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If you listen to what is said, traditional Churches are equated with being boring and irrelevant and out of date, whereas what is going on at Kingsgate Community Church is much more attractive with modern music and presentation.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