Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Church in decline or declining to be Church?

The overall picture of the state Church is increasingly portrayed as grim.

Oddly perhaps, I often find myself in placed of growing numbers and increasingly committed people - and that is a very positive and encouraging place to be. But before people begin to assume that I'm living in the land of milk and honey or residing in some comfortable and easy place where the numbers remain static despite comings and goings (and I have lived in that reality) let me dispel any such ideas now.

Last week I found myself up in a pulpit looking down on a very small number of people as I preached the sermon. Those before me were outnumbered by those behind me - there were more in the choir than there were in the congregation - and we could have comfortably filled the front row of the pews and left the rest of the building empty. This, according to some, is what the reality of an ageing and declining church looks like and I say this to make the point that decline is a real and valid issue for many. I am not denying the fall in numbers or the fact that the average age of some congregations is higher than an English cricket team's one day score!

I hope you will excuse me for saying this but I think the problems we have in Church (that means universal, not just one local expression of it) are due to a number of factors. Two of these are considered here:

The first of these that I, in my humble opinion, am seeing feels like an increasing number of 'office hours' clergy. Ministry as a nine to five role where the services that must be done are done and that's the 'job done'.

Consider a church with multiple services. A cleric finds themselves down to do the a.m. slots and that done considers their church attendance for the day finished leaving the p.m. Slot/s to whoever is down to do them as they settle in for an 'evening off'. Attendance is only required when the rota demands!

Others, having done the a.m. slot/s, appear content with the situation that there is no pm slot to be left to anyone else; after all, if there was who would come? I encounter a number who encourage me to 'drop the p.m. slot' as something outmoded and unpopular. 'If you do it, they won't come,' is their mantra as we are encouraged to accept that which began with the Forsythe Saga in 1967 (and repeated in 1969) vying to take place of  the evening service is now complete.

The second is to be found in the apparent lack of desire of those who consider themselves to be Christians to actually be in church. With this situation in mind I asked ten Christians the same question: Where were you last Sunday and why were you there?'

The responses (in order of popularity) were:

Two had been 'shopping'.
'Shopping' is a rather nebulous category which ranges from going out to buy stuff through to finding yourself in some mega shopping complex or in a garden Centre with the promise of  'lunch out' included. Shopping offers more than just a purchasing opportunity - it offers distraction (especially if you have the grandchildren) and a complete day out if you want to be entertained, distracted and fed.

Three had been 'looking after grandchildren'.
A reason for decline as the age of church members increase and their working age children have to work on Sunday (as it's no longer a special day) leaving their offspring in need of free child care.

Five merely looked embarrassed and mumbled various excuses much like me when asked where my homework was all those years ago. 'I did do it but the dog ate it!' doesn't hold much credibility when used as a response to the 'why weren't you at church?' question. The honest response would have been: 'couldn't be bothered!'

Now I understand that by placing these people on the spot I have already broken all the rules. I know I'm expected to merely smile and be grateful that they choose to come at all and leave it at that, but why?

Why should I be expected to be content to create the spiritual equivalent of a dinner party and then have those expected fail to turn up because they couldn't be bothered?

In Matthew chapter twenty-two we find a parallel situation in one of Jesus' parables:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests."

The final bit of this story is an even greater shot across the bows, but that's something for another day, so we will merely continue with the image that those who couldn't be bothered found something to be bothered about. (this isn't a threat, don't panic about clergy coming to burn your cities)

In the context of a meal those who fail to come are often never invited again and not coming is usually associated with grovelling and oft embellished reasons for not attending from the absentee. But not so with many in Church today - they, it seems, just aren't bothered!

The response of many clergy is to try and make the service 'more appealing' or to tweak the 'worship*' in an effort to make the service 'more popular' or to dumb down the sermon to make it 'more accessible' or to make the service shorter to make it 'less intrusive' or to cater for whatever it is that they think will prove to be (wait for it) 'popular'.

We struggle to find what it is that the people want and then seek to meet that perceived need because otherwise they won't come and we will be in decline and the money won't be there to pay the parish share and we will have failed. We do our market research in the mistaken belief that we have to keep the customer satisfied and that numbers are the measure of success. Suddenly preaching the Gospel becomes something secondary and telling the truth (no matter how lovingly) takes second place to tickling the ears and entertaining the masses as we chase success.

When it comes to finding what the people want and letting them have it - something the world regards as the way forward - this is the negative context whereby faith becomes the opiate of the masses as reality and focus are lost.

When Church preaches Jesus, the Christ, crucified, risen and working in and through us by His Holy Spirit, this is the positive context which Marx pointed to as faith as an opiate in that it overcomes the pain of oppression and earthly struggle and enables us to carry on through to the end of the journey that is this earthly life.

If you want a cheap meal then go to the garden centres, pubs and shopping malls.
If you want an expensive meal (cost a life) that satisfies more than just your stomach - come to Church.

If you want to be entertained go to the cinema, turn on your TV or read a book.
If you want to be informed and enlivened and transformed and at peace - come to Church.

If you want something where you can switch off and leave your brain at the door
Something that will approve of all you do and want (as long as you can pay)
Something that will never tell you your are wrong (the customers ALWAYS right)
I'd give Christianity a very wide berth indeed.

But if you would like to be someone you can see in the mirror and know you can trust
Someone who can be relied in when the problems appear
Someone who does the right thing even when it is also the hard thing
Someone who not only knows the meaning of life but its author too
There's a church near you longing to make your acquaintance and welcome you into the family.

*Worship is not the music bit - the whole service is an act of worship!


Pidge said...

