Last Thursday I went to a conference called “Evidence to Action” at Cutler’s Hall in Sheffield. The Church (TM) has recently published the report “From Anecdote to Evidence” having conducted some thorough research into church growth. I may write about some other aspects of the research and the conference but for now I will address a question I received on Facebook that was not addressed at the conference:
Have you had the “Parish system is dead speech” yet?
The perceived wisdom as passed from one practitioner to another is that the modern world has given us an upwardly mobile population who can and do travel to “consume” whatever they need. Supermarkets and shopping centres for example are outside of town and people are prepared to travel to get a loaf of bread or a TV. To extend this principle, they must surely be willing also to travel to get to worship.
There are two issues with this assertion:
Living on Bread Alone
People need bread.
Obvious isn’t it. Whilst people cannot live on bread alone, they can also pick up milk and potato waffles in the supermarket whilst they are there. Supermarkets are “selling” the things people need as well as the things they want – widescreen TVs and Spider-man toys… or is that just me?
The things people want and need are regularly advertised through massive national media campaigns. People are fickle and massive numbers of consumers change their loyalty based on branding. Coke is currently having a massive upswing in profits because “holidays are coming”. People are inspired to leave their sofa and get in their car and drive to Morrisons because a fat man in a red suit with a white beard told them that they need Coke. Here is the snag though, The Church ™ isn’t selling a product. The Church ™ is inviting people into a way of life. Hoping that people who don’t know that there is a God they don’t believe in to decide to leave their front room and go to a church five miles away is an unrealistic expectation. Mission is driven through relationships. Real relationships happen with the people you are with and that is the beauty of the local church – it is local.
With the assertion that we should move away from the parish system there is an assumption that everyone is able to easily travel distance in order to be part of a dispersed community. Unfortunately, many of our communities are not as mobile as we would like to believe. In many Urban Priority Areas (UPA), few people have cars. These are the communities with the greatest proportion of the people Mary sang about in the Magnificat. Many UPAs have large numbers of people who are living with low income or health and mobility issues. These are the poor and the marginalized and the very people the Church of England should be there for, not just those who are able to shop around for a good experience within driving distance.
Commitment to Everyone
There are many models of church. There are great big megachurches that people are willing to travel perhaps a hundred miles to attend. There are cell churches, monastic communities, new monastic communities and online church communities. There are already many models of church to pick from.
I am an adult convert and I chose to be part of the Church of England because I believe in its parochial nature. As the website proudly declares, “The Church of England: a Christian presence in every community”. This is what I long to see: Anglicans making a real commitment to the principles of English Anglicanism. A church for England. A church that is dedicated to serving the people of the whole nation regardless of their affluence, mobility or class. This takes commitment, a real commitment. A commitment to prayer, service and mission to the whole nation. This commitment is not to building a small number of large congregations but instead building authentic Christian communities who are living and serving in each part of the country. This means a commitment to parishes – to areas of the country. A commitment to each and every person of the nation.
Can we commit to being prayerful people on the mission God is already doing in our estates, suburbs and villages across the whole country?