This weekend was dominated by the celebration of the 70th anniversary of one of the churches in which I serve as minister. We mounted an exhibition, gathered for a meal and gave thanks in our service. In preparing for all this I learned a lot about the early years of the congregation, something about the village in which it is located and a little about my predecessors as minister.
One set of figures that have fascinated me has been those for membership both of the church and of the Sunday school. Brookmans Park URC originated in children’s work in the 1940s and in its early years a relatively small congregational membership operated a very large Sunday school.
For the first ten years the Sunday School was always bigger than the church, with the numbers being 30 church members and 90 in the Sunday School in 1949. The last year this was true was 1954. From 1955 on the church was bigger than the School. A pattern where children attended even though their parents did not come to worship persisted into the 1970s however, after which the children in the church were all those of adult members.
This wasn’t too noticeable at first, though, since the membership of the church peaked in 1970 and for a good while after that there were enough children of members to sustain the appearance of continuing children’s work.
After this, though, as the congregation aged, there were fewer and fewer children in the church. By the mid 1990s there were only 12 children but still 75 adult members. Today there are at best a handful of children and around 25 members.
This pattern of growth (driven by and organised around work with children) leading to a peak where the congregation was well established and had built a substantial building by 1960, in which it consolidated and grew further, leading to a plateau at the 30 year mark (in the early 70s) and the a long slow decline, mirrors to a great degree the history of the village.
Brookmans Park did not exist until the 1920s and its great expansion was after the Second World War. All those new members in the 50s and 60s were migrants, people moving to the village, most often from London but also from all parts of the UK, drawn by the abundant work both in London and in the light engineering that formed the backbone of the Hertfordshire economy in those years.
As people started families and built lives in this new community some of them were drawn into the fellowship of the church, which was a focal point for the village.
As that first wave subsided and the population became more settled so too did the congregation. Finally numerical decline began as the first generation moved away or died and fewer people came in to replace them (partly reflecting changing demographics partly wider social changes).
Was the growth due to ministerial or congregational efforts and the decline to their lack? I think not. The story of the church is an aspect (from this point of view) of the story of the village and of British social history.
So does this mean that the ministers and the lay leaders were irrelevant and unnecessary? Not at all. It is clear even from my superficial acquaintance with this history that some ministers were better attuned to the church than others, that some lay leaders nurtured the congregation better than others.
All this is very helpful as I reflect on my ministry here. Some mistaken views are tempting and knowing how we got where we are will provide some safeguard against them:
- the growth that all would like to see is the outcome of doing the “right” things which are always and everywhere the right things – what grew the church in the 1950s and 1960s in Brookmans Park will not grow the church there now and the church that could grow there now would be a different kind of church from the one that grow there then
- growth only or primarily reflects the “quality” of ministry or congregational life – all church growth is contextual, it comes out of its resonating with some aspect of the life of its community (and often this is about patterns of migration)
- a church has failed or is failing if it does not grow – there are some inspiring and wonderful stories about the life of Brookmans Park URC from the period of its numerical decline, especially from the 1980s and 1990s but throughout the period up right until the present
Nonetheless it remains the case that much of the congregation’s thoughts about itself are bound up with a yearning for the time when the church was full (although my reading makes me believe that there never was a time when it was full every week I’m sure it is true that it was a good deal fuller than it is today); with a desire to see the scores of children back in the church; with a desire for growth.
This is good but growth can only come if we recognise that the growth in the past came about because the church met a need in the community of its time. Growth can only come to churches now that connect to the kind of Christian discipleship that is needed now. To understand what that is means developing relationships with people who are outside of the church now, unless one is placed somewhere people are actively looking for church membership, which we are not.
Furthermore continuing to exist IS a legitimate purpose and aim of the Church but it cannot be the only or primary purpose. We need to know what our existence is for and especially for whom we exist. Sometimes it is said that the Church exists for those people outside it but this is no better than existing for those within it, to my mind.
The Church exists (solely) to serve God. What God’s purposes are for us is often revealed through people, both inside and outside the Church, but the Church is not for people, in the first place, it is for God.
In seeking to understand the future of any church and of the Church we have to begin with God in Christ, with worship and with prayer, with the Bible and with the Spirit. Our past and our present are illuminating only in so far as they are imbued with the Spirit and with love of God.