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Seeking and expressing church growth

We are aware that there a number of ways of seeking and expressing church growth (on this, see James Hopewell, Congregation: Stories and Structures, SCM, 1988) . For example,

  1. Contextual – reflecting the interests and concerns of its environment. So, growth (e.g. in rural churches) will have a distinctive feel from that found in urban and suburban contexts. Thus the key concern is close attention to the context in which the particular church finds itself.

  2. Mechanistic – more likely to see the church as an organisation, and will have aims, objectives, outcomes, strategies, goals, etc. Tends to be more rational, and focuses on immediate effectiveness. Here the main concern is with the effectiveness of the church.

  3. Organic – sees the church as ‘a gathering of strangers’ in need of salvation from alienation; knits together and grows disparate threads of communities, transforming and empowering neighbourhoods. An organic approach to seeking growth would be to focus on the communal development of the congregation.

  4. Symbolic – the church conveys a meaning, saying something about the purposes of God in a wider community; what the symbols signify to outsiders. The church has meaning and significance beyond the congregation. The key focus for this approach is on the identity or ‘personality’ of a particular church and how this is perceived by those outside the church.

Each of these four modes of growth has significance, and each will have an impact on numerical growth over different periods of time. For example, attention to the contextual and organic will usually result in slow and steady numerical growth. Mechanistic growth can be easily engineered in a variety of contexts – but can be alienating, especially if it takes little account of the symbolic aspects of church that might engender growth. In many approaches to evangelism, and to overt practices in church growth, approaches rooted in the mechanistic way of viewing growth often tend to be the most popular – partly because they appear to yield the most immediate results. So our attention to the breadth, depth and types of growth would suggest that a more holistic and nuanced approach to church growth needs to be considered in our research. Here, we are mindful of the biblical tradition, including the parable of the sower (Mark 4: 3-9, etc.). Some church growth can only take place when the soil has been transformed, and this may take considerable time – but is an essential, worthy and fruitful ministry within the context of mission and evangelism.

This research recognises that a range of factors sometimes contribute to church growth: social, demographic, and cultural, for example. There are studies – historical and contemporary – that link church growth to social class, and to other factors such as urbanization. We are acutely aware that a recipe or formula for growth in one place does not necessarily translate easily to the soil or context of another place. We will therefore be careful to test any general hypotheses emerging out of any research. One of the aspects of church growth this research will also test is the extent to which numerical growth in the present is indicative of long-term projections of health. It does not follow that these easily correlate.

So, in studying church growth, it is important to hold on to a holistic definition of growth which includes growth in depth, width and reach, and a serious attention to cultural, historical and demographic factors. However, the main focus of this research is nonetheless on numerical growth, not simply because it is (in theory) easier to measure, but because this is always a priority of the Church. In our current age there are particular challenges, Sunday Attendance in the Church of England has decreased by 26.8% over the last 20 years. This is a decrease of over 300,000 people. The national trend in all age weekly church attendance across all of the dioceses in the Church of England shows a ten year change of -11.3%, an actual decline of 143,000. A strategic response to the decline is essential. Thus a key interest is exploring the extent to which interventions by the church at various levels and the way in which the church allocates resources affects the (numerical) growth of the church. (We are more than conscious that this is a ‘mechanistic’ way of thinking, however, the research will be balanced by appropriate attention to the concerns raised above by the contextual, organic and symbolic expressions of growth).