Monday, 18 June 2012

Churches Booming Apparently

Sociologists of religion have, apparently, got it wrong. Rather than Churches being in decline, as the doom merchants and pessimists state, they are often growing and fast. The research demonstrating growth is endorsed by all sorts of leading figures in different Churches and denominations.

I have no idea what 'endorsing' research does - either it is good research or it is not. Research does not improve by being endorsed. But there it is: and, otherwise, the media, academics (even academics) and other Church leaders do not see the growth that is going on, because they don't want to see it and it doesn't fit the usual picture.

Then we find it's not quite so fantastic.

Growth has happened, at least in some places, at least among some identifiable (ethnic) populations. Right. Academics do know this. Growth has happened in London. Yes. Academics do know this. Churches have closed and churches have opened, in equal number. Think about this. It is a reluctant moment when a long existing church is finally closed. Many such stand on the brink and hang on. Those that actually close equate to those that open, and an opened church can be a fellowship, or a plant. Equal does not mean equal.

Main denominations are in decline. This is important. The bulk of churches, of Churches, are indeed in decline. So the kinds of Churches opening and growing are different in kind institutionally. Newer denominations indeed, and ethnic groups within them.

But what about London? The answer regarding London is in its function as a world city, with 'villages' of ethnic populations and a highly mobile general population. London is almost American in terms of how churches function as places to carry out community and social functions. You get specialist churches within denominations: every variety can attract a group of supporters.

Now the danger here is to wear some very rosy-coloured spectacles and start theologising. The idea, for example, that the Church of England could import a black African leadership to gain some sparkle simply does not make cultural sense - imagine the homophobia involved and there has been enough of that in the home-grown variety just recently, and very damaging it has been.

Asking what David Hope did as Bishop of London is a daft question. Well, perhaps he could have caused damage but the answer is probably nothing. The London phenomenon has an equivalence in the run up to 1913 in the denominations nationwide. Back then main denominations were doing well, north and south. Someone realised, however, that the population was also rising and churches provided education, leisure and welfare functions. But the labour movement and later the middle class withdrawal saw an end to that role in society. Today there is still an educational motive to attend church - to get children into particular schools - so that is equivalent to Victorian and Edwardian behaviour, but this is nowhere near as extensive. Churches have specialised and most church life is about doing religion, more around the core activities.

Indeed there are growing Unitarian churches! Some grow because they are in a location that reflects a geographical community, sometimes where the church alternatives are evangelical. Others are in large cities of fluid populations, so London ones can have both a radical and traditionalist old-style Unitarian edge. Yes it helps when they are well ministered and well managed, but the potential needs to be there.

The secularisation thesis is more robust than these Christian optimists would like to make out. As a general pattern of knowledge and activity, the secular and practical is becoming dominant. Churches are more sectarian in terms of people gathered into membership and activity. Secularisation may involve linear religious loss or a diffusion into civic religion and forms of degraded superstition (ghosts, luck, use of magick), but it is about the sociology of knowledge - the everyday and practical way people assume truths.

There is no magic formula in church growth. You can plant them, but whereas London is fluid, places like Hull are clearer versions of what is more typical. In Hull, evangelical churches struggle just the same as others. One very suburban west of Hull Anglican church does well, and there is a Pentecostal church that is going to try and expand. I'd be surprised if it gets many people from Bransholme. But whilst there may be handfuls of extra people attracted, there is rather more a circulating population of such already believing folk. Of course, any influx of immigrants, legal or illegal, will tend to increase church life as they become places to relate people to each other. The same is true of mosques and Sikh and Hindu temples.

None of this growth will reduce the need for the Church of England (and other denominations) to clip its wings and cease to be overstretched theologically. Its traditionalist Catholics are still going to leave, and the Conservative Evangelicals have a self-tendency to self-destruct even when they think they are on the point of managing their own success. It is a longer argument, but I also think in a tighter Church the more radical form of liberal will be very uncomfortable. We are already seeing this in the gay and women leadership debates and awkward processes: the fall-out is beginning, with liberal people actually leaving the Church of England on ethical grounds, but the demand will be to conform more as overt theological liberalism will be unacceptable in a tighter, narrower, Church.

If Church leaders and enthusiasts misunderstand the sociology behind where churches do grow, they will surely get the theology wrong. Making statements about Jesus being magnetic and the Holy Spirit being busy is frankly silly when there are good, researchable, sociological reasons for church growth and decline.

Goodhew, D. (ed.) (2012), Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, Ashgate Contemporary Ecclesiology series, Farnham: Ashgate; launched at Church House, Westminster on Tuesday 19 June, 5 pm - 6.30 pm. Cranmer Hall, Durham, Conference on 'Church Growth in the North', 2 July, where David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" Making statements about Jesus being magnetic and the Holy Spirit being busy is frankly silly when there are good, researchable, sociological reasons for church growth and decline"

Why? It's silly if Jesus/Spirit stuff is the only reason given, missing out the sociological and other reasons. However, surely theists ought to quote things this way, especially those who live in the platonised dual-aspect monism of most Christianity in this country.