Parishes have to prioritise growth

There is no simple solution to Church decline, but it is not inevitable writes Michael Kelly

Counting the numbers of people at Mass and religious vocations can sometimes be seen as a crude measure of the vitality of the Church, but the fact remains: parishes depend on growth for long-term sustainability.

The five-yearly State census offer useful statistics on the number of Irish people who describe themselves as Catholic, while polls – with varying degrees of reliability – provide an glimpse in to what Catholics think of a variety of issues ag a given time.

The Church itself – with differing levels of urgency in different dioceses – collates details about baptisms, weddings and funerals. However, the Church has little by way of reliable statistics outside of the bare facts while up-to-date qualitative information is virtually non-existent because research has not been prioritised.

When it comes to pastoral practice, the Church in Ireland is a mixed bag. Some parishes are vibrant and growing while a neighbouring parish is in seemingly terminal decline. In Dublin, for example, Mass attendance is relatively healthy in middle class communities while religious practise has more-or-less evaporated in many working class communities.

There are some admirable initiatives. The Legion of Mary in one Dublin parish recently embarked on a series of home visitations and compiled a list of families who would like a priest co come and bless their home. The local priest was overwhelmed with requests, many of them from people who haven’t attended Mass in many years.

In business, it’s common to speak of ‘best practice’. Roughly speaking, one might translate that as seeing what works well in one place and applying it to another place. There’s no reason why what works in one parish won’t work in another.

New research published by the Church of England aims to provide an insight into why some of their parishes are growing and others are in perpetual decline. The new research paper – entitled From Anecdote to Evidence – makes for interesting reading and challenges some conventional wisdom.

“There is much to encourage and to celebrate in stories of life and growth as well as some serious challenges to be faced against a background of religious change in the UK and a trend of national decline in church attendance,” the researchers note. The situation is not too dissimilar in Ireland.

Across the water, certain churches and parishes stand out as having experienced significant growth. These include some parish churches and what are described as ‘fresh expressions of Church’ which seek especially to engage with non-churchgoers. Cathedrals are shown to have experienced overall growth in numbers over the last decade and especially in weekday attendance.

Researchers have concluded that, while there is no single recipe, there are common ingredients strongly associated with growth in churches of any size, place or context:

·         Good leadership

·         A clear mission and purpose

·         Willingness to self-reflect, to change and adapt according to context

·         Involvement of lay members

·         Being intentional in prioritising growth

·         Being intentional in chosen style of worship

·         Being intentional in nurturing disciples

One conclusion that should lead to a pause for thought in Ireland when it comes to parish clustering is the finding that “the strategy of grouping multiple churches together under one leader has in general had a detrimental effect on church growth”. Clustering has been embraced in many dioceses with gusto as if it is the only possible way forward. The research from Britain clearly indicates otherwise.

The results will also disappoint Catholics who believe the only way to facilitate Church growth is for the Church to abandon controversial teachings and become more accommodating those who disagree with the Church’s teaching. “Style of worship and where a Church places itself in terms of its theological tradition appear to have no significant link with growth”. In this context, concerns that have been expressed that the new translation of the Roman Missal is driving Catholics from the pews also appear to be unfounded. At the same time, those who think renewal of the Church will be based on Latin, lace and linen will be sorely disappointed.

When it comes to leadership, the survey results show a strong correlation between those clergy who prioritise numerical growth and those clergy whose churches grew in numbers.

An enthusiastic priest seems to be key to growth. When asked about strengths in motivating people, more than three quarters of clergy who say they are better than most people at motivating people, inspiring and generating enthusiasm to action, lead growing churches. Among those who admit to being less able in this respect, growth is reported by just over a third.

The leadership qualities which stood out in the survey as being significant in relation to growth included:

·         Motivating

·         Envisioning

·         Innovating

Other important elements of leadership behaviour which are likely to be associated with growth include:

·         Having the ability to engage with outsiders and newcomers

·         Being intentional about worship style and tradition

·         Having a vision for growth and doing new things to make it happen

·         Prioritising growth

·         Being good at developing a vision and goals

·         Abilities in training people for ministry and mission

Parishes that say they have a clear mission and purpose are far more likely to report growth. Of those who report a clear sense of mission and purpose, 64% have grown compared to 25% that had declined. For those that stated that they did not have a sense of clear mission and purpose, 26% had grown and 52% had declined. For those who were unsure 41% had grown and 35% had declined.

