The Church in Today's World

Let me begin with three assumptions.

One, Christians need to meet together from time to time.

Two, when you meet, groups of 9, 90, 900 or 9000 are different entities in terms of functioning and possibilities: I am currently in a church with 900 different people in church on a Sunday. But I know well, and have been in, churches with many less than 90.

Three, God, not us, gives growth in the church. But he expects us to be obedient.


So with those assumptions I want to give you some facts from the Christian Research Association. Their findings about the state of the churches in England were published in January 2000. In simple terms they showed that both the churches in England and (for those of us who are Anglican) the Church of England are in a dire situation.

Most of the mainline churches lost one fifth of their members or attenders during the 90's with the Church of England declining by 23 percent. Church House denied it: they said it had only declined by 17 percent!

There is a slow collapse going on of the churches in England and that is the context for our thinking this morning. In 1979 5.4 million were in all churches on a normal Sunday; by 1989 that had dropped to 4.7 million; while by 1998 it had fallen to 3.7 million. Most serious of all was what is happening to children and young people. At the beginning of the 20th century 56 out of 100 children were in Sunday school. Now it is 4 out of 100 children.

But I have been asked to focus on the question: "Superstore or corner shop?"

So what are the facts as they relate to individual churches and their size?

The average Sunday attendance of mainstream evangelical Anglicans is 90 (with the average for all Anglican churches being 60).

But what is the profile of all English churches in terms of size? Well, a third (36 percent) have more than 100 in their Sunday congregation, a further quarter (24 percent) have between 51 and 100, and two churches out of 5 (40 percent) have 50 or fewer.

So two-thirds of the churches are "cornershops" or smaller churches with under 100. Of the one third of remaining churches (36 percent), 29 percent are "middle-sized churches" with 100 - 400 attenders. 7 percent are larger churches with over 400. And of these 7 percent 3 out of 5 (60 percent) are Roman Catholic.

What does all that tell us. Peter Brierley of CRA says it tells us this (I quote):

45 percent of Roman Catholic church attenders go to just 27 percent of its churches. 44 percent of Anglican and 41 percent of Free Church churchgoers attend just 11 percent of their churches. Putting this another way for the Protestant churches, half of those attending church go to just 15 percent of the churches …

[And here Peter Brierley quotes someone else] This comes as a consequence of "a disproportionately large number of churchgoers born after World War II preferring the very large churches that can respond to their demands for quality, choices and specialized ministries … [and] the replacement of the neighbourhood church by the regional megachurch ... [There is also]the growing demand for a high level of competence in the professional staff.

And it tells us that most of the churches in England are living in cloud cuckoo-land when they think of "ministry to a parish". A group of 60 people - the average size of an Anglican congregation - has to minister according to the Gallup Survey for ACUPA (the famous Archbishops Commission on Urban Priority Areas) to 10,500 people if it is in an average UPA and to over 8,000 if it is an average suburban parish – or the minimum of 3000 if you take Peter Brierley's figures.

One clergyman supplemented by a few volunteers cannot minister to such a number. It is as much as he can do to minister to the people that come his way (people in the Sunday congregation, wedding couples, funerals, baptisms and, sometimes, the local school).

There is no way such small groups can have anything other than a token relationship with those huge numbers outside the church. To talk today about 'ministering to the parish' in urban areas is meaningless (and nonsense). With a committed leadership, after ministering to one another, these small groups of Christians should be able to evangelise among some of their own friends and relatives. The clergyman may be able to make one or two other contacts outside the activities mentioned earlier. But that is all; and that will be quite enough. These are hard facts, and they need to be faced.

The problem simply is this: many, if not most, of the churches are not attracting sufficiently large numbers of people that can significantly affect their local communities. The parish system is not working. The small church system is not working in terms of 'ministering to the parish'.

The facts now have to be faced. Nor are these just problems for UPA's but also suburban ones, as the figures show. So what are the solutions? We must pray and we must plan. And two key strategies suggest themselves.

