Scott Anderson argues that congregational behaviour falls into four distinct categories, and describes the impact that each type of behaviour can have on a church’s trend towards growth or decline

The reasons for growth and decline in a congregation can often be complex. What is clear is that some congregations are ready for growth when the opportunity comes, and others are prone to decline, no matter how much is done for them. This is because of the way that the existing congregation works – its dynamic. The attitudes of the people, to God, to their priest, to each other and to the newcomer, are actually much more important than the style of the worship and the state of the finances.

Think for a moment about how different types of people make up your congregation. I don’t mean young and middle-aged and old, or black and white and Asian, but rather the way in which groups of people behave. Four types are represented in most congregations.

The four types

‘Missioners’ are people who have grasped the call of Jesus Christ to his Church. They have a vision for where they want the Church to be, and are personally committed to it. They commend it to other people, and take their own initiative in getting it to work. ‘Helpers’ are people who understand the mission and want to see things happen. They are loyal and supportive, but they do not have the confidence or the experience to take initiatives of their own, although they will help whenever they are asked to. ‘Looked Afters’ are people who like coming to church from time to time, and may belong to one of the Church organizations. They see the Church as providing comfort and support for them. ‘Resisters’ are people who oppose the agreed mission of the Church to which nonetheless they declare that they belong.

Understanding the proportion and influence of each group in your congregation is one of the most important keys to growth or decline. In theory, the priest, wardens and majority of the Church Council will be Missioners, sharing the vision and making it work. The key areas of pastoral care, youth work, worship and home groups will be lead by these Missioners. In many of our parishes, the bulk of the congregation will belong to the Helpers group, and they will be seeking to draw people from the fringe of Looked Afters (next year’s confirmation group, perhaps). There may
be a few Resisters, but often the growing commitment and excitement of the majority will soften their hearts; although they may turn against it and leave.

Problem scenarios

It is when this dynamic changes that there is trouble. The priest who is a Helper, not a Missioner, will provide good pastoral care, but new life and growth will be stunted. If he becomes a Resister, perceiving himself under attack from the bishop or the congregation, then there is no hope of change until he moves on. Churchwardens who are Resisters (often imagining that it is their duty to oppose the clergy and make sure that no one with any new ideas gets on to the PCC) are just as disastrous.

Of course Missioners are in danger of becoming prima donnas: it is the priest’s job to integrate, and sometimes sort out, his team of Missioners. Looked Afters may not be on the fringe. They may have been coming every Sunday and sitting in the same seat, following the Mass from the little book (so God help the priest who confuses them by leaving out the Humble Access Prayer) but never moved beyond this stage. The danger lies when others defer to them and allow them to dictate policy simply because they have been coming for such a long time.

The Resister is not the same as the critical friend. A churchwarden, for example, who is a critical friend, shares the vision of the Church, and is committed to its mission to bring people to faith in the Lord Jesus. But she loves her church enough to be able to ask hard questions, both of clergy and laity. Such a critical friend is an asset to every congregation.

Making excuses

It is fascinating to read advertisements for parish clergy, for they all ask for leadership in mission, encouragement of young families, and growth in faith and numbers. A congregation with a high proportion of Missioners and Helpers agrees with this sort of advertisement, and will work with their new priest to make sure that it happens. Resisters should really sponsor an advert which says, ‘This congregation wants no change, no new people who might spoil things, and a priest who will do everything even if it kills him’. Sometimes the excuse is made that people are old and cannot do what they used to, or are working long hours and have not the time to do more. But there is truth in the saying, ‘If you want something doing, ask a busy man (or woman).’ Getting something done has much more to do with commitment than age or time. Group A will say, ‘There should be a choir’, and add in their mind, ‘and someone else should lay it on for us.’ Group B will say, ‘We should have a house group’, and add in their mind, ‘and next Monday we are going to invite four people to join us to make it happen.’

Interestingly, the first group are usually rather miserable people; the second group, busy as they are, really enjoy their Christian life. They grow in strength and grace all the time, and through them the Church grows too.