Mission and Church Growth

Damian Feeney on the findings of the Church Growth Research Programme and the true nature of mission

Part of the familiar rhetoric which has coloured the life of the Church since the early Nineties has involved the imagery of battlefield and mission field. It has been used in times of particular stress and tiredness; it has been used in connection with the Ordinariate; more recently, it has resurfaced in the debate to find legislation which both permits the consecration of women to the episcopate and finds a way to accommodate those who are unable in conscience to accept such a development. It is easy to see why. So much energy has been expended, so many resources allocated to the debates about our life together, to the galvanizing and focusing of arguments and the sustaining of the faithful, and the frustration is easily felt.

One point worth making is that the polarization of these aspects of mission into contrary opposites is not entirely helpful. On the one hand, the question of the type of church we are inviting people into has been a pressing issue, intimately tied up with questions of mission and evangelism; the other side of that coin is that parishes and communities of a traditional integrity have indeed continued to work, despite other concerns and pressures for the growth of the Church. That has been a good work indeed. The mission of the Church is, and always will be, our most pressing priority, however bracing the prevailing wind may be.

A helpful checklist

The recent findings from the Church Growth Research Programme has been two years in the formulating, and are presented as a document entitled From Anecdote to Evidence. The research behind the document cites three specific strands of research – data analysis, church profiling and a third piece of work more difficult to categorize in methodological terms, but encompassing specific areas of endeavour: Cathedrals, Fresh Expressions, Church Planting, Amalgamations, Team Ministries. Unsurprisingly, what has been collected amounts not to a single strand of revealed truth about what constitutes and ‘causes’ a growing church; rather, a number of factors can be identified which might be said to be common to churches which are experiencing growth. Unwilling to create hostages to fortune (with readers of august publications such

as this, for example) the authors stress that association does not itself establish causality, and that further evidence and research into the interrelationship of these factors is necessary to establish cogent causal relationships.

Urgent priorities

Good leadership. A clear mission and purpose. Willingness to self-reflect, to change and adapt according to context. The involvement of the whole people of God. Prioritizing growth. A clear, chosen style of worship. An emphasis on catechesis, on nurturing disciples. These last three are couched in the rhetoric of being intentional, suggesting a deliberate strategic prioritizing which leads to action. But none of this is rocket science, and these are concepts which have been around for a good while now, and from a variety of traditions and sources. Perhaps the difference here is that rather than simply accept the received wisdom of these sources, there is evidence to suggest that these characteristics are important.

By contrast, the research points to urgent priorities in arresting areas of particular decline – the evidence concerning children and young people should cause more than a little anxiety. The trend to pastoral reorganization into teams in the face of the dwindling availability of stipendiary clergy is recognized as detrimental to church growth. The statement ‘Churches are more likely to grow when there is one leader for one community’ will chime with many as lying at the heart of our common pastoral and parochial understanding, but which we have turned away from because of acute matters of finance and resource. In addition, it is still too early to tell as to whether the shift in profile of parochial clergy away from mainly stipendiary into a more ‘mixed economy’ involving SSMs will provide an effective and liberating model of being in multi-parish benefices.

Renewed confidence

One particular piece of good news is that there is no suggestion of specific ecclesial tradition as a factor for growth or decline one way or another. There is nothing about the particularity of being Catholic or Evangelical which predisposes churches to growth or decline. On the contrary, growth is experienced where there is ‘consistency and clarity and the chosen style and tradition are wholeheartedly adopted’ (p. 8). In other words, and in the immortal words of The Producers, ‘When you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ More seriously, part of the renewal of our confidence will continue to grow as a confidence in our tradition, with good teaching and exposition, attractive, awe-inspiring and numinous liturgy, a distinctive and Christ-like sense of community and pastoral care.

Missional and attractional

One sometimes unhelpful polarity in church growth thinking comes when we consider the language of so-called missional churches and attractional churches. Such a distinction is not present in the wording of the report, but certainly illustrated in the some of the research which lay behind it, not least the research on church planting. A missional church community is one which goes out boldly and proactively, bringing proclamation, teaching, and healing to people who don’t have it, don’t know they need it and will perish without it.