Larger Churches and Church Planting

First, we need to develop more larger churches in towns and cities. These are churches that can provide a wide range of programmes. They meet needs that cross neighbourhood boundaries; and they have multiple staff. And even when churches are unlikely to be very large we should work for more relatively large churches, that can sustain a small staff and have 200 - 300 regularly at worship. There seems to be a desire for this sort of church. It is indicated by the choices of worshippers.

If we take the Church of England, at present two thirds of all Anglican worshippers can be found in one third of the Anglican congregations on a given Sunday. Half can be found in 20 per cent of the congregations. A third to 40 per cent can be found in 10 per cent of these congregations

This tells us where Anglicans are to be found. The majority will be found in a smaller number of larger churches. So if our concern is with actual people rather than ecclesiastical units and ecclesiastical buildings, time, energy and money should be spent on developing larger churches. This is where manpower and money needs to be spent if our concern is with people and not the maintenance of institutions.

At the time of the 1989 Christian Research survey I analysed the situation in Newcastle - in the Anglican deanery of Newcastle Central. At that time one third of the clergy were serving half the attending membership (people who worshipped in larger churches). Two thirds served the other half (people that worshipped in smaller churches). It would seem that one third were having to put in more energy than the other two thirds. Such a pattern is inimical to growth. The larger churches are under-staffed; and the smaller churches are often over-staffed; as someone has put it, 'there is too much pastor for too few people'.

If this is so, these smaller churches will find it hard to finance their pastor. The result? Much of their energy will be diverted to 'fund raising' rather than mission. In the past there have been subsidies readily available from the centre - but no longer.

Of course, we must be careful before holding up very large churches as models for everyone. Certainly more of these are needed in urban areas. But most churches are not and will not be like these. This leads to the second strategy - church planting. This also is where time, energy and money should be spent.

Many are now seeing that as important in terms of getting the gospel out. And in terms of Church Growth we know church planting works, on average. That is to say, it is easier to give birth than to raise the dead! New churches do grow quickly. But - and this is a big but - they grow quickly to become viable small churches. Then many simply replicate the small church syndrome. By itself church planting will not be a long term solution to the re-evangelisation of our nation unless there is a vision of new small churches growing large.

And we do need larger churches. You can there have teams of full-time workers functioning together. They have economies of scale, usually a thriving music ministry and a strong youth work (children tend to prefer larger groups where they can find friends), more social effectiveness, more media involvement and (contrary to some suggestions) a healthy effect on smaller churches.

If you take the typology of the sociologist Ernst Troeltsch the larger churches are "church"-type churches as distinct from "sect"-type churches. That has nothing to do with sects like JW's (I hasten to add) but with the ways in which churches relate to the wider culture. It is simply that larger churches have greater social strength in terms of their local community. And evangelistically it is easier for visitors to attend a larger church than a smaller one. If they are seekers, they are often self-conscious. You can't slip into a little chapel of 35 people unnoticed. You can slip into a larger church. Of course, they need to be welcomed - but only to the level they want.

But you say, "It is all very well for you. You are in a larger church. What if you were in a smaller church?"

Small Churches Growing

How can a small church grow? Five preliminary comments need to be made.

First, we need to answer those who think that this sort of statistical analysis is improper in discussing the Church. They acknowledge that the Church is a theological reality; they acknowledge that it is a historical reality; but they are not so sure about the suggestion that it is a sociological reality. Well, grace perfects and does not destroy nature. The Church consists of redeemed men and women, but they are still human men and women both in their individual and communal lives. So principles of normal human interaction will usually be as true of the Church's life as they are of society in general. The distinguishing marks of the Church's communal life should be interaction by love and the fruit of the Spirit! Hooker once said the church is a society as well as a society supernatural.

Second, 'small is beautiful'. After all the 'small church' is one of the oldest forms of the local church. The early Church met in homes - (true, sometimes large homes); but many must have been 'small churches'.

Third, small churches can grow. It is often assumed that all small churches must remain small. This was not the experience of the small churches in the early centuries. Of course, some churches in areas of low or de - population may have permanently limiting factors. But for many small churches, under God, given adequate faith, obedience, self-understanding and strategy, there is no reason why they shouldn't grow.