The research found that for there to be growth, a parish must be willing to change. In relation to liturgy, researchers describe churches with a “let’s give it a go” mentality. These churches try different initiatives when it comes to liturgy, if they work they invest in them, if they don’t they drop them.

Lay leadership is important and the research shows that good quality lay leadership is linked to growth. There are high associations with growth and lay leadership and rotation (when there is change and refreshing of roles, rather than the same people always fulfilling the same roles), although in the survey 37% admitted that the same people tended to serve.

The results show that a church is more likely to decline if the number of volunteers is limited and roles are not rotated. This is particularly challenging for small congregations with fewer potential volunteers as rotation of roles in these circumstances may be difficult.

“We’ll have to do something for the young people!” is a heartfelt plea heard at parish councils the length and breadth of Ireland. The British research found – unsurprisingly – that growth is found where there is a high ratio of children to adults. Churches which offer programmes for children and teenagers are more likely to grow. Three quarters of churches that offer retreats, conferences or camps for youth report growth, against half among those who do not.

Pope Francis never misses an opportunity to remind Catholics that they must be outward-looking. The research confirms that many growing churches are those which engage with their local community. In the survey, some programmes providing social services (including debt counselling, aid work and night shelters) along with some environmental projects were shown to have a positive impact on growth.

A third of churches surveyed said that they used Facebook or other social media on a regular basis.

Of those that do, two thirds report growth versus half among those who don’t, however, the researchers said this is almost certainly because they are a sign of young and dynamic leadership rather than because of their direct effects.

Many survey respondents from growing churches attributed growth to a welcoming atmosphere “belonging and caring”. People talked about the welcoming atmosphere or culture of the church.

The most direct route to growth comes from members inviting and welcoming family, friends and acquaintances.

Making contact with potential new members after they attend services or activities is associated with growth and comments reflected the importance of building on-going relationships. These included: being made to feel part of the family; coffee times and chats; a greater desire to love and serve one another; working alongside one another on fundraising and other projects.

Two thirds of churches which said they offered encouragement and support through specific discipleship courses or courses “preparing members to be a Christian witness in their daily lives” showed growth. In those which reported none or “some emphasis through preaching”, less than half were growing.

“Vision for growth” was mentioned as a general reason for growth – reflecting the truth that growth is not mechanical but results from a deep reflection and commitment, a desire to experiment and a desire for renewal.

The research focuses a lot of attention on what are described as ‘fresh expressions of Church’. Such expressions may seem alien to the Catholic tradition given the centrality of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. However, these communities have shown growth and there may be a way for parishes – particularly urban parishes – to incorporate non-traditional liturgies as a way of bridging the gap with the un-churched and the de-churched. The research indicates that fresh expressions of Church are attracting those who might not otherwise go to church. Remarkably, just under half of those coming are under 16. “God is completely new to them,” said one leader.

Fresh expressions of Church tend to meet in a variety of places including pubs, cafes and public places. Rev Frances Shoesmith is a Team Vicar and Pioneer Minister in the parish of northeast London and has responsibility for St Luke’s in the High Street in Chelmsford. St Luke’s doesn’t have a building but instead meets in a variety of places. On Sunday mornings people gather for ‘Bible, Breakfast and Chat’ in a local café and also at the Farmers’ Market where St Luke’s has a stall for hot drinks and cake, space and time to chat.

Rev Shoesmith explains: “We are a growing, but very fluid, community because the people coming in are quite broken. It really has been a case of ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’.

The ‘Bible, Breakfast, and Chat’ sessions at first attracted between four and 10 people but we now often have around 25 attending. Many now come to other activities and also benefit from the joint parish Sunday evening service, a space to receive and be refreshed after lots of giving out on a Sunday morning. I believe that makes us a real example of the mixed economy at work, a fresh expression co-dependent with the team ministry.”

Church planting is a process that results in a new Christian community of church being established, sometime sin an area where there hasn’t been a Church presence for quite some time. This has been particularly the case in large urban and inner-city areas. Seed capital is normally given to the plants but it is expected that the plant will be self-supporting within three to five years.

