Sunday, 9 February 2014
Decline and fall
The science of numbers in the Church of England always makes for sobering, if depressing reading. I'm not sure I can take much more of it.
Linda Woodhead, writing in the Church Times this week, termed the decline in numbers of Ministers 'not enough boots on the ground', saying that 'there are no longer enough troopers to keep the show on the road, and the show will have to change.'
As well as not enough Ministers, there are of course, fewer and fewer people attending Sunday worship. An influential American writer on spirituality said recently he didn't really connect with God through 'going to church', to which 'Christianity Today' responded with, of course, an article saying why going to church still made sense. They'd have to, wouldn't they, because deep down, we're all thinking what will happen if, say in 30 years time, no one in the UK really is going to church (or to an Anglican church anyway...)
Of the people who do attend on Sundays, the graphs show ageing congregations, (in the C of E, the average age stands at 62) with few coming up from younger generations to take on all the jobs the older ones have done. A piece in Church Times suggests that the army of ladies born in the 1930s and 1940s are the real troopers - when they pass on, who on earth will keep all this stuff going?http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/7-february/features/features/generation-a-%E2%80%94-the-dwindling-force
Of course the church, in some form, goes on all through the week, with numerous volunteer run events up and down the UK - mums and toddler groups, lunches for the elderly, drop in centres, debt centres, etc. etc. All this is the church in action. But we still have the issue of Sunday worship. If congregations slowly dwindle to nothing, what will we do with all those buildings, for a start?
And so the question 'why go to church?' haunts believers, Ministers in particular. We're the ones who are supposed to be 'keeping the show on the road', who worry about the show grinding to a halt when all the people have gone. The likelihood of turning those graphs around till attendance is rising and average age falling to something more representative, seems small.
If people come to faith later in life, with ready made families and lifestyles, creating a culture of church going can be extremely difficult. It has to be fitted in to an already crowded life, and sometimes it seems it just cannot be. Cue Fresh Expressions of church - mid-week, Saturday mornings cafe-style, Messy church, etc. But people are still busy, busy, busy. Are we too busy to gather?
When you grow up from childhood with a rhythm of gathering, churchgoing, it's simply what you do on Sundays, just as going to school or work is what you do the rest of the week. As one writer put it, there's a noticeable difference between going if nothing else comes up, and going unless something else comes up.
Is there a way to lighten the dismal tale of ecclesiastical decline and fall? What do Ministers do about the significant number out there who believe stuff without 'going to church?' What even is 'church'?
Linguistically the word ecclesia began in civic life - the 'ekklesia' was a gathering, pure and simple. That's what church is - it's us gathering. What we do when we gather flows from there.
At first we gathered in homes - presumably gatherings got too big - after persecution and missionary scattering across the globe, people started putting up special buildings for gathering, some of them very large, some smaller, in every locality in the UK eventually, and organising themselves into manageable groups (with some acrimonious splitting along the way, as is only human) - and here we are today.
Church growth (decline) graphs are ultimately depressing, but they should tell us one thing - we must attend to what the point of our gathering is. When we know that, and know the relationship between gathering and being sent out again for a purpose, we will be on the right road. If we forget, we can say goodbye to the show, and the road, completely.