The trouble with many small churches is this: those that have reached a ceiling and been small for some time, often have a low level of corporate self-esteem. As Lyle Schaller puts it:

'Frequently the members of these congregations see themselves as small, weak, unattractive, powerless, and frustrated with a limited future. That self-image often creates a self-perpetuating cycle that produces policies and decisions that inhibit the potential outreach. Their priorities are survival and institutional maintenance, not evangelism.'

Fourth, the reason why some small churches do not grow may be 'spiritual', but not necessarily. They may be biblically illiterate and spiritually dead. Schaller (again) makes this cautionary comment:

'After interviewing lay persons from over five thousand congregations including hundreds of leaders from small churches, I have found no evidence to suggest that the commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is any less among the members of the small-membership churches than it is among the members of rapidly growing churches.'

Fifth, we must not view a small church as just a church with a small number of people in it. A small church is distinguished from a middle sized church not so much by its numerical size, but by its social structure. A small church is fundamentally a 'single cell' church. Let George Hunter explain.

'A church that is essentially a single cell, in which virtually all the members regularly interact with almost all the others is rightly designated a "small" church. Multicell churches, where a given member interacts with some members all the time, but with others only occasionally or rarely, are not by this definition small churches.'

It is true that a number of 'small' churches 'stretch' their 'single cells' to a size larger than you would expect; but they are still large single cells.

So how do small churches grow? Answer: with difficulty. The 'holding' power of the small church is very great indeed. It meets some basic human needs including that for 'order' in life. This is because a small church is so often always the same. That is attractive and reassuring.

As the typical small church is an overgrown small group, it has certain priorities. It is these that make growth difficult. The members want a small group experience of face-to-face contact. They are not so much interested in 'goals', or a well managed structure, or 'programmes appropriate to modern urban needs'. They put a high price on the quality of interpersonal relationships. They will, therefore, resist anything that looks like eroding the strength of these relationships.

That is the reason why you cannot, in terms of Church planning, put a number of existing 'small churches' together and make them into a 'larger one'. It cannot be done just like that. And that is the reason why growth s hard. For the small church to grow, there has to be a trade off. Carl Dudley sums it up: 'A small church cannot grow in membership size without giving up its most precious appeal, its intimacy.' Its 'intimacy' is the basic satisfaction that everyone knows (or knows about) everyone else.

But let us assume that a small church has begun to face this issue 'head-on' and they are willing to consider evangelism as more important than cosy relationships, what then? How can it start to grow?

Of course, it is vital that the church is dependent on the Holy Spirit to guide and equip. Of course, prayer must be the context of every strategy. But there are four other strategies that can be employed in the case of small churches that want to begin to grow.

Four Strategies

Strategy number one is to encourage the membership to focus on Christ's 'Great Commission' (Matthew 28.19) that we should 'go and make disciples of all nations.' This is all inclusive and covers all those outside the Church. Few in a small church would really be motivated for growth who did not believe in the 'lostness of the lost'!

Strategy number two is to multiply cells. That will require a preliminary educational exercise.

The members of a small 'single cell' congregation need to realise that a multiple cell church can be healthy, whereas remaining a single cell church is unhealthy. It imposes limits on outreach! Being so 'tightly knit', it is much harder for outsiders to 'break into' a single cell church.

Nor, as we have already suggested, can a small church always minister adequately in a complex society and it usually will be very weak in regard to youth work.

And most important of all, the members of a small church need to realise that the values they so cherish in the small church can be experienced in the larger congregation. True, it won't happen automatically. There has to be conscious planning on the part of the leadership in a large church to ensure the maintenance of small units within the growing church. These can still 'hold' people. But experience proves that in a multicell congregation, each person can still be related to as many people as in a single-cell congregation. Meaningful fellowship can be maintained; and generally the long-standing members will continue to relate to each other.

Perhaps the easiest way of 'going multicell' is the creation of 'new groups' in the church. One or two members may start a Bible discussion group for outreach; or, as we have at Jesmond 'Food for Thought' groups - 'beginners Groups' over a meal. These are for people who either are uncommitted and are wanting to ask questions; or for people just become Christian and who want to sort out further some issues of belief; or for people who are already committed but want to go back to basics.

