church growth in small communities

 … on small churches that don’t know what they’re doing …

“Let’s see now,

Electoral Role: 45
Average Attendance: 33
Three services (variety increases opportunity to ‘pick-n-choose’)

so …
9.30am (communion): 10 people
11.00am (all age): 20 people
6.00pm (communion): 3 people.
Looks OK.
Young people: none, but there’s nothing we can do about that.
Offerings: always taken (declining income but well managed cash flow)

Building: tick.
History: lots of it, tick.
PCC: 5 times a year.
AGM: tick.

Anything missing? Nope. So that’s one big TICK.

Boy, we’re a good church!”


It just doesn’t fit … (church, that is)

Last week I had a very entertaining evening with one of my oldest and best friends. In a Pizza Express somewhere in Chinatown (we enjoyed the irony) our thoughts turned to the pressures on life – living away from home in the week, short time at home at the weekends, exhausting long hours at work, conflicting commitments – and how these pressures can affect our capacity to sustain our faith in the week and participate in the Christian community at weekends.

“Going to church on Sunday  when you’re away all week? It just doesn’t fit” 

my friend said. And he’s right. As long as we who lead the church continue to measure commitment (perhaps our own as well as others’) by what we do on Sunday we will miss the vital and significant addition all those for whom Sunday church simply doesn’t fit can make to community life. In the demanding scramble through the (post) modern, 24 hour world it is increasingly important for church leaders to create spaces for the nurture of hundreds, and probably thousands, of people for whom Sunday no longer works.

Candle Power

Remember the seventies?\r\n\r\nPower cuts and blackouts. Eating by torchlight and candles.\r\n\r\nIt was great to have a new excuse for not handing in homework.\r\n\r\nJohn’s gospel records Jesus saying “in me there is enough light to live by” and yet so many Christians experience their lives like a family huddled around a candle during a power cut.\r\n\r\nBut LIGHT!\r\n


  • Light reveals things previously unseen.
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  • Light stops us bumping into things that hurt.
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  • Light reduces the frustration of searching for things you know should be right there in front of you.
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  • Favourite things look better in the light.
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  • Colours come out of the shadows as the light is turned up.
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\r\nWhy wouldn’t we live in the light?\r\n\r\nAnd yet John the Apostle, who obviously pondered this question over a long lifetime, also said that we prefer the darkness to the light.\r\n\r\nWhy?\r\n\r\nBetter the darkness you know?\r\n\r\nBetter the devil you know?\r\n\r\nCome into the ‘light to live by’.

From Fisherman to Shepherd – Peter’s New Commission

In John chapter 21 the story is told of Peter fishing when he should have been waiting for Jesus. With the death of Jesus and the uncertain state of affairs Peter faced a key question: What was he meant to do with his life? Was he really meant to go back to fishing?\r\n\r\nJesus answered the question for him. Peter was to change vocation – from fisherman to shepherd.\r\n\r\nIt’s interesting that at the beginning of his ministry Jesus called Peter and said “you’re a fisherman, I’ll make you a fisher of men.”\r\n\r\nBy the end of his ministry Jesus said to Peter, “I’m a shepherd, now you be a shepherd.”\r\n\r\nIn the first case, Jesus, who wasn’t a fisherman, worked with what Peter could offer – his natural skills and training as an expert fisherman. That’s good leadership on Jesus’ part – recognising natural gifts and using them as an entry into ministry.\r\n\r\nBut Jesus didn’t leave him there.\r\n\r\nJesus offered Peter the opportunity to do something he had never done before, a  new purpose in an area where Peter didn’t have outstanding natural abilities.\r\n\r\nThis time Jesus was the expert and Peter was the novice.\r\n\r\nIn the church we love people with expertise. We generally think that anyone with a natural ability will be able to keep using that skill to  ‘keep the show on the road’. But Jesus’ doesn’t just want our expertise. He wants us to reach a point where he can say right, now take on something that’s not so natural, something you will have to grow into.\r\n\r\nIt might be praying for people to be healed. It might be developing a prophetic gift, or going out on a mission team. It might mean leaving the comfort of working in area where your natural competence brings you satisfaction and even recognition and the pride of a job well done. You never know, it might mean becoming a shepherd.\r\n\r\nThe abilities Peter needed to fulfil this new vocation were latent in him waiting to be developed (and quickly – the church was about to be born in a dramatic fashion) but he had the same three teachers that we have today to help him.\r\n


