It's fascinating to read research used and abused in relationship to church decline and growth. Initiatives for growth like, even want to be, based on data about 'what works' as well as impressionistic accounts and subjective preferences regarding decline and growth.
It's particularly interesting to read, therefore, a critical view of an Anglican Church growth initiative, specifically Mark Hart's statistically informed warnings about causality, reverse causality and lack of impact using the fuller report of the bedrock research that lies behind the more fanciful and wishful use of the research by a Church growth initiative.
The Church Times produced a very useful summary of this article here.
There is the actual research by a team from the Institute for Economic and Social Studies at the University of Essex, led by Professor David Voas with a fuller report of it obtained by Mark Hart in September 2014 than the one placed on the Church Growth website that accompanies From Anecdote to Evidence published in January 2014. The issue is whether the optimism of the report and the Synod task group based on it justifies finding £100 million over ten years. See Mark Hart's piece for the references through.
The Unitarians had their General Assembly recently, in a posh hotel where I'm told it cost £3.60 to have a crap cup of coffee and a bottle of wine was extortionate, which people failed to drink. There was a sense of money swilling around and expense accounts. The denomination, despite decades of initiatives, fell by some 8% in two years: even around the 5000 mark all told it continues to dive bomb. The dead keep dying, there are people who drift away, and those that join are not keeping the numbers up. Some congregations continue to exist on tiny numbers in the hope of the bounce that some others have experienced.
And there are some congregations that grow nicely with steady numbers, where live rather than dead money can pay for professionally trained ministers.
Everyone wants in on the magic formulas of the successful congregations, and the successful congregations tell us that they prioritise growth in both number and quality, through nurturing leadership, involvement, a sense of purpose and identity (that might be less in range than the denomination's range of theology and ecclesiology) and co-ordination, often via a minister.
I don't buy it. It is the places that are growing, and can, that then say they have prioritised growth. A place in an identifiable town centre surrounded by evangelical churches of various denominations is more likely to grow. It has a more Christian identity that therefore attracts those that will fall out from the competition. A church in an urban sprawl offers a minorities agenda and is progressively humanist and attracts people that seek out such speciality, and they put on events that reinforce this cultural identity and their made community. Or take Ireland with its anti-Catholic cultural fall-out, and the attraction to a church representing a new, young, progressive culture. The failure, say, to grow Dublin Unitarian church would surely be catastrophic.
The one person I know about is me. I'm not typical, but me by me is solid qualitative research. So I was Anglican liberal from the off, interested in ministry, and realised I was beyond the shrinking boundary. So I was also Unitarian, and discovered an, in places, and beyond home base, narrow chapel subculture they could keep. The publicity and the reality didn't match. For a long time I have kept a marginal place and yet good attendance with Unitarians, being wary, although recently (if by necessity, but also choice) I have become more involved with voluntary tasks. But 2004 to 2009 I tried to be Anglican, and my research of me found me relating, yes, to a minister I thought I could converse with, and didn't regard me as too dangerous, but also useful in my danger (to shake a few things up), and so I crossed the boundary out of an evangelical rural parish into a broader Anglo-Catholic town parish. And there I added 250 webpages to the church website on its old magazines, and eventually led a theology group at "seminary level" presentations that I wrote. The clash with the minister was not actual or personal ever, but purely theological: he said he was not a liberal but held to the whole tradition 'as a discipline' even if it was all a story (not saying it is) whereas I was a liberal and selective. So he could blab out a creed with virgins having babies and dead men living again and I could not, and increasingly I was going through 'liturgical withdrawal'. Since I've been gone, the church has reportedly gone ever further up the candle and I just see that as a smokescreen.
Since then I've been Unitarian again, but still not a member and won't be. I have put up with the attacks and clashes, and as a result stayed the course whereas I might have withdrawn. I'm aware that I live in an associated charity house, but this is not dependent on my involvement. In fact the pastor has one such flat for the manse and I rent one bungalow, but a few residents only go to the trust service and Christmas service. Most are non-attenders anywhere, and elderly. Remember, most churchgoers are elderly, but most elderly are not churchgoers. Not any more.
My friends have no interest in formal religion, and it offers nothing but irrelevance and the superfluous. They see Unitarianism (quite properly, why not?) in social and economic history terms, and regard it as a middle class inheritance and reality that was as much socially harmful as helpful, out to embed itself in civic society. The Sunday School movement was a form of exploitation; the factories like the Greggs at Styal were just self-seeking exploitation wrapped up in self-opinionated self-justification.
I think church growth is largely random. It does come from people already interested, already involved for one reason or another. If those people have friends, or perhaps similar children, and if those people like to join things and do things, they can get involved. Some people are like this: they see few people and see an opportunity to involve. Some people also do warm to potential others to talk to, as if the church is a club.
A city centre church in a secular urban setting is a very difficult location and setting for any kind of growth. But a random event of trial attendance can lead to a bounce. It MAY make a difference that a minister is someone to relate to and if warm and directive can assist in the people attending again. On the other hand, there is also resistance to ministers and those who would call around and find out things you want to keep to yourself. There is an anti-clerical streak in some, or at least the intention to keep all churches at arms length.
I hear talk about developing loving communities. I don't buy it. I go where I go as much despite the people as because of them (and read both sides of that equation). I want to be friendly, and to be treated in a friendly manner, but I choose my friends and I don't seek a 'loving community'. If it became that, I'd run off. I don't believe it anyway. Basically it is a place to learn to get on with people we might not choose to be our friends, for example people who have contrary different political opinions to me. Loving communities do not suddenly start showing 'lights' that attract others in, indeed they are as likely to repel.
It is whether, what we are about, and this would be a critical and broad approach to religion, yet positive about religious practice, has sufficient appeal. It will among a minority, and probably indeed of the religious escapee, and perhaps those who want better than the dreadful RE in schools for their children (of which there are very very few).
So I'm with Mark Hart. Spend £100 million over ten years and you waste your money. It all comes down to the local 'chaos' (as in theory) of the random enquirer and whether the pick-up in terms of the chats they have after a service and perhaps with a minister cause them to again return. Some people will return under their own motivations. The odd enquirer and retired minister can work wonders. Can.
Older church models - women doing the donkey domestic work, men leading (a microcosm of comfortable, known, traditional society) - are dead in the water. That's the generation now finally dying off, and part of the old chapel culture I discovered and hated among Lancashire and Manchester Unitarians. Horrible. It is now individuals and just what happens. You bob along the bottom, as people die, and some visit and mostly don't come back (or very rarely), or you get an unexpected bounce. When you get the growth, things like groups and activities become possible. You then preach your growth, once you get it. When you don't, you can't, or it sounds hollow.