Getting past the growth/decline paradigm in mission
Growth is a good thing. Without it, nothing can live. But just as with economics, so with Christian mission, an unsophisticated binary understanding of growth and decline is damaging.
That growth as a sole aim in economics is damaging is acknowledged even by such an august body as the OECD in its 2020 report Beyond Growth: Towards a New Economic Approach. Its authors argue that using the bald measure of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to evaluate a nation’s economic performance obscures many of the complexities and negative impacts that its pursuit entails. (You might be interested to hear one of them, Mariana Mazzucato, discussing economics with comedian Adam Buxton on his excellent podcast here.) The negative impacts of a pursuit of such a form of growth are obvious – rising inequalities, reducing wellbeing, and environmental degradation. They argue for a ‘new conception of economic and social progress’ that includes ‘a deeper understanding of the relationship between growth, human wellbeing, a reduction in inequalities and environmental sustainability’.
What we measure becomes what matters
Since 2014, the Church of England has invested more than £360 million in mission projects through partnerships between Dioceses and the Strategic Development Fund (source: Church of England). The primary objective of this investment has been to bring about ‘the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church.’ (source: Church of England). Many of us who have had some contact with these projects will recognise that the primary attention is given in the evaluation of these projects on that latter form of growth. What we measure becomes what matters, and what we measure in the Church of England is numbers of people attending a Christian community's main act of worship, whether that be a parish church or a new Christian community such as a church plant or a fresh expression of church. Statistics for mission returns measure attendance.
I'm a pioneer minister, advocate and enabler, a fresh expressions practitioner and encourager of new expressions of Christian community across Cambridgeshire and West Norfolk in my role in the Diocese of Ely. At the same time, I recognise a current within these practices that sees them and seeks to deploy them as an answer to that terrifying inverse of growth: decline. Like others before me and since, I used to make the case for fresh expressions and pioneering by presenting charts plotting the decline in Sunday attendance in our parish churches. This demonstrated the need for us to do something differently and to – even if I didn't put it as starkly as this – claw back the numbers we had lost.
Christian mission necessarily involves us in seeking to share with people Jesus' invitation to follow him
This is still the dominant narrative in the Church of England today. We are all gripped by anxiety about decline and frantically grasping after whatever techniques offer us growth, whether it is investing in areas where we are already ‘strong’ or trying to kick start something new. It’s all geared to reverse a trend which we see plotted forward to our demise and save us from it.
So we are obsessed with growth. And again, growth is not a bad thing per se. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20 and the story of the book of Acts do make it clear that Christian mission necessarily involves us in seeking to share with people Jesus' invitation to follow him, such that some actually respond and become followers of the Way (as it is called throughout the Acts). But is growth/decline the only axis through which we might see the liveliness or the flourishing of Christian communities? Is growth indeed something we should directly seek after at all, or something which may, (or may not) come as a side-effect of our pursuit of something deeper?
Over the past eighteen months or so, it has been my privilege to work with a group of village parishes in the Ely Diocese. Because there is not, in the whole, much perceptible growth in those congregations, it is tempting to view them as being in decline. But that would be to miss the ways in which they are flourishing in their mission. They are, almost without exception, sources of life and vitality for their wider communities, helping to forge a sense of belonging and identity for the village. They are sources of vitality, wellbeing and, not insignificantly, often care for the environment.
We look to village churches as a problem to be solved when they might in fact be the very sorts of communities we need to be looking to in the midst of our current crises.
I wonder whether a focus on a narrow measure of growth might lead to similar harms for churches and communities in mission as the authors of Beyond Growth claim follows the economic obsession with growth. I certainly see an impact on morale, not just relating to the scarcity of stipendiary clergy in villages, but from an internalisation of a decline mindset, when actually the congregations of many of these churches have always been small. Their impact on their communities, when measured in terms of quality of life, community cohesion, care for the needy and care of the environment seems far beyond what the size of these tiny, faithful churches should expect to achieve.
In fact these Christian communities seem to me to be micro-repositories of just the kind of capacities that the authors of Beyond Growth want to see grown on the macro-scale. We look to village churches as a problem to be solved when they might in fact be the very sorts of communities we need to be looking to in the midst of our current crises.
In this, they might find common cause with small, fragile fresh expressions of church, which are often seen as failing if their numerical growth plateaus, when this might be the moment when they can have the greatest impact on their communities and when, if we look in the right way, they are at their most vital.