How do we count?

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How do we count? Do people count or do they need to be counted?

The Diocese of Ely has a strategic plan for market towns. In many ways this is good; many (but not all) places in the north of this diocese are places of rural deprivation and poverty and the market towns are not exempt from this. The parish of St Augustine’s, Wisbech has 30% of its children living in poverty.

But in order to receive money from the Church of England’s Strategic Development Fund the application has had to list anticipated outcomes.  These include:

  • 25% of the population across market towns committed to involvement in the life of the church by 2025, involving both inherited-mode church and Fresh Expressions of church as part of a blended economy
  • 5% increase in attendance at inherited-mode churches across the towns
  • 780 new church attenders across the towns involved over the three-year period from 2018-2021. (310 in inherited mode church, including church plants, and 470 across a range of Fresh Expressions, representing 73% growth from current levels of church involvement)

(Strategic Development Funding Application Process – Second stage Diocese of Ely – Changing Market Towns, Diocese of Ely website)

This concept of measuring success by counting numbers makes me uneasy on many levels.

It seems to buy into the idea that once a church grows it will stabilise and even continue to grow.  But Jesus’ own ministry was not like this.  Five thousand men, plus women and children, sat on a hillside listening to him talk while picnicking off bread and fish.  Only a short time later he was left with the remnant, his friend John and some of the women, the only ones prepared to stand at the foot of the cross.  Which of these points would church leaders choose in order to measure the success of the Jesus Project?

The same is true for the early church.  Do you count the numbers baptised at Pentecost or the small group of people praying together in hiding?  Paul’s letters to the churches are focused on theology, Christian community and spiritual well-being. Nowhere does he ask them about the number of new church attenders in the last three years as a percentage of their population.

In some churches it can become difficult to shake off this numbers’ neurosis.  Last month’s All Age Worship had 15 children and 20 adults, and the leaders left feeling they had arrived. This month it’s down to three children and 10 adults.  It doesn’t matter that they know everyone else is throwing up/visiting Grandad/going to the circus and may well be back next time. Because of this fixation with numbers, the leaders are despondent and wonder where they are going wrong.  This is particularly true for smaller churches and can put leaders on an emotional roller coaster as the numbers fluctuate wildly.

What happens if these anticipated outcomes aren’t achieved?  Despite the evidence of changed lives, deepening faith and visionary excitement will the project be considered a failure?

But suppose the Project achieves its anticipated outcomes and 780 new people start attending these churches.  What then?  Each of these people is real.  Like the rest of us, they will have messy, often fragmented, lives.  What they need from the church is love, care, time and attention.  Giving this is essential but costly.  Most churches will try. Without it, people may be leaving as quickly as they arrived.

Is it really impossible to be given money for strategic development without delineating in figures the anticipated outcomes?  How do we get away from a mindset that reduces people to numbers? Who requires the diocese to jump through these hoops?

And finally:

“780 new church attenders?  I hope someone’s told the Holy Spirit,” says my friend Su, going straight to the point as usual.

Turning point

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Ten years ago on Holy Island, I saw the tide turn.  As I stood on the causeway, watching the water creep forward, I saw it stop, pause for a moment and start to retreat.

Richie comes to me for help with Maths. He is an easy going, engaging 15 year old, currently in the bottom set.  I suspect him of being the class clown. In the intervals of dividing fractions and finding percentages, he tells me about the football team he plays for, their successes, failures and injustices.

After I have been teaching him for a few weeks it occurs to me that I haven’t yet asked him for his GCSE target grade.

“G,” he says, casually.

I can’t have heard him correctly.

“Sorry Richie,” I say, “I didn’t catch it. What is your target grade?”

“G,” he says again. “My target grade is G.”

“But Richie,” I say, blankly, “if your target grade is G, why am I teaching you the C/D stuff?”

The tide stops.

I pause, briefly, and go back to how to multiply out double brackets.

I am not sure he works any harder, but he changes.  He becomes more focused.  In December he helps his seat mate when she struggles with finding highest common factors. By January he has become the “go to” person for his maths set.

In February they move him up a set.

By June, exam time, I place his maths level on the C/D border. With a bit of luck, he could tip over and achieve the magic C grade pass mark.

Which he does.

Turning points aren’t usually so clear cut.  Mostly I sit on beaches watching the tide and trying to decide if the last wave really was the final one.  It is only later that I am sure that the tide has turned.