Attractional church communities are those which are the antithesis of this, and have a come to us mentality. We have what you need, and it is located right here. Come and see, and you will find out, whether from the beauty of our liturgy, the power and authenticity of our preaching, or the sheer quality of our relationships and pastoral care. There is more than an element of caricature about these models – but then again, there always is. And the fact that one of these models is called missional does imply that the other model must therefore have nothing to do with mission, in much the same way that the term evangelical has become associated with one tradition or strand of thinking.

A truthful theology of mission contains both elements, and we see both displayed in Scripture. There are patterns of going out and coming in. We simultaneously draw in (through our community life, through invitation, through the forming of rich and life-giving relationships) and move out (through planting congregations, through witness and service, and through the opportunities to listen and speak which are afforded to us). Each should energize the other. This dynamic is one which should preoccupy us, and indeed the whole Church, as we understand the bracing context of the Church’s life and witness: in some ways that witness will look and feel quite different from what we may be used to, and we will need to develop our best practice and thinking in response to social trends which have not been dreamt of yet, as the rate of change in the society we serve accelerates.

Drawing people closer

To characterize the mission dynamic as merely one way is not enough. Jesus goes out. He visits a variety of communities, teaching, proclaiming the Kingdom, healing. He sends others to do the same. But the purpose is then to gather, to draw people closer, to attract people into a renewed understanding of covenant and community. The culmination of the drawing in process is drawing people close to the cross of Christ. It is the supreme example of attraction as we consider how we might be part of a Church which both goes out and draws in. During Advent we at St Stephen’s House were privileged to be led by Fr Andrew Sloane in retreat: his profound words on the rich imagery

to be found in Eliot’s Four Quartets found resonance and joy, cast as they were against the backdrop of the Quarantore, the Forty Hours’ Devotion to the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The discovery was that this wonderful act encapsulated an attractional model on the surface, but in fact was truly apostolic, for through adoration and intimacy with Christ we receive the grace of conversion, and thus are sent out, to draw others to the same joy.

Being truly apostolic

We cannot see the drawing of people through the church door, sat in a pew and clutching a gift aid form, as the end of our striving, our work somehow done. Rather, we seek incorporation into the body, the formation of the Body of Christ around those who have heard the Word, who have met the Lord Jesus and seek his transforming grace. If a community is truly apostolic – receiving, sending, nurturing others in other communities beside their own – then it becomes imbued with a grace-filled quality. The acid test of any Christian community is its capacity to give and receive love, even to death. Standing within the apostolic tradition can never merely mean that we can trace our family tree. It must mean being in the company and the tradition of those who are sent out, having freely received, so that we might freely give. And that community, well formed, rooted and grounded in love, is itself attractive, drawing people together through the joy and vitality expressed there.

The core task

Two particular developments in recent times have reminded us that in the midst of all our important discussions and agonizing regarding the future of the Church, the core task remains what it has always been: the growth of the Church in mission to herald the coming of the Kingdom. The first of these has been the engagement of Catholic and Evangelical parishes in the Leading Your Church into Growth movement, experienced by many through national and diocesan courses now over a twenty year period. The second is the Fan the Flame initiative.

Not only is it possible for the Church to grow numerically, it is imperative, and a default position: and if the Church is not growing, something is getting in the way. But that sense of growth can never rest at the merely numerical, but is about conversion, also, and transformation. What matters is truthfulness, holiness, invitation, faithfulness, engagement in community life, mutual love, self-giving; because these are the hallmarks of Jesus Christ who sends us out so that we may gather in.

The existence of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda in the Church of England presupposes that we will be a vibrant, joyful and active constituency, witnessing boldly to the person of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. If that is so, the business of church growth – qualitatively and quantitatively – is something we must take seriously and act upon, not merely to secure our place within the Church but because it is our God-given duty and joy. ND

For the Programme findings, see

and for the Fan the Flame initiative, see