Tag Archives: St James Finchampstead

Discussing Church Attendance Statistics on BBC Berkshire

This morning at just after 7am, rather than eating my breakfast as I would normally be, I was instead on the phone talking to Andrew Peach on BBC Radio Berkshire in a phone in discussion about falling church attendance, triggered by the provisional 2010 attendance figures published last week. In terms of the Oxford Diocese they show a fall in various weekly attendance stats that in percentage terms is middle of the pack, but thanks to the large number of churches in the diocese sounds a lot more of a crisis if you quote the actual number, which BBC Berkshire did – frequently. However the stats also show that membership across the diocese has gone up, and a rise in church weddings, and similarly healthy figures for baptism.

The discussion was trailed as the main topic of discussion yesterday, so I actually e-mailed in talking about our church St James’ Finchampstead where attendance is doing anything but falling, and at lunchtime I had an e-mail from a BBC researcher wanting me to participate.

I’ve listened enough to the Peach show to realise how they work, generally the discussion is kicked off by a couple of people, usually with opposing opinions, and since I was asked to be one of the first it looked like I was being lined up as one of those people. I didn’t find out who the other person was until I heard them on the radio with everyone else, and it turned out to be a chap from Ascot, now member of the Reading branch of the Catholic Ordinariate who was previously a member of the Church of England (I’m guessing at All Saints) who was quite clear that the reason numbers were falling was because the Church of England was going all liberal and ordaining women.

Now in my experience whilst the press and media absolutely love a good scrap between Anglicans over women priests, or women bishops, or even better a good gay story, and whilst there are parts of the church that regularly make a big noise over it, for the overwhelming majority of the average people in the pews it’s a non-issue. Since the Vicar of Dibley most people outside the Church of England, and a good few inside it are surprised, even shocked that there are still churches in the Church of England that will not recognise an ordained woman as a valid priest. It really is not something that figures in their thinking. What people are interested in is whether the services are interesting or boring, whether their kids will be welcome, whether the sermons will be too long, whether the music is to their taste. For the vast majority of people the sex of the person up the front, or what they do in the bedroom doesn’t figure at all.

So, with him having said his piece, Andrew came to me, and basically asked for my comment, to which I gave much the same response as I’ve just explained above. Given that the Priest in Charge who started the growth at St James’ Finchampstead was a woman, which I’d mentioned in the discussion with the researcher yesterday, I’m thinking they were hoping I’d angrily point out that a woman had turned our struggling church around, but I didn’t. My thought was very much that this shouldn’t be about the hot button issues, but should be much more about what we and other growing churches were doing. In my little slot I got in the point about services catering for a broad range of people, and Andrew moved on. What was particularly pleasing is that although there were one or two texts and tweets who provided some media pleasing bashing the other Christians with bible verses many of the people followed me talked about their thriving churches and didn’t rise to the bait. Interestingly they even tried to bait Bishop John with replaying the same interview an hour later, but he didn’t rise to it either. At one point they also had Sean Green who is a pastor at Reading Family Church who made a comment about falling numbers not being his experience with Church of England colleagues in the town, and how you can show a lot of things with statistics – very true given the line the programme was taking.

So the big question is why are some churches growing, and others shrinking? Given our experience at St James, it can’t be generalised into saying that the evangelical churches are growing and the liberal ones are shrinking, nor can it be categorised looking at worship styles or anything else. All across the spectrum of churches there are some that are growing and some that are shrinking. Fundamentally I think it comes down to which churches are connecting with their current and potential members and which ones aren’t. The strong welcoming communities are the ones that are growing, so in our case the people who come are perhaps looking for a more traditional type of service, something that is recognisably a traditional church. For our part we make sure we do traditional church well, and provide a broad range of different services, activities and event under that umbrella each of which brings in a different group of people. As to why other churches have falling numbers you can’t make sweeping generalisations, they have falling numbers for a variety of reasons, and to be honest those churches need to sit back, and look at themselves and the people they are called to serve to understand themselves what is going wrong and why.

You can hear the discussion and my contribution to it for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer – anyone in the UK should be able to listen to the programme, those outside the UK I’m not so sure.

Are the Only Growing Churches Evangelical?

Last weekend was the second Affirming Liberalism Day Conference in a rather wet Oxford. As with the first conference I went along both as an interested participant, and also with a technical hat on to record the two sessions.

I uploaded both sessions to the website earlier in the week, and thanks to Dave Walker we got some promotion for them on the Church Times Blog, and I’ve even managed to get them set up in the iTunes Podcast directory!

