches continues to fall.
Regular attendance has gradually deteriorated over the last hundred years and this decline has accelerated since 1970.
While a third of our population say they are Anglicans, only 17% of these go to church more than once a month.
Dr Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology and Religion at Lancaster University said in the Church Times recently: “The church’s greatest failure in our lifetime has been its refusal to take decline seriously.
“The situation is now so grave that it is no longer enough simply to focus on making parts grow again. The whole structure needs to be reviewed from top to toe, and creative and courageous decisions need to be made.”
Most of the older generation speak of a time when their church was regarded as the centre of the community and was at full capacity on a Sunday.
Some are therefore disillusioned at today’s small congregations and feel that little can be done to encourage church growth.
I have always felt more positively about the matter. Growing church attendance is no easy task in this secular age, but that doesn’t mean that it is not achievable.
A Big Welcome
The most basic way to boost attendance, of course, is to ensure that your church is as welcoming as possible to new people.
This starts with the tone of your communications in magazines and newspapers, and the messages on your website, but most crucially the way visitors are first greeted in person.
At our local church the priest stands outside the door, ready to welcome all in a friendly manner. Some churches in America go one step further and open your car door for you.
I think we could learn something here from our American cousins. Perhaps, we could go further than our traditional greeting and offer an allocated member of the congregation to be your ‘buddy’ for the day.
This would be someone who would sit with you throughout the service, introduce you to their friends in church and make you feel included.
Welcoming is more important than ever, as the church may only get the one opportunity to do this.
The church should certainly never make visitors feel like outsiders but sadly, this is not unheard of.
A fellow priest and friend of mine was on holiday with his wife when they attended a local church.
After receiving a warm greeting and a service which they praised for its inclusiveness, the couple went up to the serving hatch for coffee.
Here they were asked by the rather officious lady, if they were regulars.
The minister explained they were just on holiday. “Oh” She replied, “The coffee is only intended for our own folk!”
Children are the Future
Another key part of growing a church is the integration of local schools.
Some of my favourite services ever were those conducted before children, staff, parents and the local congregation.
It is a wonderful thing to gather together such a varied group, in the name of God.
Sunday schools, on the whole, are continuing to decline but I believe they can still flourish with the right teaching.
By encouraging and co-operating with the Sunday school staff, these classes can be reinvented and their attendance grown significantly.
Christian teaching simply must be presented in a stimulating way to interest the child, and often if parents are involved too this can make all the difference to church growth.
Young children, teenagers, twenty-something’s, middle aged folk, the retired, and those at the end of their lives all have different priorities. Why, therefore, should one service suit all?
Recently we met the vicar of a church on the east coast. Each Sunday his church hosts different kinds of services.
There is one for those who love 1662, another for those who appreciate ‘family’ common worship, that embraces the generations and also a teenagers’ service, which plays pop music.
In addition to the social facilities there are mid-week bible studies and group worship with preaching and discussion.
The church connects with Christians and non-Christians alike, attempting to meet their needs, to develop their faith, and to grow attendance on Sundays.
The vicar could not do this alone of course. He has a number of assistants and ‘retired’ priests, leaders and individuals, and he depends on grants to develop the ministry.
Meeting this vicar really did give me food for thought.
Do we as ministers encourage the full use of the building? Do we enable as many organisations as possible to use it?
By facilitating organisations to use these premises and considering what the community want, there could be further opportunities for church growth.
The Shop Window
I often refer to funerals, weddings and baptisms as the shop window of the church.
It is believed that half of the populace of this country attend at least one of these services each year and for many, this is the only contact they will have with the church.
I know that we as ministers can make all the difference, to attract some of those present to attend church more regularly, and even later to commit to serve the church.
Whilst today’s priests are so heavily committed, time spent in preparations for these services is a big opportunity.
There is a chance here to share quality time with families, and not just discuss the upcoming occasion but also their faith.
It’s not just a Number
Church growth is not just about the numbers who attend a Sunday service. It is also about the growth in Christian knowledge, the recognition of the Holy Spirit in parishioners’ lives, and the acknowledgement for them of a personal saviour to apply their daily life to commitment.
Usually this growth is achieved with a church that is vibrant, welcoming, friendly and caring not just for it’s own members, but for the community in which it serves.
The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. He is a well known preacher and after dinner speaker in the North of England.