In a few weeks we’re having a “vision day” at one of the churches in which I am minister. During my first 18 months here I have been somewhat surprised to find myself discerning that my call to this church (in fact to both churches) is a call to evangelism, to growing the churches by reaching out to those without current connection to any church. This was not what I expected or had prepared myself for, but so it is. Working alongside the churches I find they both feel themselves called to grow and so I have to facilitate and enable them in responding.
Given that both churches have been declining steadily for around 30-40 years this represents a real challenge. Nothing in our contexts is changing in a way that makes the churches as they currently are more likely to grow (or even stop shrinking) than they have been for this period. On the contrary the evidence is that “traditional” Protestant churches across the denominations are increasingly likely to decline. The churches that are growing are of a different kind from ours and often in a different kind of place. My perception is that if we remain as we are we will continue to get smaller.
This means that what is required of us, if we are to answer the call to growth, is change of some kind.
The approach I am proposing we take is to begin the process of change by trying to get some idea of what it is we are trying to change into. My belief is that simply superimposing some relatively superficial change on top of the church we already are is unlikely to be transformational, and that transformation, becoming another kind of church, is what is needed, if decades of decline are to be replaced by a new season of growth.
This is not because I think anything is wrong with the church we are, it’s because the church we are isn’t growing and growing is what we seem to be hearing ourselves told to be. I don’t think every church has always to grow. It is quite possible to be a church that is not growing or even shrinking and to be doing what God wants. However if we want to grow we need to become a church that grows, and that means, I think, being different in some ways from the church we are.
What needs to be determined is what ways these are, which will involve discerning what kind of growth we think we are to seek.
This in turn demands of us that we understand our position within our community in relation to our neighbours in the other churches. In our moderately sized (population around 20,000) town there are, in addition to the three Church of England parish churches (each with a quite distinct character), a Methodist, two Baptist. a Roman Catholic, an FIEC and a fully independent evangelical free church, a congregation of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and a recent plant from the Seventh Day Adventists, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This implies that for our congregation to have something to offer the town it needs, to some extent, to think about what is its unique contribution to this rich mix of Christian witness. It has to think about who needs us and what they need from us (which may well include thinking about what we can contribute to the ecumenical work of our very active and effective Churches Together group).
We need, I believe, to think about who it is that is best advised to join our community and why. We need to think about who we will invite and what we will invite them to. We need to think about what we want to be, as a community, and how we want to be viewed, by ourselves and by others.
This does not mean, as I think it too often does, thinking about ways in which we’re “better” than the other churches, whether that be doctrinally more pure (although proclaiming and teaching the truth is good), being more welcoming or inclusive (although including people is good), being more active on issues of welfare or justice (although service and witness in these areas is good). I am always uneasy when a church seems to say “come to us because we’re not like those other bad churches” (which was my fundamental problem with the abandoned URC advertising campaign).
It does mean saying “this is what we’re like and if that’s the kind of church that can nurture your faith and discipleship then come to us”.
Which means having a strong sense of what kind of church we are and a confidence in telling people and inviting them to become part of it.
This is the key part of what I’m calling a “vision” for the church. It means a sense of who we are and what we want to become. That has to be in full continuity with who we already are but it has also to be aspirational, to be the version of our possible future self, as a community, that we are most enthusiastic about, because if we aren’t enthusiastic about it how can we expect anyone to want to join us in making it come into being.
The first challenge, then, is to find ways in which, together, we can arrive at that shared aspiration and can find ourselves filled with excitement at the prospect of our process of making it real.
The second is to find practical steps, that we’re capable of taking right now, that would begin to enable us to change in the ways we need to change.
Thus the things we actually do may not be dramatic, they may be the same as changes we might make without a conscious programme of self-development and transformation (communal discipleship) but their meaning and context are, I think, changed by putting them in that light.