They have found that attitude rather than theological tradition is the key determinant of growth. Our tendency has been on occasion to see churches with rigid doctrines that are growing and then excuse ourselves by saying that we demand more from those who commit to us; it is harder to be free-thinkers. So it is not all about evangelical churches with their Alpha courses. Growth is actually happening in churches with very different theologies and liturgies. On this evidence I see no reason why Unitarian and Free Christian churches should not grow. But as the report observes “the degree of intentionality behind growth is related to the likelihood of growth. Those [congregations] that have seen significant growth, it seems, have made structural changes in terms of leadership or “models” of church”.
These growing churches have a clear vision of their goals, and engage in “conscious self-reflection” on what it means to be both faithful and effective in their local context. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern to follow, however, three factors seem important:
• Pursing a deeper common life of worship and prayer
• An enterprising use of assets, including property, for mission
• A commitment to working for the common good with others in the local community
Attitude must underpin these approaches. Unitarians should be able to apply these factors to their local situation and I know some congregations are already doing so. This is where we can draw upon our own tradition of reason; we have never been afraid to look at the evidence and learn even if it challenges long held beliefs.
So let us not dismiss growth as simply an obsession with “bums on seats” but an opportunity to change lives. As Canon Archie Richie has written “an empty church cannot embark on any of the activities we rightly value; worshipping God, growing together, showing hospitality and acting for social justice”.
We certainly have the skills locally to reflect on changes in the demographics of local areas and how we can connect to the people who now live there. If we do not do this the evidence is that, especially in urban areas undergoing rapid social change, we will slowly fade away. Community organising has proved to be one way to change the focus in a congregation – especially in developing new leaders through action.
So are we “missing a trick?" “Next Steps” has reinforced that our 2020 congregational growth programme should be expanded and more new or rekindled congregations established, what others call “church planting”. Without this all the evidence from many studies is that decline will not be reversed. So are we willing to reflect, learn, change and adapt.
This blog first appeared in The Unitarian (October 2016) as "A View from Essex Hall"