Can liberals embrace the Growth Agenda? Part 1 of 3

by Guy Elsmore - Originally posted on modernchurch.org.uk

The Church is in trouble.

The Archbishops have written recently to all the clergy in the Church of England appealing for a national wave of prayer for evangelism in the week leading up to Pentecost 2016.

I recently ran into a colleague who leads a popular leadership training module which aims to support Church growth. He’s run off his feet with demand. ‘The Dioceses are desperate’, he confided.

Small wonder. The attendance statistics continue to show the familiar 1%, or thereabouts, annual decline. The annual figures, in fact, lull us into a false sense of security. The figures the national Church and Diocesan offices are looking at include congregational age profiles. These tell an even worse story. The Church of England is approaching a demographic cliff-edge, as the average age of congregations approaches the average age of mortality.

Even on the most wildly optimistic of assumptions (that we will all manage to attract an additional 3% membership, year on year) the mortality stats and the numbers leaving more generally mean that we will, in 25 years’ time, have a national Church with around a third of the current attendance.

Little wonder the Dioceses are desperate to help us all think about Church growth.

Speaking at a recent Council meeting of Modern Church, Professor Elaine Graham accurately observed that liberalism is all too often a critical, rather than constructive agency within the Church. I agree wholeheartedly.

Of course, there can be much to criticise! However, the urgency of the hour calls us to go beyond what may be justifiable criticism of the many specks in the eyes of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion and to attend to a plank of our own.

High time for the liberal end of the Church to think again about Church growth and what we might bring to the table. We have for far too long stood by, offering theologically and sociologically informed critiques of Alpha Courses, Fresh Expressions, Natural Church Development and the rest and often with good reason. The time has come, though, to move beyond our ability to offer an informed critique and instead to offer some alternatives.

In some ways, Modern Church is beginning to do this already. I am delighted that ‘The Modern Church Course’ – a liberal alternative to the Alpha Course is in the midst of being edited - early copies should be available for beta testing this Autumn.

However, I think we need to go much further and begin to bring our theological tradition and practise to bear on the issue of Church growth much more explicitly. If we don’t, there won’t be a Church left to criticise – and then where would we be!

Liberalism’s reputation as a party of opposition comes from a deep seated desire to rid the Body of the Church of all forms of exclusivism and phoneyism. We liberals tend to be passionate about our quest for authenticity in doctrine and praxis. Can we take these and other liberal virtues and apply them in a positive sense to the task of Church growth? What is there in the liberal tradition and in the liberal theological mind which might in fact be helpful in the process of seeking to counteract decline and in helping the Church to reconnect with the society around it?

This, by no means exhaustive, list of liberal attitudes which might contribute to the Growth Agenda numbers eight. In the limited space available for this article, here they are, with a little comment offered for each one.

  1. Liberalism doesn’t suffer from excessive anxiety. This article is premised on the fact that, where numbers are concerned, we might have something to be anxious about. Nonetheless, liberals are generally fairly non-anxious types, unfazed by lack of immediate success. This is a gift to a church of headless chickens ‘doing something because something must be done’. If we can engage confidently and non-anxiously with this agenda, we have much to offer.
  2. Flexible thinking is sewn into the woolly jumper of liberalism. We love to rethink orthodoxies and think about new ways of explaining and applying theology. In an age where the tramlines of tradition by-pass almost everyone outside the church, such flexibility of thought and expression could be an exciting part of reconnecting with wider society. Liberals embrace ambiguity as a virtue to be celebrated, rather than a vice to be eliminated.
  3. Inclusivity is at the heart of modern liberalism. We have been defined in recent years by our support for women’s ordination and episcopal ministry and for our work on LGBT rights in society and in the Church. Seeing all people as made in the image of God is at the heart of it all and so we are deeply in touch with mainstream society. We represent a ‘detoxified’ brand of Christianity which many currently outside the Church may be ready to listen to and to take seriously.
  4. Theological creativity is a core liberal attitude. As the UCC Advertisement of a few years ago put it, ‘God is still speaking’. We don’t believe in a finished theological canon. Rather, as the arts and sciences reveal more about humanity and the world we live in, so the revelation of God deepens and changes. Liberal theology is a supremely creative act -bringing together (as Saxbee puts it so well in Liberal Evangelism) the needs of the world and the riches of Christian tradition, and in so doing discovering something new about both.
  5. We are proud to be ‘all things to all people’. I have already alluded to the traditionalist critique of liberalism as ‘advanced wooliness’. However, being ‘all things to all people’ has a fine biblical basis and is, in an age where the church is speaking simultaneously to many cultures, exactly what is needed. One size no longer fits all and being non-dogmatic in an age which, for the most part, eschews dogmatism, is a huge strength.
  6. Listening before speaking is (at our best) is another liberal habit. If we begin on the territory of ‘the other’, rather than our own ground, we are far more likely to connect.
  7. It’s all about Life before Death. Often the Christian tradition has fixed on Christianity as being mainly about the business of salvation, life after death and all that. Liberalism sees the Christian Way as far broader, concerned as much with this life as the next, with justice and peace in the here and now. This connects strongly with an age where existential questions are receding in the popular mind.
  8. An optimistic view of humanity and the world. The tradition has so often spoken of original sin, total depravity and the human inability to help itself. By contrast, liberal instincts go toward original blessing, appreciative thinking and the giftedness and grace found in places far beyond the church and the elect. Such a mindset is well equipped to make life-giving connections in evangelism.

So what might all this look like in practice? Stay tuned for the next article!

Meanwhile, a poem…. Interview by Sydney Carter

Where have you been all day?
Fishing with question marks.
The fish I caught
are piled up in the basket.
What I seek
is deeper than the water.
Where have you been all night?
Travelling past the flesh,
beyond the bone,
until I came to nothing.
Back again
I travel in the morning.
So what do you believe in?
Nothing fixed or final
all the while I
travel a miracle. I doubt,
and yet
I walk upon the water.
That is impossible.
I know it is.
Improbability
is all you can expect. The
natural
is supernatural.
Where are you going next?
Like you, I ask that question.
I can only travel with the music.
I am full
of curiosity.