In the spotlight of statistics (Will Cookson)

Monday, 6 January, 2014

Will Cookson discusses being in the spotlight of statistics.

Did you hear Radio 4's Today programme on New Year's Eve? The Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed about the decline in numbers, and influence, of the Church of England. The statistics are, of course, pretty dreadful (only 20% self-defined themselves as Church of England in the 2011 census and that is down from 40% in 1981).

Now, the thing about numbers is that all too often people use them badly. They are either written off as 'lies, damned lies and statistics' or they are used badly to justify our own prejudices.

But good statistics should challenge us to think more clearly and deeply about what we face and - through prayer, discussion and thinking - enable us to perceive where God is calling us to be and to do. Good statistics shine a spotlight on us and our situation. The danger is that we try and pretend that they say something else or explain them away, precisely because they challenge us.

I have been struck afresh reading the call of the first disciples in the Gospel of Mark. What hit me was that when Jesus called them they were not promised where they were going or what their life would look like. They were just called to follow Jesus and to do so immediately. As Jesus says to them, 'Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!' (Mark 1.17 NLT). Their lives would never be the same again. The cost of giving up their life as it was, with their jobs and families and familiarity of routine, was to be replaced with a new and risky one.

One of the things that Archbishop Justin seemed to be saying in his Today interview was that we need to re-capture this adventure of travelling with Jesus; that we might not know what the future will look like but it is enough for us to be following Jesus and to use what we have to reach out with the good news.

Overall, the fresh expressions movement is encouraging churches to think creatively whilst preserving what is good. The Archbishop welcomed the way that fresh expressions of church have already increased the Church of England by the equivalent of two dioceses, with the vast majority of those attending from de-churched or unchurched backgrounds.

But more is needed

We need to continue to encourage one another to be adventurous and creative. This year at Springfield Church, we are beginning to build Missional Community Groups to reach out with the good news of Jesus - as well as experiment with more creative forms of services. For instance, we scrapped our traditional Nativity and carol services in 2013 and replaced them with a Christmas Experience, using gospel music and drama to re-tell the Christmas story.

But more is needed

We need to grow our understanding of the society that we seek to serve. That is why I am looking forward to the Faith in Research Church Growth Conference in London on Thursday, January 16. I'm looking forward to be challenged with more research and statistics as to how the church can grow further and what more is needed.

About the author: 

Will Cookson (will@springfieldchurch.org.uk) is minister of Springfield Church, Wallington, Surrey.

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