Thursday, 25 June 2015

Church Growth strategies: 'Bringing them back!'

Having taken Stanley Hauerwas' wonderful observation that:

'Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way.' 

I've found myself considering the variety of 'church growth strategies' that tend to haunt me as I go about my daily round of engagement and conversation. 

One of the more intriguing of comment, although once the province of churches without clergy (what we now apparently call 'vacant' rather than 'interregnum') is becoming increasingly common  among church members where they still have a Vicar* in post too! But let's confine it to the vacant post scenario and spare the blushes of some who might read this and see themselves (and you know who you are I'm sure).

In churches with a vacancy I often hear the comment that the new Vicar will 'Bring all the old members back to church.' 

Only church member asked me whether I thought, 'All the old members might come back to church one day?' response? 'Not unless I can come round to expecting a Zombie apocalypse!

There are some in church who maintain the belief that those who have left a church will come flying back the minute any cleric they might have disagreed with leaves and although there might be some mileage in this thinking if the period between their leaving and the cleric going is short, I don't generally see changing the cleric to be a valid or viable church growth strategy - especially with the drop in attendance that usually accompanies the vacancy period.

One church I know of boasted nine or ten people who vowed never to return to the church building until the incumbent had gone. That blesséd day eventually arrived and so, at a safe distance, watching to marvel at the expected return of the diasporic masses (a bit like bird watchers waiting to see overflying birds come to ground for a night on their migrations) - but, as you might expect, it never happened! 

The reality is that those who have gone either find a new home or lose the habit of going to church and so the hoped for return never occurs. Many of those who leave because they don't like the Vicar are destined to become 'unchurched' and whether or not these newly minted dechurched folk become positive or negative about Church is often down to the strength of  relationship with those who continue in the church. So here's a little tip for those who wish to stop those fellow worshippers from becoming 'part of the challenge':

'When someone leaves: don't try to drag them back but don't stop being their friend either!'

Some people I engage with like to talk about people as being in three camps:

Churched: not the old purification rite after childbirth but meaning 'coming to church'!

Dechurched: basically means they used to come to church and now they don't!

Unchurched: means they don't have a history of going to church themselves (or in the familial sense either)!

The problem is that whilst the labels might be accurate as mere descriptors they have the potential to become rather unhelpful too as with them we can lose sight of the person and find ourselves dealing with labels rather than people.

I find it more helpful to think along the lines that, with regard to church we have three types of people:

Those who come to church

                                   Those who used to come to church, and

                                                                  Those who have never come to church. 

Those who come, last time I looked, were split, equally, into habitual attenders and committed attenders. Sometimes the former don't have an altogether joined up understanding of the what, why and how of being Church whilst the latter are those 'fanatical' types who sing and pray and read their Bibles and are generally the excited types! The 'Coming to church' types make up 20% of the overall population.

Those who used to come are split equally, and quite neatly, into those who are either positive (or ambivalent) or negative (or antagonistic) with regards to Church and they make up 40% of the population.

Those who have never come are, like those who used to come, split into the same categories where they are positive (or ambivalent) or negative (or antagonistic) with regards to Church and they make up the final 40% of the population.

This afternoon I was talking to someone who was discussing friends of their who after 'having fallen out with their church' had not only vowed never to return but were negative and quite dismissive of the whole 'Church' thing.

This happy idea that a new Vicar will bring back the dechurched is sadly not, in any short-term way, something that I have generally considered to be a reality.  While the dog collar might be influential in bringing back the dechurched from other places - it is, in my experience, the members (the people with whom they had a relationship when they came) and so it is the congregation, the members, the church (which term do you prefer? It's yours, now get out there and (re)connect with the dechurched.

We'll be looking at the unchurched as a separate entity before long - but hopefully this is enough to stimulate thinking (and comment) with the rantings thus far.


* Here 'Vicar' is used to describe anyone wearing any colour of shirt (except of course purple) with a dogcollar attached!


Anonymous said...

This is an extremely helpful post.


Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Glad it was helpful,