I think it’s like that with people too.  Looking back over my own life there are few turning points I identified at the time; mostly I see them only in retrospect.   Sometimes people tell me that something I have said has made a difference to them; often this is something that I hadn’t given much weight to.  It reminds me how careful I need to be.  I encounter so many people, so often; it is easy to forget how fragile we all are.

And when I look back on that moment with Richie?  I am struck each time by the same thought: What a privilege it was, being there at the turning point.

More than fun

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In my last post I wrote about churches where the emphasis is on having “fun”- especially in outreach to the community and in working with children.  It is easy to see the problems with this approach and criticise; it is far harder to write about what to do instead.

This is not because I have no idea what to do, but because it is difficult to avoid writing as if I have reached a point of arrival.

Experience has taught me that every time I think I have arrived, God sweeps me on somewhere else. I have only just started to realise that I will never actually arrive. While there may be a few rest stops in calm pools along the way, I am unlikely to stay there long.  In a few months’ time I may look back on what I have written and wonder how I could ever have thought that.

But for now, for me, everything depends on context.  I am called to this place, this time, these people.  At this brief staging post on the journey, what can I offer that is more than fun?

Currently, working mostly with children and families who are not church goers, I have found that it is story that is central to everything I do.  Children and adults can engage with stories without having to believe them. Stories can work with all ages and are fundamental to who we are.

Reynold Price wrote:  “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”

Stories work in ways that explanation and exposition do not, for they give people space to make their own meaning.

After story, I prioritise prayer.  Sometimes we sit in the circle and ask if anyone would like to pray aloud or in their head.  We try to include a time of silence.  Usually what is offered is a prayer station to do with the story.  Some people, both adults and children, take part in this, some don’t.  I’m not sure it matters.

Creativity is my third strand.  Although we include some “fun” activities what the children (and adults!) do is very much a choice.  Some of the craft activities are a choice within the activity – a collage using particular colours, scratch art crosses, building a model hut.  A completely free choice using the materials available is always an option.

Community?  In some ways this would be my fourth strand. But while I am intentional about story, prayer and creativity I am less so about this.   In some ways I don’t want to tie us down, give us a label or put up walls enclosing those who fit the criteria for belonging. For now, it feels more like journeying together; children and adults are free to drop in and out. I suspect a more intentional community might look like something different.

In other contexts, and in the past, I have focused on different things – experimenting with worship, working with under 5s, creating sacred space…  But for now, story, prayer, creativity and possibly community underpin all I do to offer something that is more than fun…

Jesus is fun?

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The church I grew up in was dull.

I used to go to Matins (morning prayer) which followed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  I found the canticles dreary and the hymns chosen from Ancient and Modern almost indistinguishable.  The Rector, a quiet introverted man who didn’t much care for people, preached every week on the state of the world. Fifty years later his sermons could have been preached almost unaltered; only the details have changed.  I used to while away the time gazing at the stained glass window opposite (the miraculous catch of fish) and reading the memorial tablet to an only son killed on the Somme.  I would also choose a page of the hymnbook and see if I could find all the letters of the alphabet in order.  (There were only about three pages where this worked; most pages stopped short in the search for a “q”).

Many people of my generation and after grew up in similar churches; it is not surprising that there has been a reaction.  It is also not surprising that for some churches the reaction has tended towards the idea that “Jesus is fun and loved a party.”

For a time, this was particularly noticeable in children’s work, where games and gimmicks became the typical way to do things.  “We try to wear them out with games and then we slip in a story,” said one children’s worker, talking about her junior church group.  The message was clear: if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t engage the children and we would lose the next generation.

But for some churches this also applied to other aspects of church life: they were determined to prove that Christians were not boring.  If people outside the church came along to fun church events – harvest suppers, duck races, Easter egg hunts – they would see that Christians were fun people who did fun things.  Perhaps this would encourage them to join in… Perhaps they would start coming along on Sundays…

The problem is that “Jesus is fun and liked a party” is not the Gospel.

I am sure Jesus was fun in many ways; he certainly wasn’t dull.  He also liked a party – we see him at the wedding at Cana, feeding five thousand people, enjoying himself with his friends…

But the Gospel is much more than this.  It occupies a far deeper space, one that makes meaning of our lives, our deaths and the whole of creation.  “Fun” barely scratches the surface.

