Sunday, 26 April 2015

G(r)owing nowhere fast

There's a conversation going on at the moment within the Church of England, about growth (or in other words, how to halt decline), which is proceeding along depressingly predictable lines, as reported recently in the Church Times:

This week it was the turn of the evangelical group, Fulcrum, to address the criticism of Reform and Renewal, the Archbishop's vision for the renaissance of the C of E. It was the contention of the Rt Revd. Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, that now that the Church of England is finally looking hard at some really important things, asking awkward questions like 'what actually leads to growth? (or, if you like, how do we get out of the mess we're in?) those more used to managing decline suddenly don't like what they see, and are resorting to accusations that the Church is adopting un- thought through secular management techniques, seeking safety in numbers, and ignoring the fact that sometimes priests do struggle on bravely in the toughest ministry circumstances, whilst numbers drop inexorably away, sometimes to zero.

The narrative of this increasingly polarised debate goes like this: liberals are hopelessly happy to preside over decline, stressing prayerfulness and holiness above numbers, and relying on presence as an evangelistic strategy, while evangelicals unquestioningly adopt secular management techniques, flog their programmes, pinch other people's churchgoers and rely on a certain sort of leadership mystique for numerical growth (thought they're always quick to add, as an afterthought, that growth is about quality, not just quantity).

Bishop Broadbent declared himself to be 'allergic to Rev.', the gritty, award winning BBC series about an inner city priest who struggles on despite having, to all intents and purposes a 'failing' church, with no money, smug authoritarian overseers, and a handful of oddballs for worshippers.

Being allergic to Rev. is also a predictable part of the narrative. Rev. has a decided 'liberal catholic' flavour, and evangelicals got short shrift in series 1, episode 2: Jesus is Awesome, with the satirising of 'smoothie bar' Christianity. Okay, maybe a bit unfair, but excruciatingly funny precisely because there was more than a grain of truth in it.

If you're primarily geared up to growth and how to achieve it, watching the Rev. Adam Smallbone lurch from one crisis to another in a church which is teetering on the edge of closure (which is in fact what sadly happens at the end of series 3), will of course leave you feeling queasy. But from a dramatic, and even a theological point of view, anyone who's 'allergic to Rev', for me, is dangerously close to saying they're allergic to the underdog, therefore allergic to the Beatitudes, even allergic to the possibility of resurrection...?

It's a cloudy picture, this debate about decline/growth/leadership etc... In the mix is another unseemly argument around the word discipleship, a word I admit is beloved of evangelicals, but also a rather hard to ignore idea in the New Testament. I'm keen on the word and do not share other people's scruples about it. Anyone brought up on David Watson's 1981 seminal book of that name is likely to read a critique (see link below) of the concept as an attack on the very foundation of a serious lifelong commitment to following Jesus, which is how I interpret discipleship.

So there you are - I love Rev. and I don't want to 'diss' discipleship. And I'm desperately hoping that instead of arguing about growth, we Christ followers could just get together and 'seek first his kingdom and his righteousness', then 'all these things' (numbers; or at least, the people God is calling, which are not always the same thing) would maybe be added to us as well....

Is it too much to hope for? Or in our little camps, promoting our own brand and dissing the others, are we just going to be going (growing) nowhere fast...?


  1. What a great blog! I am also uncomfortable with the dissing of 'Rev'. Ironically, it's a representation of Christianity that strikes a chord with mainstream viewers - perhaps we should work out what they find attractive about Adam Smallbone's style of ministry. It may not be enough to get them to church on a Sunday morning, but it might tell us something important about what they need from us.

  2. Have you read "Forming Intentional Disciples" by Sherry Weddell?