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.

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Where there is no vision the people perish

The latest Church  of England statistics are out, with interesting analysis and comments from David Keen at Opinionated Vicar (http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/), Jeremy Marshall (https://tinyurl.com/yckp9o2j) and others.  They continue to show a decline in attendance, and a wide range of reasons are suggested for why this should be so.

Is there anything the Church of England can do about its current decline?  If so, how does it identify what can be done and start doing it?

It seems to me that there is an underlying yearning to be part of a visionary church, one that is moving forward in the will of God.   We know that where there is no vision the people perish; what we don’t know is how to be visionary.

This is partly because there are a whole range of myths surrounding vision.  One myth is that it is possible for vision to happen top down.  Over the last 20 years I have attended several church away days dedicated to vision and mission.  We have come back and written Vision Statements and Mission Action Plans.  I was really excited by the first one – after years of drifting along fairly aimlessly, it seemed to me that the church was actually getting to grips with who it was and where it should be going.

But nothing actually changed – or if it did it was not as a result of the MAP or the Vision Statement.  I think this is because people find it almost impossible to turn the vague generalised principles of the Vision Statement into a practical reality.  There is a tendency to look at what we are already doing and see how it fits in so that we can tick the box that says for example “Respect everyone”.  Mission Action Plans can all too easily degenerate into Coming up with Ideas to Keep the Bishop Happy.  But good ideas are not vision…

Another myth is that we need unity in order to be visionary.  Given the current range of views in the Church of England, this is an impossibility.  There is not going to be a magic moment in which everyone suddenly converts to our way of thinking – and even if they did it might end up as a sterile situation.

So perhaps we are never going to be part of a visionary church?

I think we need to let go of the idea of a visionary institutional church that encompasses the whole of the Church of England.

But vision still happens…  In my experience (which is obviously limited) it takes place in a very specific context.  Often something sparks and an idea is taken up and developed by an individual or a small group of people.

Vision is time limited.  That initial excitement does not last; after a while the vision becomes the usual, even the routine.  I’m not sure that matters… for then the wind blows again and there is a fresh vision or a transforming of the old one as it moves in an unexpected direction…

So perhaps instead of one overarching vision for the Church of England, what we need is a piecemeal approach.  A mosaic of vision.

In that case what is the place of the institutional church, particularly at national level? Is there one?

I was starting to think the answer to this was no. But on reflection I thought that what unites all Christians is prayer.  So perhaps:

  • The diocese removes the pressure on churches to produce Mission Action Plans, Vision Statements and the like. Churches can still do them if they want to, but it isn’t compulsory.
  • Instead the diocese conducts a prayer audit of all churches. Who is praying, how often, how long for etc
  • Each church is encouraged (or possibly even mandated) to start a prayer group. As a minimum, one person who is not ordained or part of a clergy household once a week for half an hour. (It is probable that clergy and their families are already praying; this is something that needs to be taken up more widely.)
  • In addition each church has a monthly prayer group which includes clergy, some of those in church leadership positions and some of those the church leadership regard as the bums on the seats.
  • These prayer groups are free to pray as they feel led, but in addition they need to pray specifically, every time, for any projects or initiatives that their church is engaged in. Even the ones that they personally disapprove of or think are pretty rubbish anyway. Also for any local Christian projects and initiatives, regardless of denomination.  They ask specifically for God’s guidance and attempt to listen to what He might actually be saying to them in their context.
  • They also pray for protection.
  • Meanwhile the diocese sets up its own prayer groups. They carry on (for the moment) with all the courses and support that they are currently providing, but they then look to see what is bubbling up from the churches and how they can support it.
  • They also collect and share stories of people who prayed for years before seeing their prayers answered.  This isn’t a quick fix. We are all in this for the long haul.

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…

Church attendance: The golden age?

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I always assumed that my grandparents were committed church goers.  My parents took me to church; as a child, I thought that this was what everyone did.

As the Church of England has been in steady decline for over 50 years, I also assumed that there was once a golden age when most people went to church regularly throughout their lives.  Certainly my grandparents, born at the end of the 19th century, would have been there every Sunday taking an active part in church life.

Except they weren’t. Talking to my mother recently was a revelation.

My father’s father didn’t go to church at all.  He thought churchgoers were humbug. Growing up he had lived opposite a church and had watched people leave the service and go straight into the pub next door. (Neither my mother nor I can see the problem with this, but he did.)

Both my grandmothers were unable to go to church because of another Great British Institution: The Sunday Roast.  My father and grandfather used to play tennis on Sunday mornings, coming home to roast beef and Yorkshire. (On Sunday afternoons, my grandfather graciously took his wife out for a run in the car…)

My mother’s mother also spent Sunday morning cooking. A generation or two previously, in middle class households like my grandparents, the servant would have prepared the Sunday roast, leaving the family free to go to the morning service. In my grandparent’s time, without servants, the cooking was done by the wife.

Even my maternal grandfather only went to church occasionally. As young and middle aged adults, church played little part in their lives.

But things changed as they grew older.  My mother, who did go to church more regularly, signed herself up on the electoral roll, and my grandfather joined her. To his surprise, he was asked to be sidesman and so began his regular commitment to churchgoing. In his 70s he took on the role of churchwarden. Once her children had left home, my grandmother stopped cooking a midday meal and accompanied him.

I know less about my father’s family except that my grandmother was confirmed in her late 60s, so presumably she also became a churchgoer in later life.

But what I have found hardest to believe is that my mother cannot remember any of them ever talking about their faith. Churchgoing was what they did, the creeds were what they believed.  Apparently no more was needed.

Although the number of churchgoers had declined since my grandparents’ time, it seems to me that far more people today talk about what they believe.  I can think of few people with whom I have never had any discussion about my faith.  Even my atheist/agnostic friends on facebook are sharing posts from the Richard Dawkins website and those pictures where you stare at three dots for 30 seconds and then watch an image of Jesus float across the ceiling…

The supermarket church?

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“People travel to their nearest town to go to the supermarket.  Why shouldn’t they travel there to go to church?”

This is one of the arguments for closing rural churches and concentrating on town churches.  As villagers are prepared to go to town to do their shopping, insisting on keeping their parish church open is considered to be difficult.  Town churches could be developed as a hub for local villages, functioning (presumably) in a similar way to the supermarket.

However, this argument misses the fundamental difference between shopping and church going.  We all need food and clothing; most of us also need petrol, household appliances and the chemist.  People are prepared to travel to meet the needs of daily life.

Spiritual life is different.  Many people seem unaware of their spirituality, or think that it is sufficient to go for a lonely walk along the beach.  The church’s message that there is more to life than this and that encountering Jesus is life changing and life enhancing passes them by.  Even committed churchgoers can miss this; they may come to church because they value the church’s role in the community, for friendship and support or because they think it is the right thing to do.

These people are unlikely to travel to the town church, for they will not see it as having a role in either their spiritual or community life.

Only a few committed Christians are likely to make the transfer – and even they will find it difficult.  They are used to thinking about their own community but instead they will be asked to think in very different terms.  The focus of the town church is on the town (where there are more people) and those from the villages may be left feeling the poor relation.  This may be especially difficult for those involved in their local community (school governors, parish councilors, WI, Brownies) as many Christians are.  Even if at the start efforts are made to find good ways of working together, how long are these likely to last when the predominant group will inevitably be focused on the town?

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?