The Church of England needs to wake up and smell the coffee (Gillan Scott)

Monday, 3 February, 2014

Gillan Scott looks at the latest church growth research and challenges the Church of England to wake up and smell the coffee.

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 (Matthew 16.18). Before his ascension to Heaven he told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 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just like some of those once ubiquitous brands of the 1980s, the Church in the West has become, to many, irrelevant and outdated.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 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 release of the Church Growth Research Programme's extensive and important findings, there is something of a spring in the step of researchers that things aren't all bad and, in some places, they are actually quite good. Significant growth in fresh expressions of church! Cathedral attendance up a lot! Nearly one in five churches has grown in the last decade!

This is all great news but, alongside that, we have the more usual stories of a quarter of churches declining and the disturbing facts that (a) the average age of congregations is now 62 and (b) 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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

The church has a big job on its hands trying to reverse its fortunes. 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, including:

  • 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;
  • 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:

  • 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 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 Research Programme 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.

About the author: 

Gillan Scott runs the God and Politics in the UK blog which analyses and provides opinion on the relationship between the Christian faith, society and politics.


I agree, very much with pretty much everything you wrote, especially the parts about lay people being involved and also the need to overhaul selection processes - not least moving oit from a 'yes' or 'no' thing to a, 'ok, if not this...what about this' thing. Having said all that I do think that as well as changing for the sake of the young we need to change for the sake of the old at the same time. Take old people (and their spiritual needs)..I think there is a massive need for the older to be reminded that they have responsibilities still (even with the internet etc) to teach and share wisdom and show love - seriously as well as those of the young .. and then we may really have something...

Agree with the conclusion but don't agree totally agree with everything on route. The idea that the Church is built on St Peter is one perspective. Another is that that the Church is built on the declaration Peter makes which confesses Jesus as Messiah. This is the rock that Jesus builds Builds his Church. It was St Cyprian who said, "He who has Peters faith, has Peters keys.". The role of Church leaders, ordained or otherwise is to encourage others young and old to declare their faith in Jesus and engage in the work of the kingdom.

Yes, risks need to be taken with young adults but we shouldn't go down the road of creating a Church for the young, separate from the good we have now. God still desires unity. Future leaders will need to release others into their calling, to enable and equip them. This may be easier to do in well resourced areas but we will need to crossover into areas which are not so well resourced.

We all need to smell the coffee but it's not always the best ground coffee. Some communities see it as too expensive. Some will see it as too pretentious. The question will be to which group are we called to drink coffee with?

Just read the article, it fails to address the biggest problem which is to instil in the church a sense of urgency. The church knows it needs to change and in many ways the how of what needs to change but it also knows such change is painful so keeps trying to put it off and playing for time it doesn't have. My fear is that it may already be too late.

"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."

Sadly the reality that there is no indigenous church in North Africa west of Egypt is a warning that churches CAN die. Similarly the need for Britain to be reevangelised after the Roman withdrawal by Augustine and the Irish is a similar piece of history. Such comments litter the pages of churches that ARE closed in the end; we need to be very cautious in making them as they do encourage the dangerous complacency that most English churches that haven't sunk into despair display.

Interesting article. In a time when Christianity worldwide is at its zenith and growing, there have never been as many of us as there are right now, especially in hostile places, to see the church in the UK declining is sad.

But I made my mind up years ago, not to be affiliated with any organized church, be it Catholic or CoE until they fundamentally change their views on many things which I will not get into here.Also until they clean up their acts on many issues.

But they need to embrace the fact that church doesn't mean, dusty old building but means a totally different thing. They need to embrace technology and and move with the times just a Jesus would have done. Adapt or die.

The message of Jesus is still the greatest thing ever, how can anyone, even the most aggressive atheist disagree?

But to attract people to the message, change needs to happen right now. Modernize and get with the times. Its all about social media and tech now and I dont think Jesus would object to an online church in any way.

Not sure where the idea that those training for ordination should be 'probably not liberal' came from - not the report, which says that theological tradition isn't a factor in whether churches grow ... Maybe it's more a question of convincing liberal clergy to see growth as something they should be aiming for, and asking how they can achieve it while staying true to their beliefs?

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