What if over the past 50 years an organisation had lost the majority of its members?
What should it do? What should it change?
The decline in membership of the church in the UK has been well documented and plenty of words have been used on diagnosing the problem but I wonder how much time the major denominations have spent actually thinking about how they need to adapt and change to meet the challenge of being the church in a new way for a different kind of world?
There are two areas in which the church spends the vast majority of its ever dwindling resources: buildings and ministers.
It seems less than controversial to suggest that ancient church buildings are at best a mixed blessing and at worst a millstone around the necks of congregations. They are expensive to maintain and inflexible.
It would also seem less than controversial to suggest that as the world has changed that the job of minister has also evolved. It would seem strange perhaps that there is a continued emphasis on theological training, almost to the exclusion of anything else, when the role of minister requires so much more.
The Church of England has gone some way towards addressing the new world with its new category of ‘pioneer minister’ which frees people from the bureaucracy of the parish and allows them to build communities in new places and in new forms.
That was a bold step, and it seems to be working.
Something else has been quietly happening… some churches are growing. I know, surprising isn’t it.
We’ve known for a while that charismatic and pentecostal churches have been growing but it also seems that churches which have positioned themselves as ‘open and afirming’ are adding members. It would be great to see what it is that these churches are doing that is attractive but I’d hazard a guess that engaging with the wider community and providing spaces for people to build community and actually get to know each other beyond formal times of worship would be common to most of them.
My concern is that this kind of development is hugely dependant on the minister’s personality and interests. Sometimes it is strategic, but not often.
That’s not good enough.
When will denominations recognise that more of the same will lead to more of the same?
As funds become scarce we retreat into sustaining what is and what has been. We merge, link and unite so that we can continue to provide ‘ministry’. No-one seems to be asking if that kind of ministry is what is needed.
Some denominations have community workers. These people have training in both theology and community work. These are recognised ministries and the people who perform them have the primary task of engaging with communities, organising projects and enabling people to meet the needs of their communities.
There are a growing number of youth workers and children and family workers who study both theology and community work. These are not recognised ministries but they engage with people outside traditional church structures and work to enable people to meet the needs of their communities.
These community ministries are often viewed as extra, peripheral, something to be done if there is time and money to spare. You could add chaplaincy into the same category.
Which brings me back to my initial question… what if?
What if we flipped our view of essential ministry?
What if rather than spending almost all of our money on crumbling buildings and ministry of word and sacrament we spent 90% of our funding on community workers with some theological training who had a strategic mission to engage with communities, build capacity and resource worship in those communities?
What if, rather than investing everything in maintaining a building for people to come and sit for an hour once a week we sold the buildings and we invested that money in places for homeless people to sleep, for hungry people to eat, for lonely people to meet others, and people’s homes became places where people gathered to worship, to plan and scheme random acts of kindness and deliberate acts of grace?
What would that kind of church look like?