The history of technology companies is littered with casualties and failures. During my childhood, my friends and I played on Atari consoles and began programming on Spectrums, Commodore and BBC home computers. Polaroids were cool cameras and we started renting videos from Blockbuster. Even now Nokia and Blackberry, two once mighty mobile phone companies are shadows of their former selves. Resting on your laurels, trusting in your own brand or failing to spot and adapt to culture changes or innovations are all ways to condemn your company to a slow and painful slide into irrelevance and then extinction.
Churches can learn a great deal from the success and demise of businesses. The church is after all a form of business although instead of dealing in commodities and seeking to make money, it sells truth and relationship with salvation as its greatest product. Most companies if they want to increase their market share know that investing in order to grow is a fundamental building block. Get your strategy right and you can achieve massive success. Fail to have a strategy or get it wrong and you’ll be consigned to the dustbin of also-rans.
Crudely put, Jesus knew that building his brand would be the key to changing the world, which was undoubtedly his intention. He explained to Peter that he would build his church with him as its rocky foundation. (Mt 16:18). Before his ascension to Heaven he told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19) and that they would be witnesses starting where they were in their local context and then going out to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8). The whole book of Acts records the initial massive explosion and spread of this amazing new product called Christianity.
Of course experiencing a relationship with God through the death and resurrection of his son is far too incredible to be compared to something you buy off the shelf at John Lewis. Christianity is not to be consumed as a lifestyle choice and the analogy can only be taken so far, but just like some of those once ubiquitous brands of the 1980s, the Church in the West at least has become to many irrelevant and outdated. The difference is that it still clinging on to life.
The Church of England, which mostly has taken little useful action to address of its slow disintegration over the last few decades is finally beginning to get its act in gear. It is rather late in the day to be acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that it is in trouble, but at least now there are increasing attempts to think seriously about avoiding going the way of Kodak and others.
Much of the vibe coming from the upper levels of the Church of England over the last few years has been focussing on stemming the tide of declining numbers. It is only recently that genuine growth has been getting much attention. With the new Church Growth Research Programme’s extensive and important findings released last week, there is something of a spring in the step of those reporting the news that things aren’t all bad and in some places they are actually quite good. Significant Growth in Fresh expressions of Church (new congregations and new churches)! Cathedral attendance up a lot! Nearly one in five churches have grown in the last decade!
This is great news, but alongside that we have the more usual stories that a quarter of churches declining and the disturbing facts that the average age of congregations is now 62 and in almost half of our churches there are fewer than five under 16s. That strongly suggests that despite some positive signs, the Church of England is going to decrease in size a lot more over the coming years as members die off.
I need to admit at this point that I have taken a keen interest in church growth and decline for the last 20 and could probably write a book on it if I was inclined to do so. There’s too much I’d like to say to fit in one blog article on this, but there are a couple of observations on this latest piece of research that I’d like to explore here:
The Church of England still struggles to appreciate what makes for a good vicar. Clergy play a pivotal role in the Church of England, but if it wants to see significant growth in many churches there needs to be a fundamental shift in how those seeking to be ordained are selected and trained.
Justin Welby’s comment on New Year’s Eve that “The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches,” has caused a degree of discomfort and navel gazing as clergy have discussed what a ‘good vicar’ actually looks like (David Keen’s Opinionated Vicar has links to a selection of blog posts). Some might consider a good vicar as someone they can call on in an emergency, who preaches an enjoyable sermon or who has good pastoral skills. All these are good qualities, but what Justin is referring to though is strong leadership and this is backed up by the research. If you want to find a vicar who will have a positive impact on church growth, don’t pick one who describes their strengths as emphasising or persisting. Instead go for one who is more interested in motivating and envisioning, who is more extrovert and likes to focus on the bigger picture. It also helps if they are younger and probably not liberal.
That profile doesn’t appear to match the sort of people who are often selected to be ordained. If you are the age Jesus was when he carried out his ministry you are likely to considered to be too young to become a vicar in particular. I have met numerous people with excellent leadership skills who would make great vicars, but have been turned down (Ian Paul made the same point on his blog yesterday). Some have gone on to be highly successful church leaders elsewhere such as John Wright who leads the large and influential Trent Vineyard church in Nottingham. Justin Welby himself was told by his bishop when he first went for ordination that ‘I’ve interviewed over 1000 people for ordination. I can tell you, you don’t come in the top 1000!’
The Church of England’s selection panels are turning too many good people away for the wrong reasons. This is counterproductive in itself, but to add to this those who do get selected are not getting the right sort of training to be effective leaders. A church is never going to reach a significant size or be remotely effective unless lay people play important roles in leadership and are engaged regularly in its work. Vicars need to be able to lead teams effectively especially if there are paid staff at a church. They need to encourage and enable congregations to take responsibility for much of a church’s activities. Any church that thinks the vicar should be doing all of the work will go nowhere. However most trainee clergy will spend a massive amount of time learning how to write and preach a sermon, but next to no time on the mechanics and principles of the leadership skills required to handle organisations fruitfully. Vicars I’ve known have had to find separate courses to go on if they are so inclined. When I was spending some time studying at Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge a few years ago we would have ordinands attending sessions on leadership, frustrated that their own course did not provide them.
The church has a big job on its hands trying to reverse its fortunes. Few businesses manage to turn themselves around and restore former glories once they’ve realised the rot has set in. Culture and society marches relentlessly on. New companies with their finger on the pulse forge ahead to take the places of those falling by the wayside. But if the Church falls by the wayside, who or what will fill the gap? Atheism? Islam? What else can provide the moral compass that Christianity has provided this country for so long if the Church loses its voice? This country needs the Church for many reasons, but it also needs a Church that is healthy and functioning well at all levels. For too long this has not been the case. It may be an ancient institution but it needs to be prepared to think like one that is planning to be around for centuries to come and that means putting growth through discipleship and mission at the top of its agenda. There are plenty of other areas beyond clergy leadership that the Church of England needs to seriously address. The Church Growth report touches on many of these such as taking younger generations far more seriously and allowing successful churches that are often attractive to younger generations space and freedom to thrive rather than treating them with suspicion or as cash cows to prop up other churches that are shrinking. The Church needs to take risks and allow the grassroots members to be creative and provide momentum, rather than it being imposed from the top. Young people need to have churches they feel part of where they feel valued and are able to play their part with encouragement and support. And most of all churches need to allow God to control the agenda rather than structures, some of which are more of a hindrance than a help.
Thankfully, there are at least two things that the Church has in its favour that even the best companies and brands cannot boast that will ensure it endures. The first is that it has the greatest message of all. Nothing compares to the wonder of the grace, healing, and forgiveness offered through the Gospel of Jesus that can restore even the most wretched of us. The second is that the Church has God on its side and we can see over the course of history the way He has kept it alive even in the most desperate of situations. The Church is ultimately His and our job is to do what we can to reflect that glory as a witness of Christ. There are plenty of churches in the Church of England and elsewhere who are getting it right and their practices and ethos deserve to be shared and espoused. The model of a church like Holy Trinity Brompton that is driving revival in parts of London will not be able to be directly copied in rural Dorset, but qualities such as passion, spiritual hunger and a missionary zeal can.
I have no doubt that the Church in this country has an exciting future and a crucial role to play. It can be vibrant, Spirit-filled and attractive to those both inside and out, but significant growth doesn’t happen without radical faith, thinking and action. For the Church of England, as the Church Growth report finds, there is still a long way to go on this front. For those who are still in bed, it really is time to wake up and smell the coffee.