Some puzzles about church growth and the United Reformed Church (UK)

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Mission Council gather Nov 2013

As someone who has been for a year and a bit minister in two URC congregations each of which has been shrinking steadily since their high points in the 1970s I have taken a keen interest in the recent (small) flurry of discussion of growth. Since the disastrous failure of the “radical welcome” initiative (“Zero Tolerance”) that was the focus of denominational activity there seems to have been an intentional shift at the centre towards a more general and less focused growth agenda.

This is reflected in my own synod, Thames North, with the recent meeting of the synod agreeing a “church growth plan”. Unfortunately I was unable to be at the meeting so my knowledge of the plan is limited to the written communication I have received. Apparently it has three strands:

  • everyone (local churches and Synod committees) praying for growth and making it a core priority;
  • consolidation of Synod resources around church growth;
  • the £300,000 mission fund that was created earlier in the year from the Synod’s reserves.

There are a number of things about this talk about growth in the URC context that puzzle and to some degree trouble me.

The first and most glaring is that there is plenty of evidence that nobody really believes it. At national level our Mission Council meeting last weekend discussed, among other things, a paper on budgets (which can be read here). This paper (quite sensibly in my view) has as a key assumption that “given the likely continuing fall in membership” that the Ministry and Mission fund will continue to decline at 1% (nominal) per year.

I wasn’t at Mission Council and the report on the Facebook page is very brief but this budget paper was passed by a majority vote. It may well be that the implied dissenting minority objected to the assumption that membership and hence income will fall, I have no way of knowing whether this is the case. Even if that is so it is clear that a majority of the Mission Council accepted this assumption. The denomination, as represented by this Council, believes that it will continue to shrink, not grow, as it has ever since its foundation in 1972.

It remains true, as it has throughout those years, that this decline is not uniform. Some churches grow even as the others shrink. A few are opened even as more close. Overall though the URC gets smaller and apparently we, quite reasonably, expect this very well established trend to continue.

This makes the brave talk about growth dissonant in my ear. If what we mean is that we plan or expect to reverse the overall trend then we are saying two different and contradictory things in different contexts, and that can’t possibly be a good thing, unless we have and can articulate a good reason (and I have seen no evidence that we can articulate or even that we have such a reason, although I would be shown some).

My second puzzle relates to the question “why do we want to grow the URC?” Another discussion at Mission Council related to this. A paper was presented entitled “The Future of the Church” (I’ll come back to my problem with this title in a moment – the paper can be found here). This paper concentrated on discerning the particular character and gifts of the URC. There are some themes that emerge from it (freedom and informality being prominent) but it is far from clear and the brief report of the discussion leads me to suspect that little more clarity emerged.

The URC, it should be remembered, does not represent a single and coherent tradition, nor was it intended to found one. It was an ecumenical project bringing together churches with substantially different historic origins. English Congregationalism, with its roots in a radical rejection of the establishment and of centralised discipline and an affirmation of the gathered congregation as the sole locus of Christ’s presence and authority on the one hand and dissident Scottish Presbyterianism, with its affirmation of the centrality of the ordained ministry and the central authority of the Church as the bearer of apostolic authority and its deeply ambivalent relationship with the principle of establishment on the other.

Insofar as the URC has an “identity” it is rooted in the ecumenical project of the twentieth century. This means that consolidation of its institutional structures and efforts to continue its existence are profoundly problematic. One response to this has been to assert its “Reformed” identity, in a move that has continuities both with the Presbyterian strand of its past and with movements within mid-twentieth century Congregationalism which wanted to make this tradition part of the Reformed current in a clearer way than it had ever actually been. I am deeply sceptical about any such development. I am not, nor do I wish to be, “Reformed” and I am unclear that this would be helpful to us in our present difficulties. I am grateful, therefore, that this does not feature in the Mission Council paper.

What does appear there is the idea that we are flexible, open, bottom up and so on. My problem here is that this isn’t really true. It is true that these characteristics are associated with growth and dynamism in the contemporary church, in the independent churches and new denominations that are the site of the growth that is occurring. The URC, though, is heavily centralised in many respects, not least financially and in its deployment of its key resource (its stipendiary ministers). While each minister is free to do more or less what they like in partnership with the churches they serve what ministerial support each church receives is decided in a process that flows top-down.

While we are certainly more flexible, conciliar and free than some other denominations we are much less so than others (e.g. the Baptists who are not shrinking) and infinitely less so than the many independent churches. We can’t really claim this as a distinctive, in my view, unless we’re comparing ourselves only to the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches (all of which are of course also in decline).

The idea of the URC as a permanent institution that we should try to preserve and grow is a relatively new one (it was still a matter of debate into the 1990s) and we should return to questioning it. The right question is not “why do we want to grow the URC?” but “do we want to grow the URC?” That is my problem with entitling the paper “The Future of the Church” when it is actually concerned with “The Future of the Denomination”. Calling it the latter would not, as the former title does, exclude the possibility that its future involves closure or merger. The Church necessarily continues, denominations do not.

My third puzzle is related to this one. It is about which elements or constituents of the URC we are talking about. Is the expectation or intent that all local churches grow within the denomination grow or that some decline and close and others grow (as has always been the case) and that the balance is shifted so that overall the denomination grows rather than shrinks? If so the most sensible thing to do would be to identify those churches with the most unrealised potential and to support them with additional resources of the kind that would encourage growth, perhaps by reducing the level of support to those churches with least potential for growth,

What I don’t yet understand is whether this is what Thames North’s “plan for growth” intends or whether the national debate is heading in this direction. Nor am I at all sure what I would think about such a plan. I can see arguments in favour of it, but I can also see other arguments against. Most of all I would need to have an idea about whether this was a strategy with the URC at its heart or whether the intention was to serve the Church catholic in the best possible way.

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