We live in a culture, which like all cultures, is searching for meaning.  But our personal lives can be so busy that it is possible for both Christians and non Christians to avoid doing this. The default seems to be that if this life is all there is, time is short, and we need to have as much fun as we can.  Fun becomes the goal… and some churches seem to have accepted this, not necessarily for themselves, but in their approach to those who are not Christians.

This approach demeans non Christians who are just as much people as we are.  If all we are offering them is “fun” there is far more fun to be had elsewhere.  It is particularly demeaning to children who are not afraid to look at life afresh and make meaning.

Why offer them just the froth on the top?

As Rachel Nicholls put it, when commenting on poor all age talks:  “Yes – they can be the direst of the dire – but isn’t that when they operate out of a weird anthropology (children are from a different planet called kiddy widdy land) and a weird theology (God is essentially boring, so rather than enter his presence together, let’s muck around instead).”

At a distance

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I know of a church that sponsors a hospital in Africa.  As you enter the building two large, colourful noticeboards tell the story of this hospital, with pictures, personal stories, facts and figures.  Several members of the congregation have visited the hospital and their stories and photos are included. The church is lucky enough to pay parish share without fundraising; instead their efforts go towards the hospital. Church members talk enthusiastically about making jams and chutneys or the planned sponsored walk.  The noticeboard shows how much money was raised during the last year.

On a much smaller noticeboard, looking amateurish beside the almost professional ones about the hospital, is information about the church itself. It shows names and phone numbers for the clergy and churchwardens, details of the services and a brief mention of bell ringing practice night and the toddler group.  There are no photos.

As a visitor, my overwhelming impression was that this church exists to support the African hospital.

I have come across other churches that are passionate about the kilograms of food they have donated to the foodbank several miles away in the nearest town, their support for street children in South America or their missionary partners in South East Asia.

These are all important and necessary things but I am left wondering if these churches have got the balance right.  For all these things take place at a distance.  What is the church doing locally?

I have never known a place where no one is struggling with depression, loneliness, divorce, disability, bullying, autism, cancer, bereavement…

But often churches seem to be unaware of these people in their midst…

Perhaps they see the church’s role as focussing on those who have very little? Perhaps there is an unspoken assumption that anyone who does not live in poverty is somehow all right and needs to take responsibility for their own life?

But it may be that it doesn’t feel safe.  People’s lives are messy.  Getting involved with real people, instead of with those at a distance, means being prepared to get involved in the mess. It takes time: accompanying people to medical appointments, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the school meeting about the difficult child…  Just listening takes time.  We don’t have much of it these days: churches are small and we are spread too thinly. It is easier and safer to “do our bit” by donating money, giving tins to the foodbank or packing a Christmas Child shoebox.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, in her novel Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter wrote of the Ladies Aiders who preferred to send money to help children far away in India instead of supporting the actual orphan living in their town:

As Pollyanna says: “They acted as if little boys HERE weren’t any account–only little boys ‘way off. I should THINK, though, they’d rather see Jimmy Bean grow – than just a report!”

However, if we think that it is only those at a distance who matter, why are we surprised when people think the church has nothing to say to them?   Shouldn’t we be focusing on those at a distance and those among whom we live?

What is “the church”?

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“Are you talking about the church as the building or the church as the people?”

I was starting to say something about “the church” when I was interrupted by the questioner, asking for clarification.

“People,” I replied, instinctively aware that if I answered: “the building” my comments would have been discounted.

But later I wondered. Why was I offered this either/or choice?  Why do there appear to be negative connotations to speaking about the church as the building, as if this is something that we need to leave behind? What do we mean by the church as people anyway?

Are we talking about the regular congregation who turn up most Sundays?   Do we include occasionals? The person who comes once a month but takes no part in the life of the church?   How do we decide who is “the church” and who isn’t?

Neither church as building nor church as people seemed to quite fit with what I was trying to say. I wondered if I was thinking of the institutional church – the complete organisation from Archbishops and synods to churchwardens and PCCs?  But that didn’t seem right either.

On reflection, it seemed to me that behind all these facets of church there is a more mystical church. Connected to both past and future, it is continuously struggling to align itself (people, buildings and institution) with the Kingdom of God.

In this scenario, it is not a case of choosing one aspect and identifying it as “the church”. It is all of these, and probably other facets that I haven’t thought of, held together in some kind of tension.

