When I was at vicar college I thought I was being prepared for radical church. Not being a lifelong Anglican, and then only extremely low-church, and with warnings from friends about not becoming ‘domesticated’ into the Anglican way ringing in my ears, I thought God would send me to the more radical fringes – youth congregations, fresh expressions, the sort of thing that usually needs lots of wires, boot space and where the only sacred object is the worship leaders album-smile.
It turns out God had other plans. You see, he doesn’t just want the radical fringes to grow. He doesn’t just want young, motivated and skilled clergy (I was in those days) in those places. So, after a curacy learning the ropes in a mid-tempo low-church and very supportive environment where I still got to play the drums, I was called to my current estate church, which was then a very tired, very faithful remnant of 12-14 older ladies in the parish sister church, meeting fortnightly with a robed communion and singing to MIDI file organ tracks on floppy discs. Floppy discs!
A question: what would a successful ministry be in that church? The then Bishop of Croydon Nick Baines said to me in interview that they didn’t know if God was calling me to close the church gracefully, or to foster new growth. I had to be prepared to fail, if success is growth. So, we came here not knowing what would happen. Except that, in my licensing service, he said to the congregation that I was not to be chaplain to the congregation, but vicar to the parish. That I must do what vicars must do, which is not only enable and foster spiritual growth in the current congregation, but look upwards and outwards to those not yet ‘in’. Our ministry is not and cannot be solely ecclesiastical.
4½ years on, and despite setbacks along the way, we have grown. In faith, and in number. And then not grown. At least in number.
Why am I saying this? It is in response to Justin Welby’s interview on the Today programme, to qualify his words:
“…but the reality is, where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches.”
This has many truths within it. What he doesn’t mean is that a good vicar will always mean growing churches. Sometimes it is all we can do to support and enable things as they are. Many vicars will constantly feel guilty that they haven’t found the key to people flooding in. Sometimes success is people getting through life from one week to the next. Sometimes it is getting the vicar through life from one week to the next. This isn’t reflected in parish statistics.
But. As Justin Welby went on to say, there is a pattern. And that pattern is this:
“[the church] need to be flexible in how it engages locally and it needs to be very clear in its intention to grow in numbers… All the research we’ve got is that if we don’t actually set out to grow the number of people and draw people to the reality of the love of God in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t happen. It’s not a collateral benefit to existing. So you’ve got to be very intentional…”
The pattern is intentionality. When we came to this church, the congregation knew when everyone was there, so the welcomers closed the door and sat down. When we begin to expect and anticipate newcomers, it changes how we approach the welcome. Intentionality. From nothing for kids at all, we went from a kids colouring table at the back, to kids sitting at the front on the mat, to a regular kids group. Intentionality.
I meet many vicars who have no intentionality in their mission. If it happens, it will be a collateral benefit to existing – through baptisms, or choir membership, or church schools. This used to work, and does sometimes lead to sustaining the status quo. But actively drawing people into the reality of the love of God in Jesus Christ needs more than a passive hope. So, we need to actively engage with local schools, primary and secondary; we need to actively engage with local kids and families and older people.
Here, our main ministries outside of Sunday church have been coffee morning, toddler group and kids on the church roof. Radical? Not really. Done intentionally, with the aim of drawing people into God’s love? Yes. Not the radical I had in mind at college, but it works.
So let me encourage those ministering in traditional contexts, that we don’t have to be radical but we do have to be intentional. The way it has always been is not how it will always be. For us that has meant singing to MP3s of worship songs and hymns, not robing, being informal in our style but serious in our love and serious in our welcome. It has meant giving love from the depths of our hearts, to those in the congregation who would rather things were like they used to be but actually delightfully welcome the presence of children – children! – in their previously dying church; and giving love to those who have no background in church, know nothing of the Bible stories, or when to stand or sit and why we have so many candles.
The key is what Justin Welby said about the love of God. We set out to grow people in faith and knowledge of the love of God in Jesus Christ; not to grow churches or maintain a museum. You can’t grow a church without faith. But when you grow faith, you grow church. So yes, good vicars are more likely to grow churches because they have growth as their intentional plan. It is not and should not be solely a collateral benefit to existing. That will surely only lead to exiting.
And at the end of the day, it’s not just about leadership and strategy: without the Holy Spirit at the centre you’re building a kingdom of jelly anyway.
You can find the interview with Justin Welby here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01p3z2v
If you don’t know what vicars actually do, click here for a job description.