What is interesting is that on the day, most people I spoke to seemed to prefer the first session – Why the Scientific World View Confirms Liberal Christian Faith, whereas the session that has generated more interest (and hits) online, and has generated discussion, is the second session – Why Liberal Churches are Growing, indeed it was the title of that talk which Dave Walker used to caption his posting.

Not surprisingly, the talk, which was provocatively named given the prevailing wisdom on the subject has produced an inevitable response in the comments on the Church Times Blog:

Liberal churches aren’t growing, they’re dying a slow painful death.

It’s the evangelical churches remaining faithful to the Bible preaching the Gospel of repentance and the coming judgement and hell which are growing.

Certainly the idea that it is only the conservative Evangelical Churches that are growing is a favourite line with the mainstream media. Indeed just this last week we had an interesting example doing the rounds, and highlighted by Church Mouse,  Chris Moyles talking about seeing a service from Kingsgate Community Church.

If you listen to what is said, traditional Churches are equated with being boring and irrelevant and out of date, whereas what is going on at Kingsgate Community Church is much more attractive with modern music and presentation.

The key thing to note though is that nowhere is theology mentioned – certainly the assumption is not made that Kingsgate is growing because it is “remaining faithful to the Bible preaching the Gospel of repentance and the coming judgement and hell”.

If you listen to the whole of the Martyn Percy lecture part way through he looks at evidence of what was important to Churches in the past, and his conclusion is that much as today, the primary interest of the average Church member is the state of the building, and whether they will get a priest. Whilst there are people for whom theology is important, it is way down the list behind the environment, the services (generally whether they go on too long), and the kind of welcome, as this article from Christianity Today highlights:

A Christian author, Rob Parsons has said to The Times newspaper, “It is not big doctrinal issues. Typical arguments take place over types of buildings, styles of worship, youth work. If not that, then they argue over the flower rota.”

If you look at a church like St James’ it is precisely the kind of church the comment on the Church Times Blog believes is “dying a slow and painful death” – but we’re not. In fact we are one of the fastest growing Churches in our Deanery, outstripping the growth of the nearby Conservative Evangelical church. Our electoral roll numbers over the past few years have on two occasions shown a 15% growth, and we regularly fill our building to capacity twice on a Sunday. As I have mentioned on this blog previously, at Christmas we now have to run one service four times on Christmas Eve to accommodate everybody who wants to come. When you look at our family roll, whilst there are now more people coming in from outside the parish, most people aren’t coming very far, generally only from the next door villages.

When you turn up at our Church, you won’t find a worship band, no glitzy presentation (our sound system is well and truly on our last legs), and you certainly won’t find anybody preaching about the coming judgement and hell. Having said that, when you look at some of the members of our congregation, you will find Christians who are from that tradition. Equally you will also find people who have come from strong anglo-catholic backgrounds and all points in between. What we have at St James’ is almost a representation of the classic definition of the Church of England in that we have evangelicals and anglo-catholics held together in a broad liberal Church that accommodates both.

So is St James’ an exception, growing despite the underlying theology? The Martyn Percy argument is that it isn’t. So in that case, what are we, and the other growing Churches doing?

I can only speak for St James’. Firstly we are not overtly trying to recruit people. We make sure our events are well publicised, and we deliver a newsletter to everybody in the parish twice a year, but we aren’t doing anything that could be described as evangelistic events, events that are specifically targeted to bring people in. Essentially we tell people what we’re doing, and invite them along, but we’re not preaching at people – what we do can easily be ignored.

Most people who join the congregation come to us either at random, having moved into the area, or via occasional offices such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, or through one of our associated organisations such as our babies and toddlers group, or the church school. We also have picked up people on personal recommendations – existing members bringing along friends or family.

By virtue of our small building, we can’t offer a one size fits all type service, so although our main Parish Communion is pretty middle of the road, we also have a very traditional BCP Matins that is well attended twice monthly, and on alternate weeks an informal service of the word targeted at young families. Whatever the service we try to ensure that everybody gets a warm welcome from the sidespeople, and to guide new attendees through the service. Most major services are also followed by traditional coffee and biscuits in the Parish Centre.

In my experience, the quality of the welcome, and the feeling of community is something that the growing Evangelical churches are accomplishing also, and also leaving the members feeling happy that they can invite friends. This is what we’re trying to do at St James’ as well. It seems to me that the churches that are growing are the churches that get this right, it’s not about theology, or the nitty-gritty of the message, it’s about the basics, basics that anybody can sort out. The whole church needs to learn how to evangelise in the modern world, and whilst some are successful, sadly large numbers of them are struggling to get it right.

Official

So I’m now officially the Churchwarden for St James Finchampstead, and all the associated responsibilities that entails.