“Go and repair my church, which you see is falling into ruins,” the crucified Christ said to Francis in the ruined chapel of San Damiano.  Francis did not see a dichotomy between rebuilding the physical chapel and a rebuilding of people’s spiritual lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t either…

In praise of schools

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Nicky’s family is managing – just.

Nicky* is ten.  He has an older brother and three younger siblings; between them they have three different fathers. Their latest “dad” has just moved out.  In theory, this should lead to a calmer home life; in reality Gina, his mum, is suffering from depression and doing very little.

Two different doctors have seen the family this week – Gina for her depression and the youngest child for a chest infection.  Neither has met Nicky, it’s a large practice and Nicky is relatively healthy.

The social worker has been round to visit.  She thinks things are improving; Gina has managed a trip to town and Nan is coming over on Saturdays to bring shopping and do the family washing.  There is pressure from above to close the file on the family but the social worker doesn’t want to do it quite yet.  She doesn’t see Nicky as she visits while he is at school.

The family worker has been round too.  The oldest brother has behaviour problems, and she is helping the family to cope. She too thinks things are improving – which is a relief as her boss is making it clear that she needs to start withdrawing her support – there are just too many families and too many problems. She has spoken to Nicky in the past, but this time he and his younger siblings are watching telly.

All of these people care, but because of the nature of their jobs they have to move on.  The doctors have moved on to different patients, the social worker has gone to see a family coping with debt and addiction, the family worker to support a school refuser on the autistic spectrum.

Nicky’s school do not have the option of moving on.  They are responsible for him and his siblings for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week during term time.

Nicky is not academic but he is keen. Every time his teacher asks for a volunteer, Nicky’s hand shoots up, usually accompanied by a cheerful grin. He likes and trusts his teacher and appreciates his jokes… However little things upset him.  He is almost in tears when he loses his trainers or spills custard on lunch duty.

Nicky’s family are well known to school.  The office staff are sympathetic when he and his siblings arrive late; sometimes when Nicky explains what’s happened they’re amazed they’ve managed to get there at all. On the mornings when it’s clear that no one has had much to eat since school lunch the day before the head takes them to the staff room and feeds them cornflakes.

Due to spending cuts there is no TA in Nicky’s class, but his teacher is doing his best to support him.  He asks Nicky how things are going and is relieved to find that things are starting to improve.  He suggests ways in which Nicky can get his homework done and arranges lifts so that he can play in the football match at another school.

Nicky’s school cares in a different way from the other agencies involved in the family’s life. They are involved with the children for years, every weekday during term time, picking up the pieces on a daily basis.  Schools care in depth, trying to create a safe space for children who may have no other safe spaces.

Ironically the government, which loves to compartmentalise, thinks that supporting Nicky and his siblings is the job of the over stretched care agencies.  As they see it, the role of the school is to teach Nicky the use of the subjunctive verb and how to add fractions with different denominators.

*While Nicky and his family are imaginary, there are families who are “just managing” in most schools.  Many children live in family situations that are more difficult and are not even “just managing”.

The Frances factor: Everyone matters

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The owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

Frances and her baby brother are the only children at our under 5s service this morning; effectively I’m telling this story just for her and her mum.  (Her baby brother sleeps through it).

Or rather I start telling the story; there comes a point when Frances takes over…

I tell her about the king inviting his friends to the feast. Using our knitted figures to represent the characters, the servant visits each friend in turn in different parts of the church and they all accept happily.  We come back and I point out the rich tapestry (in reality the embroidered altar cloth!) that the king has put up to decorate his palace. We prepare the table, Frances insisting on including every piece of fruit and all the vegetables.  Then joyfully she leaps to her feet to collect the friends for the party…

But of course they cannot come; they have cows, fields and new brides. We go back to the king. “The king is sad and angry,” I say.

We go out to the churchyard and Frances searches for the people: the poor, the outcasts, those on the fringes: “Can you come?” she asks excitedly before gathering them up.  We come in and she props them around the table for the feast.

“The king is happy again,” she says.


We worry endlessly about numbers in our churches. As attendance declines we wonder if it is our fault; that perhaps there is a magic answer to this problem. If we put in more effort, publicise our events more widely and make sure that what we are offering is as good as we can make it, surely we will be rewarded with a greater number of people turning up?

When I have spent time preparing for an event and very few people turn up, I often feel disappointed. But since that morning with Frances, I am learning to let go.