And there are other forms of new 'cell life'. Where there is a will, there is usually a way. Ken Moulder at Walkergate in Newcastle took on a very small dead church. He developed a new cell by planting a new congregation. The first service was the small cell of the old guard. The 11.00 am service was the new cell and is now the main service of what is no longer a small church but a middle-sized church with a small staff team. But it takes time, effort and training.

If your key leaders who could start 'cells' are always off to deanery or diocesan meetings or denominational meetings, you have a problem! In a small church it is usually just those people who have to go to such meetings - there is no one else to go. It is then a matter of priorities.

One of the difficulties a small church faces over growing is that the initiative to help often won't come from inside. In an urban area a number of the members of a small Church quite possibly will say, 'If I wanted our church to be a big one, I would be going somewhere else'.

Often the only hope is when the Vicar or Pastor has a turn around and a radically new awareness of the possibilities of growth. He becomes aware that Christ calls us not just to 'feed sheep' but to 'catch fish'. He sees that being a vicar and exercising leadership for growth is a very sophisticated and exciting task. He becomes enthusiastic about his small church growing. He realises that while principles may apply across the board, no two churches are alike. He has no intention of 'aping' the big church in the middle of town. But he sees the potential for change in his small church. Quite realistically he is not expecting it all to be different in the morning! But he begins to recognise the truth of the proposition that 'most clergy over estimate what they can achieve in one year and underestimate what they can achieve in five years.'

With such a 'renewed' vicar or pastor the small church has leadership for change. Otherwise it may have to wait for a change of incumbent. That is why strategy number three for small church growth is for there to be a new (or renewed) vicar or pastor.

Strategy number four for small church growth is to function 'properly' and to enable 'bridges' to be built. Let me explain.


Many small church people are not by nature 'evangelistic'. They are warm hearted and good at hospitality; but aggressive evangelism is not always their gift. It is not that they do not want to see men and women won to Jesus Christ. But they 'shiver' at the thought of becoming evangelistic.

'They balk', writes Hunter, 'because they equate evangelism with visiting strangers on their turf, verbalizing the Gospel and eliciting a response in one transaction, and then assimilating these responding strangers into their single-cell church.'

But one of the lessons that those studying church growth have discovered in recent years is that outreach to strangers is not the normal way for people to be converted and assimilated into the Church.

Indeed, what is being seen is a more biblical pattern of evangelism. Evangelism (or growth) is seen as a function not just of the individual but of the whole Church. As St Paul says:

'speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love' (RSV Eph. 4.15-16).

That has been my experience over the years. The quality of the care in the crèche, the condition of the toilets, the friendliness of sidesmen, the attractiveness of the flowers, the liveliness of the music, the effort put in by the vicar or pastor and other staff in preparing business meetings as well as the essential duties of the church in front line evangelism, preaching, teaching, pastoral care and appropriate social and political involvement, are all integral to the growth of the Church. And, of course, there needs to be a 'climate of love', prayer and expectancy for the Holy Spirit to work.

The goal, of course, is not to 'get decisions', but 'to make disciples'. Men and women have to be built up and helped to function in the local church, the body of Christ. Evangelism is, therefore, a 'total' process. But there should be many points of entry into the Christian fellowship and for commitment to Jesus Christ.

Growth obviously needs those with the gift of evangelism being freed to function. And perhaps more have that gift than realise it: the first qualification, many would say, is not the ability to speak but the ability to listen. You can then apply the gospel to 'real' needs.

Growth also needs 'new converts' being encouraged to evangelise. It is the experience of many that in the early phase of a new convert's life, communication 'bridges' with those 'outside' are still strong. In time, however, these old links weaken. But in a church where there is a continuous programme of evangelism, new converts are always replacing the old.

But does all this mean that the established members of the congregation, who do not feel 'called' to 'evangelise', are consigned to making the tea? No!

This is because more people are inside the 'orbit' of the Church than we imagine. For we are all in relationship with a number of people. Our Church decline is often due to our failure to use the 'bridges' that are quite open to each one of us. Indeed, it would be most unusual if there were not responsive people in our own existing networks of social relationships: they will be relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues at work.

