This week dioceses from across England and Wales (and even a delegation from Brisbane) gathered for a national consultation on Church Growth and Evangelism. Three days of wall to wall presentations on new strategies and programs, new visions of ways of being Church and promises of changes of culture and much re-imagining. If the energy and enthusiasm in the room was anything to go by then the Church, even if facing challenging times, is in good heart.
This was a time to hear of both scary and exciting statistics, of mission action planning on a diocesan scale, of both moving beyond inherited church and of re-invigorating it. There was talk of fresh expressions, Costa, Messy, Forest, Neighbourhood and Network, of church plants that plant churches that plant churches and of churches becoming greenhouses. Some have decided to grow young, others that where clergy are fewer more Archdeacons are needed (and there is a good explanation for that) and that the future is lay – or at least non-stipendary.
We were reminded that Britain was not evangelised by Vicars but by religious communities and the parish system was about sustaining the faithful and so not suited to re-evangelising a nation. We heard of the need to prepare the ground for change and about releasing finances and skills and encouraging rules of life. We were told we needed a change of mind and of heart to change how we do things.
At times it all felt terribly driven, more management speak than gospel, occasionally arrogant, presuming of God’s blessing and judgemental of those not with the programme. It felt like an activist charter and hinted at a theology and ecclesiology that drained the spirit from my soul. It seemed more about placing a heavy yoke upon the laity rather than bringing comfort to the heavy laden.
It was good to hear of local churches resourcing one another and being resourced to resource others and a more co-operative and genuinely collaborative approach to ministry. Although there was much big thinking we were reminded that satsumas are not failed oranges; small can be beautiful, even best.
I would like to have heard more about the role of Chaplains who have opportunities of meeting people in ways parish clergy never can, whether that be in hospitals, schools, shopping centres, coroners courts or a host of other settings. Their role in the Church is too often unacknowledged and under resourced. And following on from the recent Theos report it would have been good to hear more about doing God by doing good and the role of social liturgy – living the gospel, meeting people at their point of need, showing faith in action are the sermons most people understand – walk the walk don’t talk the talk. It is about the fruitfulness of the Church in the world, not just its growth; it is about changing the world not filling the pews.
When the last speaker finally sat down; what did I take away? In a diverse world we need the modern diversity of expressions of Church, no one approach should be prioritised nor the inherited model be automatically seen as a bust flush.
There is no one perfect way of doing Church; what matters is that which ever way we do it, it should matter. Whatever path we follow it is about being confident, compassionate and creative. It is about at least doing something and doing it well but also with deep humility. We are but servants not masters of the future of the Church, not seeking success but to bring honour and glory to God.
In the end the abiding image is that shared of Gromit, in The Wrong Trousers, rapidly laying railway track as he chases the penguin. For all our proposed strategies, we make the path by walking it. At least we have set out on the journey; God alone knows where it will take us.