Church Growth in Britain,
Ashgate, pb, £17.99;
David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts, Michael Volland SCM, pb, £19.99
The pattern of religious belief and observance in Britain is complex. There is decline but there is also growth. The picture of the inevitable march of secularisation painted by Steve Bruce fails to reflect what has been happening on the ground in many locations even if it contains a germ of truth as far as many mainline churches are concerned.
Linda Woodhead has emphasised the growth of new forms of spirituality; others have stressed the importance of new religions with Muslims easily outnumbering Methodists; now David Goodhew has edited a collection of papers showing that growth is also taking place in Christianity.
To a large extent this is a result of immigration. Black churches now account for over 500,000 members. Location is also important. London and Northern Ireland are the most religious parts of Britain with London coming to resemble an American city with the number of vibrant, flourishing churches on offer.
But these are not the only factor. Evangelistic strategies such as church planting and Fresh Expressions have been important. Protestants, especially evangelicals, are growing in Northern Ireland; Catholics hit by the abuse scandal are seeing mass attendance go down. Cathedrals are doing well.
The Diocese of London has seen more growth than any other diocese in the Church of England; just across the Thames the Diocese of Southwark is shrinking. Why? There is a chapter in Church Growth in Britain by John Wolfe and Bob Jackson devoted to London. They trace growth back to a number of decisions taken under Bishop David Hope when an effort was made to recruit clergy who would be leaders in mission, parishes were asked to draw up and implement Mission Action Plans, and Parish Share was adjusted so that it did not penalise growing parishes and cushion complacent ones.
The same book contains chapters looking at growth among Baptists, cathedrals, black churches, and studies of York and Birmingham. There are also chapters on Scotland, Wales and N Ireland. George Lings writes on church planting and Fresh Expressions. This is an important study that should certainly be read by anyone in a leadership position in the church. One omission is a study of ethnic chaplaincies in the Catholic Church.
On paper the Catholic Church does not appear to be doing well. Despite a large inflow of Catholic immigrants, figures for mass attendance are at best rising very slightly. What I have found it difficult to establish talking to Catholic authorities is whether the large numbers who attend such events as the weekly Spanish mass in Southwark’s Catholic cathedral are being counted.
Fresh is devoted to the Fresh Expressions movement. This is another book that will repay careful study from church leaders. Fresh Expressions have been criticised for relying on American missiological thinking and sitting lightly on important church practices but their critics may be guilty of ignoring the importance of culture. Fresh Expressions, like church planting, takes culture seriously. Inevitably the result is a degree of fragmentation with messy church, the Goths and those who like the Prayer Book at 8.00am all going their separate ways.
Fresh recognises the problem. The answer is a humble view of the local church and high view of catholicity. No local church is complete in itself but each one does have something to contribute to the whole. “Completeness is found in Christ and until Christ comes again, all churches will continue to be on a journey to full communion with Christ and with each other.”
The authors of Fresh see the dangers of ‘church lite’ but they also see the danger of Fresh Expressions being used as a recruiting ground for conventional churches. They worry that the church leadership is not fully committed. But they do point to important initiatives that are not only helping growth in numbers but also fostering new insights into the meaning of the gospel – one reason why evangelism is so vital for the church.