Positive Church

One of my ‘extra-curricular’ activities (i.e. non MA work) is being a part of the Transformational Index team. I’ve had a loose association with the TI for a couple of years, as it’s a project that’s emerged from the incubator of Matryoshka Haus (the missional community in which I have many adventures), but it’s only been since last summer that I’ve officially been on the team.

The TI “is a tool that helps organizations to quickly identify their intended social impact and to measure progress in a way which balances a commitment to values with a focus on results.” Coming from a research background, I’ve been interested in it for a while – helping people measure things using methods other than straight stats is a bonus for someone who worked as a qualitative researcher for three years!

TI in action

Last week, we had a team gathering at which each member gave a TED style talk on a subject designated them according to their interests and specialities. I was allocated ‘measuring positive change in UK churches’, which sounds daunting, but actually enabled me to get on one of my high horses…

Using traditional forms of measurement, the church in the UK exists within a negative narrative. The numbers often seem damning:

  • The 2011 census showed a drop from 72% Christian affiliation in 2001, to 59%.
  • Since 1960, Church of England Sunday attendance has dropped from 1.6 million in 1968 to 800,000 in 2013. [Source: 2013 Statistics for Mission, p.6]
  • In 1980, Methodist membership stood at 600,000. In 2013 it was 209,000. [Source: 2014 Statistics for Mission, Methodism in Numbers.]

Within these reports (if reading statistical reports is your thing) are some positives. The Church of England has seen a big increase in worshippers at cathedrals. Mid-week attendance in both denominations has also been on the up. In recent years, the stats process has started including initiatives that fall under the banner of ‘fresh expressions’ (an ecumenical effort to find ‘new’ ways of being church) – many of which have connected with people who wouldn’t otherwise have connected with church.

The problem is that if we ONLY use stats to measure change in the church, the negative narrative is easy to fall into. Simply counting numbers in the pews on Sundays or midweek isn’t going to demonstrate the positive impact that a church might be having upon its local community. Knowing how many have signed up to an Electoral Roll doesn’t give any insight into the spiritual journey individual worshippers may have been on.

If we only use stats showing church attendance or membership, we’re also making an assumption of what ‘success’ looks like. It’s not so very long since the Archbishop of Canterbury got into hot water for stating:
“The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches,”

What does ‘growth’ look like? Is it bums on seats? Hearts changed? Number of interactions with local residents? And what about ‘good’?? When we make measurement simplistic, we’re not really measuring what matters.

Whitby Abbey

If you’re a church-y type, and you care about such questions, I’d like to propose two things:

1. Think about what ‘good’ looks like in your context. What is important? How could you measure that effectively, beyond just the statistical obligations.

2. Step beyond the negative narrative simple statistics (and the world!) might say about the church. Find the qualitative data that speaks against it – the individual stories of change; what your context looks like; and where the positives are.

Those positives aren’t very difficult to find. Another piece of recent extra-curricular work has been some research into fresh expressions of Church in London Diocese. This isn’t the time or place to go into that research (my bit was just the preamble to a much bigger project), but suffice to say that simply gathering a list of such initiatives provided numerous examples of positive change – of churches re-opened after years closed; of innovative ways of connecting with young families; and a high level of creativity and hope.

This might seem like a slightly random blogpost (especially after several weeks absence), but having shared my thoughts on this topic with the TI team, I felt they needed a wider audience. Don’t let negative statistics determine who or what the church is. Get positive!