Church Growth in Britain 5: analysis

Posted on July 19, 2012

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Goodhew offers both an introduction and conclusion to the book, which are valuable. In the introduction, he identifies the classical secularisation thesis as a ‘dominant narrative’ assumed by much of the academy, and by essentially all of the media. He suggests that the book serves to ‘subvert’ that narrative. This might be ambitious: the secularisation thesis is a macro theory, concerned with what happens in general on a whole-society scale; particular accounts of growth cannot, by themselves, subvert the narrative, only a large-scale sociological change could do that.

That said, the book is of great importance in drilling below the headline statistics. There is a bad old joke to the effect that a statistician can lie with his head in the freezer and his feet in the oven and announce that, on the whole, he is feeling completely normal; global statistics do, of necessity, flatten out local variations, and sometimes that can be of enormous significance.

Imagine that you were the leader of a small denomination in Britain, which showed a 15% decline in attendance each decade since 1980; if that pattern was universal – every congregation declining at more-or-less the same rate – then your denomination seems destined to cease to exist by about 2050. If, by contrast, on drilling into the statistics you were to find that your rural churches were declining precipitously – 40% per decade – but that your suburban churches were in fact growing, your denomination is destined to change, certainly, but to survive. Individual stories of growth matter; identifiable patterns of growth matter even more. The narratives of Goodhew’s book suggest that the church in the UK is not destined for extinction, but for shrinkage, certainly, combined with change. It will become more ethnically diverse, more (sub)urban, more charismatic – it will not disappear.

Church growth in Britain seems to be occurring in the centre of cities and in the suburbs – not in the inner city UPAs; it occurs along major trade routes – the A1/East Coast Mainline corridor, for instance; it is presently focused around London in the SE of England; it is in part driven by female leadership (data suggests churches with a female leader are more likely to grow than churches with a male leader); …

In some of this, we might see signs of hope. For some centuries, religious change in Britain has followed a pattern well-known to historians as a ‘centre-periphery’ model. Something begins in a cultural centre – London, always. From there, it spreads to other sub-centres – the main trade towns; from there it spreads into the wider community, eventually reaching the peripheries (the Scottish islands, always, in Britain…). If this pattern continues to obtain – and (a) there is no reason to suppose it should not; and (b) the data around trade routes suggest it does – then the focus on church growth in London is profoundly significant: this will be the reality for the rest of the UK over decades to come.

Other points demand explanation. I suppose that the statistical association of church growth and female leadership reflects not a preference for women in ministry on the part of the Holy Spirit, but the reality that, given the human prejudices still operative, women who make it into church leadership tend, on average, to be rather more able than men who do.

It is inescapable that conservative churches are generally growing, whilst less conservative churches are – not so much shrinking, as disappearing rapidly from sight. Particularly, churches that self-denominate as both evangelical and charismatic tend to grow. I confess a temptation here: I happen to be committed to a charismatic, evangelical Christianity that is affirming of women in leadership; statistically, I could claim that I am obviously right… I suspect, however, that the reasons are more complex than that. Charismatic evangelical churches tend to be considerably more flexible and mission-minded than other congregations; my supposition – I have no evidence – is that these characteristics are more important than theological stance.

For some years after I formally left, I used to teach from time to time in Spurgeons College, my alma mater; generally, that coincided with the day in the week when, as a gathered community, the college would pray for its former students, having first solicited news from a number of them. I recall vividly one such service: having read the news from several sisters and brothers in Baptist ministry, Nigel Wright, the college principal, paused, looked over us all gathered, and commented, ‘it’s not difficult to grow a church in Britain today, is it?’

No. It is not. Some intentionality, some thought, some support – or at least permission – from wider structures – none of these are hard. It is not difficult to grow a church in Britain today. That might be the single most important lesson from Goodhew’s book.

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