Research has shown that most new Church members come through personal invitation. A Gallup Poll of churchgoers showed that 58 per cent of those who now go to Church regularly, first began going when they were invited by someone they knew. Conversely, 63 per cent of those who do not go to Church say that none of their friends or acquaintances has ever invited them.

Winfield Arn conducted a survey of 4,000 converts. He wanted to find out how they got into contact with the Church. His findings were these: three quarters of these new Christians were invited to Church by relatives and friends; about one in ten were attracted by the clergyman; fewer just walked in; about 3 per cent came through the churches' programmes or because of a special need or through a Bible study group by itself. Less than two per cent came through being visited by Church members.

Of course, programmes, meeting needs and all the rest of the Church's life is vital once a person is in relationship with a church. But the initial invitation is so fundamental.

There is a Mennonite church in Japan. This has been for many years the fastest-growing congregation of its denomination in that country. It has one principle of church growth - 'postconversion training'.

One evening every week for three months a new convert receives this training. It is done on a one to one basis in the new converts home. The convert's family is invited to join in if they wish (this is all part of the 'social network' strategy). For a few minutes each evening the trainer and convert list names of relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues at work. At the end of three months every contact of the new convert should have been identified. Those not in any church are then marked and the trainer asks: 'Which of these do you have influence with?' These are then made into a final list and are visited by both the convert and the trainer. The convert simply says what has been happening in his life and the trainer tries to explain something of the gospel. He then leaves a Bible portion or a booklet. The person is invited to Church or some special event. If interest is shown there is a further visit. The goal is for that person to come to a living faith in Jesus Christ.


Now, essential for all this - in a larger or smaller church - is leadership for growth. Excluding non-biblical theologies and an absence of prayer, humanly speaking the number one reason why we are not seeing churches grow in the UK is that we are lacking leaders. At present there are too few people who can lead churches to growth and to become larger churches. Because of general church decline in Britain together with the parochial system and current expectations developed during ministerial training, too few people are placed in, or socialized for, leadership of larger churches. Leaders of such churches need to be visionary and entrepreneurial. Yet present clergy selection and training systems, certainly in the Church of England, seem calculated to fail. At best they seem structured to produce shepherds of sheep rather than fishers of men.

In organizational terms any body of people (secular or religious), to succeed, needs four things going for it. And may I say here, of course, God can do anything in his sovereignty. He works miracles from time to time. But we shouldn't plan on miracles but on God's regularities. And those four things are: an agreed agenda; competent leadership; enabling structures; and client sensitivity. If you fail on any one of those, humanly speaking, you are in for trouble.

Now the church in general in this country has not got an agreed agenda. For the church that agreed agenda has to include agreement on fundamental theological issues. Praise God, that evangelicals are getting back to such an agreed agenda. For that we have to thank especially the Proclamation Trust, and, not the least, our friends from Australia in terms of biblical literacy and the Christian Institute in terms of key social issues. But I am afraid I hear some evangelicals think that all you need is then to get biblical preachers in the pulpits of our land and then encourage the congregation to write letters in support of Baroness Young and "bingo". Now all that is absolutely necessary.

But where does the bible ever suggest that being a good teacher means automatically you will be a good leader. Yes, in the church the leader has to be biblically literate and has to have teaching gifts. Leadership is by and under the word. Yes, I read in 2 Timothy that there have to be those who are "qualified to teach others". But being "qualified to teach" according to 1 Timothy 3 is only one qualification for being an elder or leader in the church. There are a string of other qualifications. Being a bible teacher doesn't necessarily mean you are going to be a leader.

But I hear people saying, "I must go to this or that theological college because it will make me a good bible teacher." Great. That is necessary if you want to lead but not sufficient. That is only one facet of leadership in the church.

We interview for jobs at JPC. We now have 20 on the staff and there are ten with teaching roles. For those we look for people with teaching gifts but also with the qualities listed in 1 Tim 3 and also with that spirit of "power, of love and of self-discipline" mentioned in 2 Timothy 1. We want people at Jesmond, and only such people, who can, yes, feed the sheep, but also fight the wolf. We don't want any "hired hands" who can feed the sheep, but when the going gets tough, slink away.