  • He had the model of Jesus to examine and reflect  upon.
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  • He would also have the Holy Spirit within him guiding him.
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  • And he would have his fellow Christians to support and help him.
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\r\nSo, are you looking for new purpose or direction? Peter’s story reminds us that when Jesus gives us a new purpose we shouldn’t assume it’s something we know about or have done before.

Frontline Staff

We’ve got it wrong.\r\n\r\nIt’s not the clergy who are on the frontline, but Ordinary Church Members.\r\n\r\nIt’s the Ordinary Church Member who has to go out into the marketplace and be the light of the world.\r\n\r\nIt’s the Ordinary Church Member who has to be at home with difficult decisions about money, complicated spouses and unreasonable children.\r\n\r\nThe clergy staff have the support of fellow clergy, Bishops, other staff members built into their job description. The Ordinary Church Member doesn’t have that support. More often than not they are the only Christian where they work or live, they rarely meet their church leaders and pastors for anything other than a cursory hello, and they rely on brief and inadequate weekend encounters with other Christians at church to receive their encouragement.\r\n\r\nIt’s a misconception to say that the church staff are on the frontline because (for example) they go into a primary school once a month. Generally they are well respected and well accepted in other institutions. They are given a platform, with even a measure of government support in the curriculum.\r\n\r\nNo, like most other large organisations it’s those lower down the chain who are on the frontline, face to face with the public, often with little support, little encouragement, nowhere to turn.\r\n\r\nSo if that’s true, what sort of leaders should we be?\r\n\r\nAnd what sort of churches should our churches be?

When Grandma came to the baptism.

Grandma came to her granddaughter’s baptism.\r\n\r\nThe baptism took place in the same church where Grandma herself had been baptised 72 years before. After her own baptism Grandma had stayed in the church for a short while, encouraged by her faithful parents, but eventually left to discover a more interesting world when she started secondary school.\r\n\r\nSo this was Grandma’s first day back in the church for over sixty years. As she walked out she shook the hand of the vicar and said how pleased she was that nothing seemed to have changed since she was baptised.\r\n\r\nNothing except the names of the people involved.\r\n\r\nAnd that got me thinking.\r\n\r\n72 years. That’s ten Rectors at an average of 7 years each, now on the eleventh, each with a curate, so say eleven curates over 72 years, and let’s say each Rector had an assistant or associate clergy person working  in the team, so that’s another eleven clergy, one to help each Rector.\r\n\r\nSo that’s\r\n\r\n11 rectors + 11 curates + 11 associates = 33 clergy  …. in 72 years.\r\n\r\n33 clergy. And in 72 years nothing’s changed.\r\n\r\nWhatever else you might observe, you would have to conclude that being a member of the clergy is not about bringing change.

Like Kew Gardens in a Storm

The storms of October 1987 brought devastation to a third of the trees in Kew Gardens. Around 700 trees were uprooted, many of them old (100 – 200 years) and fully mature (100ft).\r\n\r\nSome said that a hundred years of history had been lost.\r\n\r\nOthers noted that for a hundred years too few trees had been planted.\r\n\r\nWhen the staff came to investigate further they found that many of the trees had inadequate root systems. Some very tall trees had root systems that had spread great distances outwards but only one meter downwards.\r\n\r\nAn audit also showed that the pre-storm gardens had gaps in its inventory, that whole species from many countries were missing.\r\n\r\nSo Kew Gardens looked great, but it took a greater storm to develop a planting regime that ensured the garden’s vibrancy and to instigate improved ways to nurture trees.\r\n\r\nI know churches that need this.

