In conversations about Renewal and Reform (R&R), on-line and in the press, some argue that numbers don’t matter. It is an argument that I don’t fully get, or understand. Numbers must matter.
If numbers don’t matter then R&R’s stated purpose, re-evangelizing this land of 62 odd million folk, is vague, contentless and, maybe, ultimately meaningless. I don’t think that the Church of England should shy away from numbers. However, that doesn’t mean we should simply be a slave to the numbers and that success, or failure, should be a straightforward matter of quantitative and statistical analysis.
So what numbers should the Church of England aspire to?
I would like to suggest that we need to start by radically increasing our ‘failure rate,’ and that, this may be a real challenge in a culture hooked on success, quality and decisive leadership; the shiny and, the new.But, go to the Foot of the Cross and what do we see? Rejection, except from a bedraggled and bemused few. Read the account of the ten lepers who Jesus healed and, what do we discover? That only one of the ten could be bothered to come back and say thank you, and he was a Samaritan at that. And, what about the banquet parables? Not many decent folk accepted Jesus’ invitation to ‘come dine with me.’ Evangelism, or re-evangelism, must mean bearing the quantitative and statistical cost of rejection and, failure.
The process of evangelism, or re-evangelism, also asks us, in the C of E, to do the dirty work of holiness, to get some muck under our finger nails as we search out the hedgerows, the back streets, market town squares and, the suburban bus shelters for people, as we deliver the invitation to come dine with Him. What the C of E badly needs, and needs to fund, is a whole army of active foragers; we mustn’t blow the whole budget on a few shiny super stars, for therein really does lie long-term failure.
Do we have the resilience and stamina to accept a 90% rejection rate? Should the C of E build in a 90% failure rate into its financial models? Are our efforts geared towards the dirty work of holiness? These are real questions and, ones that require spiritual answers.
Numbers matter in other ways too. I strongly believe that a ‘healthy church’ is one that simultaneously grows both its core and, its periphery. The rate of change can be slow and steady; it doesn’t need to be fast and furious. We can do it one lost sheep at a time, one leper healed at a time, one grieving widow at a time. Yes, big grand initiatives can be successful, but surely the Church of England mustn’t forget that we are in the business of changing lives one by one?
Through the Renewal and Reform process we have the very real opportunity to ask whether slow and measured year on year growth is ultimately better and, more sustainable growth. This is, again, a cultural question for it seems that rapid and shiny is more to be prized, in society at large, than slow and incremental. I hope those charged with making funding decisions have a strong mental picture of the sort of growth they think will have most long-term effect.
It is important that the core community grows . A visible and vibrant worshiping community is, of course, missional in its own right; we know this from the Acts of the Apostles. So bums on seats (or pews in my churches) is important. But, it is the vibrancy of the worship and quality of hospitality the reaps real missional dividends. And, it is important that a core community of prayer is maintained. All of the church’s initiatives should be rooted in, and routed from, prayer. Public prayer is also one of the ways that the Church of England expresses care and compassion and, I would want to suggest that whilst most folk (say 90%) won’t come back just because their grief or joy is held before God by the worshiping community, a small number (say 10%) might find themselves, initially, on the periphery of church life and, over time they too might become fully signed up members of the core community. We need to ask ourselves whether our churches are the sorts of places where people can both browse and, shop.
Finally, just a thought about new projects and, the establishment of a worshiping community:
I can understand the temptation to, and rationale for, funding projects which intend to establish a worshiping community at some future stage but, I wonder whether this is a bit misguided. My worries are three-fold; first, I do think, as already indicated, that all C of E initiatives should be rooted in and routed from prayer and, that this should include public and corporate prayer.
Secondly, I worry about something I term ‘not yet syndrome.’ Not yet syndrome tends to agree with the stated intention – the establishment of a worshiping community, for instance – whilst also finding reasons why the timing is not quite right. Of course the timing is never quite right!
Thirdly, is there a basic issue of integrity at play? Surely, it is better to up front about our faith rather than risk people thinking that an act of loving service was only provided in order to affect future conversations?
Is there perhaps a fear that if we start with a worshiping community not many will turn up? Don’t worry may be the best answer to this fear. Not many need turn up, after all where two or three are gathered – which brings me back to those all important numbers!