We are typical rural churchgoers, retired and living mainly on a state pension. Our church, in common with many churches in our area, has had the lead stolen from the roof. The church, as many of the others, is grade 1 listed. We are instructed from above to replace the roof within three years. The cost is around £110,000 plus 11% to the church architect. The temporary roof, paid for with the pittance obtained from insurance, is good for at least 20 years. probably 30. In our homes we live within our budget and give priority to relationships rather than material things. In PCC meetings we struggle to put spiritual things first as our congregation, which is frequently in single figures,feels under enormous pressure to prioritise the church fabric. When we heard of management techniques being taught to those at the top of the church hierarchy at great expense there were murmurings of rebellion among the box pews.
The C of E needs to free the parish church to be Church for the community before all that remains is the freezing barn of a building with its monuments to the great and often not so good of the past.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...


Thank you for this post. I am always so very frustrated to hear of the ways that being the custodians of the physical stones buildings hamper the ministry of the living stones.

I was quite shocked to hear the cost of implementing the recommendations of the 'Green Report' and those around me uttered some most unclergylike comments at the £2m price tag.

Please be assured of my prayers and, if I can do anything to help (fancy a mission them I'm your man) give me a shout.

Thanks again for the post.

Church Warden said...

I found a link to this blog on a church web site and have to say thank you for the words you have written and for the passion and honesty you have shown here. I struggle with being part of church because so many people seem to have it as a hobby rather than a lifestyle. You are right, they don't seem to want to come to church and this is not only debilitating and disheartening but giving permission to others around them to follow suite.

We have a new Vicar and unlike their predecessor they have an answerfone outside of 'office hours' and do no more than two evenings during Lent and Advent and outside of that it's one.

Services are taken as if they are a chore and the people are leaving in droves.

What do we do?

Pidge said...

Thank-you for your kind comments that really cheered me up and gave me some perspective again. Outside the church bells are ringing across our tiny village, it's bell practice and although some of those ringing will only come to church on special occasions, Christmas, Easter, Harvest and Plough Sunday they contribute an enormous amount in such things as church maintenance. That burden of a building is also part of the cement that holds the community together. The young families we rarely see in church struggle so hard to keep their homes together most travelling many miles to work and the children having to be at the bus stop before 8 to get to school, it's no wonder they want Sunday to relax together. Reading 'Churchwarden's post I realised that like many rural churches we are beyond the stage his church is at. When benefices have many widely scattered churches the clergy must for the sake of their families attempt to keep reasonable hours. Members of the congregation inevitably take on duties such as home communion, praying with the bereaved, visiting the sick, arranging service rotas and being the Christian presence in the community in many different ways.
Thank-you for focusing me on Christ again, for all its difficulties this is where we have been put to serve him.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Church Warden

I'm sorry to hear of your situation - with the fear that I am 'teaching my grandmother to suck eggs' It seems that you (and the other warden) need to chat and if you are experiencing the same thing then you need to discuss the situation with the new incumbent.

If this doesn't bring about some harmony then the next person to involve is the Rural (Area) Dean and get them to act as mediator/honest broker.

Then if no resolution is found then there are a couple of ways this can be dealt with in my experience (there are others but these are generally quite wrong if not done with love and a large dose of careful):

Take it to the area or suffragan bishop

Take it to the PCC as a tabled item

One of the big problems I have had with being dragged into this sort of thing has been due to enlisting the other clergy in the deanery. Taking it to clergy in the church or parish (if there are other clergy) can be seen as rabble rousing and has damaged many a well meaning Curate and accusations of grasping at power for others - so it must be done in consort to remove any claim of mutiny.

Document conversations, times and dates and even if complaints (or supporters) are unwilling to act or be quoted, as someone responsible even the anonymous (unless blatantly malicious) must be acted upon.

Sorry this is so long - hope it helps..

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Pidge - Thank you for your reply.

At the end of the day we have nothing but Christ and the family that is Church - we never stand alone as The Christ, and His church, are always but a finger tip away (and in the case of Church, if it isn't then there are always others who will stand with you).

As your building is listed could you not go for grant money under the current government repair scheme?

Thanks again,


Seeker said...

This is my first time visiting (came for 40 Acts) and I just want to say Wow and Thank You for the site and the down to earth honesty. Might show it to our Rector and how they take the hint.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Thanks for the comment - hope it works

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Welcome to the blog Seeker - hope it works with Rector


Jonathan Clark said...


Many thanks for your blog which I've been reading since training at Ridley. So much of what you say cuts to the heart of issues, and I find that other encouraging and challenging. (Just like good preaching, eh?)

On this topic, I'd also noticed the growing number for whom grandparent duties are getting in the way of Sunday service attendance. Whilst I will push back against some other excuses, this seems one to be careful about. Perhaps, as the vestiges of Christendom fall away, perhaps we need more actively to move to alternative mid-week times which suit older people. And I'm wondering about going further still and having a service expressly designed to minister to those with family commitments, such as looking after grandchildren or aged parents?

But that thought aside, your words at the end are ringing in my ears as I contemplate and pray about the generally static numbers and retired congregants I see around me. When I have the opportunity (and as a lowly curate I don't always) you've encouraged me to be bolder. Heb 10:25 is a command, isn't it!

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the comments most welcome and also a bit of a preemptive strike in that I will, when life stops being full of trauma deaths, be following up with suggestions like something for Grandparents and kids and the like. This is an area that has grown out of necessity and needs to be catered for as ministry to all parties and support for those who have become children's entertainers by circumstance.

I'm finding the numbers of Home communions and alternative provision for careers and cared for is also growing - legitimate call for Fresh expressions of Church as I see it: fulfilling expressions of Church too!

Meeting together is what Church is all about as it confers the status of friend, family and fun.

Happy Saturday