I was sworn in, along with my fellow Churchwarden at a service in St Mary Minster in Reading. Officially this wasn’t supposed to be our service, this was the service for Churchwardens in Bradfield, Newbury and Reading Deaneries – Sonning Deanery was allocated the Windsor service on Thursday, however quite apart from clashing with choir practice, Reading is a lot easier to get to after work than Windsor! We needn’t have worried though, as when they asked the Sonning Churchwardens to stand it seemed like a large number of other people had had the same idea. We spotted the wardens and clergy from California and Crowthorne, and were sat next to the group from Wargrave. Indeed we weren’t the only additions, there were wardens from Maidenhead, and we even had a lone representative from Witney Parish in the Oxford area. Interestingly the warden from Witney was Douglas Hurd – well Baron Hurd of Westwell now. He was MP for Witney until 1997 – a seat now held by David Cameron.

Anyway, the service itself was fairly straightforward consisting of two hymns, Taizé style prayers accompanied by the choir of St Mary’s Thatcham, and of course the admission of Churchwardens. The formal part of the admission consists of repeating an oath read out by the Diocesan Registrar, and then is followed by the Bishop of Oxford’s Charge, which is effectively the sermon. In this Bishop John spoke about his hopes for the Diocese, using Philippians 1, 3-11 as his text. Oh and despite having a broad range of churches represented we used the modern Lord’s Prayer (as was used at the inauguration service) rather than the old cop-out of defaulting to the modified-traditional version. After the service was a chance for everybody to meet Bishop John and our fellow Churchwardens.

Bishop John’s sermon was a good one, and he had a nice mix of serious points and laughs to get his ideas over. He challenged us to make our churches welcoming and open to all which pleased me. We got a chance to chat with him after the service too, as Rev Richard has actually managed to book him twice to come to St James already, and he’s only been in the post for a matter of weeks! Having said that we’ve had Bishop Stephen along twice in the past year, so it will be nice to welcome Bishop John along too. Bishop John certainly seemed to be making a conscious effort to try and talk to as many people as possible, and when I mentioned that we would be in Taizé at the same time as he and the Oxford Pilgrimage is there he said it would be good to see us at the service on the Sunday morning before they leave. All in all it was a great evening, now the hard work of being Churchwarden begins!

New Family Service Take 1

So this morning we had the most major change in our new service pattern, the additional family service, for which all the other changes have been made.

It is probably fair to say that whilst Rev Richard put a lot of time and effort into the revamped 11am Family Eucharist service (targeted at a slightly more all-age congregation), this was the one he was most nervous about, and possibly the bigger gamble – a thirty minute Family Service of the Word at 9:30am targeted squarely at children.

I thought we should show support in the new venture, so got up somewhat before my usual wake up time for a Sunday, and arrived about 9:20am. It has to be said that on arrival things didn’t look overly hopeful – there were only two or three cars in the car park, and when I walked into the church the place was empty, and I half expected to see a tumbleweed rolling down the aisle. I then spotted a rather worried looking rector pacing up and down.

I have to say that I wasn’t massively worried about it, one observation that has frequently been made about our Family Service congregation is that they are usually pretty last minute. As neither the choir nor servers were on duty at this new service there wasn’t the usual number of people turning up early. I’m exceedingly glad to say that I was right. In the space of about ten minutes from 9:25am to 9:35am we had over 100 people come through the Church door, going from a totally empty, to a packed out Church.

The service was a simple Hymn/Prayer structure, that pretty closely followed the first part of the old Family Service. Rev Richard did a great talk to the kids, complete with puppet assistant (I did suggest bringing the puppet along to brighten up an Evensong at some point…), and the Fledgelings ‘Band Box’ was raided for cymbals, drums and so on to play during the songs. The service ran for almost exactly 30 minutes, and was followed by drinks over in the Parish Centre for which unlike normally the majority of the families went over. There were lots of positive comments, and many families saying that they would come back next month.

More than that, having the 9:30am family service and not running Sunday Club didn’t seem to affect the numbers at the 11am service, that seemed to be about normal – on a Sunday with Matins at 9:30am, there is a sometimes noticable dip in the attendance at 11am, as many people will attend Matins instead. Hopefully that is an indication that we are doing something in the new Family Service that is attracting new people, rather than splitting existing congregations. It also makes a nice counterpoint to George Carey’s opinion, reported by Ekklesia last week that the Church has “lost its vision and is becoming a club for the elderlyâ€? – whilst I’m not saying that it is easy – it seems that there is a market for fairly traditional services that attract young families without turning services into something that would be unrecognisable to people who have been members of the Church for many years.