Attendance at CofE services has been declining since around 1960. Liturgical reform, modern Bible translation, messy church, Alpha courses, and umpteen schemes for lay ministry, have failed to stop the decline – which in fact has accelerated. Many churches are no longer spiritually or financially viable; so, bankruptcy beckons. Partial exceptions are some Evangelical churches, although reliable figures for this don’t exist.
This brief essay points to a way of reversing the decline and letting churches flourish.
Give people what they want
The church grows when it associates the Gospel with meeting some big and urgent need. So, in medieval times the church nursed the sick and dying. In many places in Africa and Asia in missionary times it provided medicines that worked. In industrial Britain it provided a context for safe and respectable socializing – as opposed to the pub and music hall. Through many centuries the church was the main fount of education. And in student cities and campuses today evangelical churches provide warm fellowship for youngsters far from home.
The trouble is that, apart from student fellowship, these various needs and wants are now met by the state, the electronic media, or the market mechanism. So are there other needs, largely unmet, that the church could met? I can think of two.
The identity crisis
Human beings have a natural desire for identity, often expressed in symbols and rituals, as well as words. Allegiance to a football team is a conspicuous example, as, of course, is patriotism. Religions have always been the most powerful sources of identity.
For at least four centuries the CofE met this need admirably, at both the local and national level. Incidentally, the Anglican ‘brand’ remains very potent in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, in recent decades many clergy, who tend to be quite left-wing, have grown suspicious of Anglicanism as a form of identity, perhaps fearful of the church becoming a vehicle for nationalism. So, except at royal occasions, the CofE has become careless of its traditions.
I believe a move towards the revival of CofE traditions in worship could prove hugely attractive, if enacted with conviction and flair. By way of anecdotal evidence, I been approached by several Evangelical ordinands from Ridley Hall, to guide them in High Church worship – they sense this could be a powerful tool of evangelism.
The mental health crisis
There seems to be a long-term mental health crisis: depression and anxiety, and eating and sleeping disorders, are becoming – so it seems – alarmingly widespread. Doctors and professional counsellors provide some help. But many people continue to feel isolated and bereft. And they need the very thing that Christians are especially well-equipped to provide love – warm, unconditional, self-giving, wise, gentle love.
To meet this need we do not need people with lengthy training, and we certainly don’t require yet another class of licensed minister. Instead, we need a simple and practical theology of healing, based on how Jesus healed – and Christians willing and able to enact that theology. Such Christians will find it’s the most satisfy ministry they are ever likely to have.
We have some clue about one context in which such mental healing can occur: the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which in turn are based on Methodist class meetings. And it’s worth noting that AA has a very robust theology. But there are other contexts also – in which friendly chats over cups of tea rank high.
The ever-rising parish share is the most powerful anti-growth tool yet invented. In effect it greatly increases the cost of churchgoing; and it turns churches into fund-raising agencies, whose members spend much of their leisure time squeezing money out of each other – time that could be far better spent healing and improving worship.
An effective church growth strategy must involve a drastic reduction in the parish share; and this means a drastic reduction in the number of paid clergy, and an even more drastic reduction in bureaucrats. Fortunately, responding with love to mental problems is best done by ordinary Christians, not by people wearing dog-collars. And traditional High Church services do not need to be sacramental.
The true age of lay ministry must begin.