For it did not matter to Frances, her mum or me, that she and her baby brother were the only children there that morning.  I was left feeling amazed that a three year old could enter so deeply into a story, able to see the pattern of the narrative as a whole and offer her insights into the feelings of those involved.   With more children, and a different dynamic, I would probably have missed this.

If everyone matters, all the time, then numbers are irrelevant.  They are not my problem; they are something I need to leave to God. My job is to offer what I can to whoever comes, and leave the rest to him.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t know (and never will) what difference her involvement in the story made to Frances.  It is enough to know that it mattered at the time…

Why people don’t come to church: Hurt

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Emma is sitting near the front.  Last week the vicar asked the congregation to bring flowers on Saturday, so that the church could be decorated for the patronal festival.  Emma brought along some of her blue delphiniums.  In her mind’s eye she could see the corner in the side chapel where they would show up so well against the pale wood.  She hoped the flower ladies would think so too, but as she had to rush off she just handed them over and left.  She chose this seat because she would be able to see into the side chapel.  However the only flowers in there are some insipid white ones, and her delphiniums are nowhere to be seen.  What the vicar forgot (or didn’t know about) was to tell the congregation that this year’s flowers were going to be gold, yellow and white.  Emma knows she ought to be listening to the vicar’s sermon, but every time she looks at the place where her delphiniums would have looked so beautiful she wants to cry.

Fred is sitting in the middle. He used to sit at the back with the other bell ringers, but a few weeks back the tower captain told him that they felt it was unsafe for him to keep climbing up the tower at his age.  Fred didn’t disagree.  The vicar had him up the front and said some nice words about all his years of service, and the bell ringers gave him a tankard.  But no one has suggested any other role that he might take in the church.  People smile at him and ask how he is, but it’s not the same somehow.  He doesn’t seem to belong any more. He’s not sure that he’ll bother next week.

Jo is fairly new to this church. This week she is on her own, but the last couple of times she brought her small son Arthur.  On the whole this church is friendly towards children but unfortunately last time Jo sat in front of the elderly ladies who only tolerate exceptionally quiet and well behaved children.  Jo was aware of their disapproval every time Arthur got down off the pew or played with his tractor; she even heard them tut tut when he asked how long it was to biscuit time.  This week she has left Arthur to go swimming with his dad. She feels she ought to be glad of the time to concentrate on the worship without him, but she misses him. The worst thing though, is that no one seems to notice that he isn’t there or asks after him.  She doesn’t stay long at coffee time.

Emma, Fred, Jo and Arthur are all close to the tipping point.  If their experience of church going continues to be like this, they may tip over into attending less and less and finally not going at all.  In a year’s time this church could be sighing over the drop in numbers and saying things like “We don’t seem to have seen Emma for ages” and “Pity about Fred. Obviously he was only interested in the bell ringing.”  They probably won’t even remember Jo and Arthur.

In recent years the church has become much more aware of groups of hurt and excluded people – there are ongoing discussions about the role of women, LGBTQ, ethnic minorities, the disabled… But Emma, Fred, Jo and Arthur don’t fit into any neat categories; their hurts are individual.  To others their hurt may seem trivial by comparison – but trivial hurts accumulate.

There is no malice in the way they have been treated; only a lack of awareness.  Why has no one noticed how they are feeling?

Thomas

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“Goodness, there’s a lot of mud on the road,” I say with a quick glance at my friend Thomas, sitting in the passenger seat.

“Yes,” he says.

Thomas is only a few years older than me, but he has early onset dementia and has been living in a care home for the past three years.  When he first went there he talked a lot but it was like listening to someone describing their dreams.  Now he says very little.  I’ve learnt not to expect it. Most of the time I drive in slow silence along country lanes. I once tried taking him past our local cathedral but it was too big and busy for him. It just did not register with him, even when I pointed it out. Thomas smiles at me on my infrequent visits; I’m not sure that he has any idea who I am.

Sometimes when I am out driving with him, I think that this is what eternity is like. This time with Thomas exists only in the present.  He has no future – or no future as I understand it. Our shared past is inaccessible to him. But this moment is offered to both of us as a gift from God.

I stop the car by a country church.

“Shall we get out and look at the daffodils?” I ask him.

“That would be a nice thing to do,” he replies.  This is the first sentence he has spoken, but as we walk up the path he talks about the briskness of the wind.

Last time we came he commented on the peace: “It’s so peaceful here. Peace, perfect peace.”

He doesn’t this time but I hope he feels it…