Researchers commented on the entrepreneurial and innovative approaches evident in church plants.

There was frequent mention of concepts such as “freedom to fail and have a go”, permission giving, experimentation, low control and high accountability, being on a journey. The risk taking and permission to fail are all part of a mind-set that allows for experimentation with current models and imagining and developing new ones.

Common values in church planting include:

·         Being relational and incarnational

·         The importance of welcome and hospitality

·         The importance of lay people

·         Inclusion of local people

·         Volunteerism

·         Importance of groups

·         Involvement with young families

·         Attempting to be a healing presence

The support of the diocese is seen to be crucial and a clear planting policy is helpful. It is apparent that some plants can be very successfully self-supporting; in some areas they will never be. Church plants are beginning to take place across all traditions and are becoming increasingly sensitive to context.

St Francis’ Church was commissioned in the 1930s as a mission chapel for the Dalgarno estate in northwest London. After an initial period of flourishing it ended up being closed for many years. In 2004 a small team was sent from St Helen’s, Kensington to try to revitalise the church and the congregation grew to around 25. However, decline followed again in 2009 and there was a sense of losing hope.

In 2010, after discussions initiated by the Bishop of Kensington with Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and St Helen’s church, HTB curate, Rev Azariah France-Williams and his wife Anna were sent along with two other couples, to plant a new community Church.

Since then congregation has grown from around 12 to 40-50 people; 80% live within walking distance of the church and a third are from the Dalgarno Estate. The church is in one of the most deprived wards in England; densely populated, ethnically diverse and with high rates of long-term unemployment.

Rev France-Williams identifies a number of factors that have led to growth; learning about the demographics, making organisational systems fit for purpose, identifying values, developing leadership, community outreach and opportunities to explore faith.

The researchers paid particular attention to cathedrals. Overall

Weekly attendance grew by 35% between 2002 and 2012. Especially significant is that weekday attendance has more than doubled in ten years (from 5,600 in 2002 to 12,400 in 2012).

When asked about reasons contributing to growing services, the cathedral deans’ comments clustered around several key themes:

·         Quality of worship – the liturgical tradition and user-friendly service sheets

·         Quality of music – especially at choral evensong and in congregational worship

·         Quality of preaching – confidence in the Gospel and teaching

·         Embodying generous hospitality – welcome, friendly atmosphere, personal feel

·         Cultivating a sense of community – fellowship, young families, students, dedicated leadership

·         Exploring new patterns – new services, different styles, valuing diversity, greater informality, convenient service times, improving publicity

·         Providing spiritual openness – intentionality, inclusivity, prayer, pastoral care, reflective space, anonymity

·         Emphasis on families and young people

When asked what the highest motivating factors for attending were, the top three factors were:

·         Peace and contemplation

·         Worship and music

·         Friendly atmosphere

The Church of England research proves that decline is not inevitable, but that engaging younger people is key to survival. The Catholic Church in Ireland is currently declining because generations of Massgoers are not being replaced and because the Church is not keeping young people in their teens and into young adulthood.

Research shows that the best youth programmes are likely to involve new ways of building community and these require a considerable amount of time and effort. Evidence shows that those who are involved in the parish and Massgoing in their 20s will probably stay for the rest of their lives, but if they don’t, it will be hard to bring them in. There is a particularly strong association between growth and youth programmes. Youth retreats, conferences or camps were offered by 21% of churches in the sample and of these, exactly three quarters report growth.

Just as willingness to change and adapt was associated with growth, the survey findings point to evidence that unwillingness to change by parishioners leads to decline. Similarly, the research underlines the importance of lay members being active in assuming responsibilities, in a parish is to grow, rather than leaving everything to the priest. Where this does not happen, the researchers point out, there is likely to be decline.

The research also reveals that there are some factors which do not make a significant different to growth or decline. These include:

·         Theological tradition

·         The gender, ethnicity of marital status of the ordained minister.

The research, while food for thought, needs substantial health warnings. Ireland is not Britain nor is the Catholic Church here the Church of England. Nevertheless, there are similar issues and challenges facing the two institutions. In both cases one thing is clear: doing nothing is not an option. It was Winston Churchill who said: “never let a good crisis go to waste”.