A church like a tapas bar.

Set back from pavement on the road that connects the main student accommodation district to the university teaching campus is a small bistro with a front courtyard. The internal bar and rooms and the courtyard are on a slightly lower level than the pavement, which gives it a secluded feel even though it’s on one of the busiest streets in town. I knew it thirty years ago when it used to be called the Tapas Bar, because it served … tapas. And Beer. Both of which I enjoyed as a student.\r\n\r\nIt isn’t called the Tapas Bar anymore, it’s called The Town House, although it still sells tapas and beer.\r\n\r\nTo be more precise, it has the name The Town House on the sign board, although we still call it the Tapas Bar. If ever we want to go there we say, “let’s go to the Tapas Bar.”\r\n\r\nThat’s because it has changed management and names so often that we couldn’t keep up. We all knew it as the Tapas Bar before, so the Tapas Bar it remains.\r\n\r\nOf course this raises an underlying truth about the Tapas Bar (or The Town House) . ‘Under New Management’ may be a statement of fact, but it is never a statement of radical action. Whether or not the new owners ever thought they could really change it, they were never able to other than tinkering with decor and fittings and furniture.\r\n\r\nThis was due I suspect to the fragile balance of the enterprise which goes something like this: change alienates the regulars but attracts new customers; but the regulars leave faster than new customers arrive and settle down to become regulars; this net loss of people jeopardises sustainability.\r\n\r\nConclusion: the formula works as it is, so tinker if you like, but don’t change the essentials unless you want to close up shop due to lack of support.\r\n\r\nThe real problem of course is that customers are fickle. They don’t need to go, and might as well go somewhere else if they aren’t getting what they want. It’s their power that counts. Bums on seats.\r\n\r\nI know churches like that.

Big church / Small church

All Saints (which should properly be called a small percentage of saints) has 500 on the electoral role, 25 on the PCC and an Apostolic 12 on the Leadership team, although 2 are women. It has an average of 45 meetings a week if all the house groups, administration meetings, coffee mornings and communions are included.\r\n\r\nAround 50 people (10% of the electoral role) which includes 3 full time non-clergy staff are active, and spend much of their spare time  each week preparing for the 45 meetings.\r\n\r\nWhich leaves the Vicar and his Curate to go to schools, meet people on the street, and at funerals, and weddings, and baptisms, and to visit the elderly and infirm at home.\r\n\r\n350 people each week are passive – they turn up to the meetings of all sorts laid on for them.\r\n\r\nSt Valentis (named after a vigorous 1st century saint) has 45 on the electoral role, many of whom are infirm or old, so now only 25 regulars turn up to one Sunday service.\r\n\r\nThey have no house groups, but on average 5 of the regulars (20%) dedicate time each week to visiting the local old people’s home and the elderly and infirm members of the congregation who can’t travel.\r\n\r\nOne couple spend time each week researching local charities and world mission organisations to present to the congregation to raise financial support. One person plays the piano. One person leads worship. Two people, a man and a woman, preach regularly, and two women look after the four children on Sunday mornings. Being short-handed most people are on either the PCC or one of the other committees.\r\n\r\nIn all, about 85% of the congregation in St Valentis are actively involved in church life, guided by the vicar.\r\n\r\nSo I want to know, is a big church just a good small church with lots of extra hangers-on?\r\n\r\nAnd, which is the better church, All Saints or St Valentis?\r\n\r\nIt depends on which criteria are used, of course. Unfortunately ‘sustainability’ may become the overriding measure of success.\r\n\r\nUnless something cataclysmic happens, All Saints will continue as it is for the forseeable future, let’s say a conservative 20 to 30 years. Big church.\r\n\r\nUnless something miraculous happens, St Valentins will close down in the foreseeable future, let’s say 5 years. Small church.\r\n\r\nWhich is a shame.