So Christian churches need agreed agendas (sound biblical theology); but they also need competent leaders (and that means today, leaders who can fight the wolf). George Barna sums it up like this:

'The vast majority of those who go into full-time ministry do so because they feel they have a gift for teaching. Unfortunately, the dreams of these young ministers are dashed once they [leave theological college]; they soon discover that pastors must fill leadership roles for which they were not trained, and which they often do not feel capable of handling.'

And then they become ridiculous caricatures of leadership. Some become the drill sergeant type who loves to be in control and who rules through fear, guilt, pressure and position rather than service and faithfulness to God's word and his people. As someone has well said, "giving orders does not make a person a leader any more than flying in an aeroplane makes a person a bird." And there are vicars in the C of E like this.

Or they become the robot type - these carry out tasks by rote, stifle creativity and set survival as the standard of success. Conflicts are covered up and new ideas are shelved. But the Christian leader leads by faith. Sometime risks have to be taken but with the intelligence to evaluate the risks and faith in God for the outcome. Some archdeacons in the C of E are this sort of "robotic" leader.

Or there is the monarch type - and a number of C of E bishops are of this type. These are the sort of leaders who, as it has also well been put, "have been elevated to a position of leadership as a career reward for having played by the rules, not as a ministry calling. These individuals assume that others will follow by virtue of [their] status and reputation regardless of [their] abilities."

And you can be a mainstream evangelical, a good bible teacher, but your leadership can be of these sorts.

But leaders who can lead to growth are the sort of people who are able to discover God's vision for the church (their particular church or group); to motivate people to get involved; to lead the way in amassing resources to complete the required tasks; to mobilize teams of leaders and gifted specialists; to help them think creatively about innovative solutions; to push them without over-pushing them; and to encourage them to live by faith with all that that means.


But after an agreed agenda and competent leadership, you then need enabling structures. And here we have a major problem. Certainly the structures we have inherited in the mainline denominations are disabling for the most part - nor is that an exaggeration. I have written about that elsewhere in my book Church and State in the New Millennium - it is coming out in paperback on Dec 4. I haven't time to go into that now.

But let me make this point. If you go back to the survey figures of Peter Brierley, in terms of church structure or denomination the only structural growth (or denominational growth) is that of the Orthodox and the New [or House] Churches. The Orthodox can be discounted in some measure as they have such a small base. They grew from 12,300 to 25,200 over 10 years. But the New Churches who are now twice the size of the URCs, bigger than denominational Pentecostals, nearly as big as the Baptists and soon will be as big as the Methodists - they grew from 167,000 to 230,500 - an increase of 38 percent in 10 years.

What does that have to tell us about structures and denominations? It tells us that we ought to be looking at these groups to see what they are doing right.

There is often an openness to the gospel, but Christians are not getting the gospel out. The institutions that we have inherited - the old denominations are not responsive enough to the changing world. Nor is a change in the message needed - of course, not! But we need a radical change in our structures, both locally and in terms of the wider church. And some of the New Churches have lessons for us, especially the ones in America – the so called "New Apostolic Churches". For a start, our denominational (and independent Free Church) structures are geared too often to the over 55s who are quite different from the generations below. For example, the over 55s still have "brand loyalties" - they will still shop only at M&S and keep to the same bank as they had as students. The younger generations - to use the phrases - the baby boom and the busters generations - have no such loyalties. They have no such loyalties, either, to denominations. This, of course, relates to my fourth essential for organizations - client sensitivity. The culture all around us is changing so fast that we simply cannot re-create the past. We have to be sensitive to our clients.

However, for my part I do not, structurally, want to loose all the good things from the past. I am committed to the Western Reformed Catholic tradition - that is the tradition of the bible as I understand it, the best of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, the leaders of the Evangelical Revival, Spurgeon, and Ryle. I am not willing to loose that gospel - the gospel those folk preached. But in structural terms I know something new is needed.

What do we do while we are thinking about these things? Answer:

'Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry' (2 Tim 4:2-5 NIV).

Back to top