Tag Archives: Evangelical

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If you listen to what is said, traditional Churches are equated with being boring and irrelevant and out of date, whereas what is going on at Kingsgate Community Church is much more attractive with modern music and presentation.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

Are Evangelicals ‘Taking Over’?

One of the big fears amongst some members of certain congregations in the Church of England is that the ‘Evangelicals are taking over’. Equally I’ve heard members of other congregations complain that there are ‘too many Liberals’ in senior positions in the Church. However is either statement true, or is it all about perception?

Anglican Mainstream today published some interesting figures from the English Church Census of 2005, repeated on Thinking Anglicans counting up the number of churches and worshippers in the Church of England who classify themselves as either Mainstream Evangelical, Charismatic Evangelical or Evangelical Broad.

The figures make interesting reading, as they show that in terms of Churches, only 26% classify themselves as Evangelical. Looking at worshipers, the percentage goes up to 34% of worshipers. The reason for this can be found in the final statistic – of the 160 largest churches in the Church of England, who represent 1% of the total number of churches, and 10% of the worshipers, a staggering 83% are evangelical.

Ruth Gledhill uses the figures as a lead in to a discussion of the increasingly complex situation in North America, but predicts that despite much of the attention being focused across the pond, the Church of England will be the place where the first split will occur. Interestingly she does believe that it won’t be a full-bodied schism – as I have mentioned before I am also sure that the Church of England will never split up – property and pensions will be what will hold the Church together in name at least.

Having said that, looking at the figures, the actual proportion of Evangelicals in the church whilst sizeable, is definitely a minority. The reason perhaps for the ‘Evangelicals are taking over’ impression is pretty clear when you consider that final statistic, and what it means. To put it simply, the big Churches have the resources, both in terms of money and manpower, to be heard a lot louder than smaller churches. For example locally in the Jeffrey John arguments a few years back it was only a few big Churches in the Diocese who made a significant noise – that’s not to say that smaller Churches weren’t making comments both for and against the appointment, but it was the big churches that got the coverage. At the time, the threat of withholding parish share was mentioned, and the majority backed down, since as comparatively big Churches they were perceived as giving a large amount of money. As an aside, as with big corporations having the resources to avoid taxes, large Churches, also have the resources to do something similar with their share. For example take a look at this site, which is the Arborfield and Barkham Parish Churches Trust, note particularly the annual turnover of the independent trust.

Anyway, I digress. Looking at the number of people, in terms of representation in the Church councils and synods, the larger Churches will generally be allowed more representatives, so in theory their representation across the Church should be roughly in proportion to the number of worshipers. Having said that, that is only in the house of laity. Unlike the democracy in the Episcopal church, clergy and Bishops are appointed not elected – so whilst the laity may have a say in any appointment, it would certainly not be a surprise to me if equivalent figures looking at the number of Evangelical clergy showed a somewhat different proportion… Sadly I don’t have those figures to hand to make a comparison.

So in terms of numbers, I don’t think the Evangelicals have taken over as such, but their voices often seem louder and clearer both on the outside, and within the Church. Perhaps the main way the apparently silent majority in the Church could redress the balance, is to learn from minority – for larger and growing mainstream Anglican churches such as ours, churches that, as we were reminded on Sunday when Rev Richard mentioned Richard Hooker in his sermon, demonstrate the breadth of Anglicanism, need to organise to speak out just as loudly and clearly as the Evanglical Churches. There is a myth in the Church that only Evangelical Churches grow – maybe growing churches like St James need to shout about it too.

More God’s Next Army Discussion

It seems that I am not alone in being disturbed by God’s Next Army last night. Alongside debate in the Channel 4 forums, which includes a topic discussing the programme itself, plus a related discussion about Christians and politics. The forum also includes postings from more mainstream Christians concerned at the impression of Christianity that programmes such as God’s Next Army give to viewers.

There are a number of blogs that have posted on the subject. The Ship of Fools also has an interesting discussion, which as a Christian site starts from a slightly different standpoint.

In amongst all of these are some interesting gems – firstly there is this blog posting from a former fundamentalist Christian, who has some interesting comments:

These students almost universally had no idea how to learn (as opposed to how to be indoctinated), as they have been brought up in environments (including PHC) that discourage questioning and free thought, and reward blind obedience. How many of them even have any idea of the evolution and compilation of their own Bible? How many have even read it all through? To continue to believe in its infallibility when confronted with its numerous contradictions requires a special kind of unconsciousness.

Only an unconscious person could think that Jesus would approve of them opposing workers’ compensation for asbestosis because ot would be bad for big business. Only an unconscious person would believe that the man who rebuked his disciple for defending him by cutting off a soldier’s ear would approve of a gun-toting nation (they approve of a fully armed population).

She also makes a similar point to mine over the similarity of fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, but in a slightly more amusing a direct way… 😀

When fundamentalists of any type start spreading their thoughts on the evils of homosexuality, or the ‘Truth’ that only they hold, I want to get them, Muslims and Christians, and sit them facing eachother, then say, ‘look. That’s you that is.’

Having said that, reading through the discussions has also highlighted a recent article from Christianity Today which indicates that all is not well at Patrick Henry College. According to the article, almost a third of their full-time faculty members are leaving following a contentious debate over the interpretation of Scripture and academic freedom.

The problems stem from the academics wish to discuss ideas and to hold different beliefs from the college founder. One academic is quoted in the article as saying:

“We are put in a hard position. We’re told this is an open dialogue, but if you engage in open dialogue, you’re in trouble. It’s infuriating because you’re an academic and want to engage in ideas. He told me that a person of the Reformed position to which I hold cannot in good conscience sign the statement of faith. When I responded that I failed to see the discrepancy between the two, he replied, ‘I define the statement of faith.’â€?

Two other of the staff, both ruling elders in their respective Churches, published an article in the campus newsletter, arguing against the notion described in the programme that the Bible is the only source of truth. Their article started with the following:

“A common misconception among American evangelicals, and one that cannot be supported by the Scriptures themselves, is that the Bible is the only source of truth. We argue that this misconception amounts to a blasphemous denial of Christ’s words in Matthew 5 that ‘he sends rain on the just and the unjust.’â€?

Needless to say that produced a swift response from the college founder.

Certainly the whole article is well worth a read, and certainly worth considering in light of the blog posting I highlighted above that asks whether the students are learning or being indoctrinated.

If you missed the programme, Channel 4 are repeating it in the early hours of Saturday morning (3:50am on 10th June) – I would certainly recommend that it is worth watching.