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Sabbatical, Day 14

Valentine’s Day. Debbie and I had it all worked out. A nice day with the children, then we’d pack them off to bed at the usual time and share a Marks and Spencer’s meal. 

And the day started so well. The children had signed Valentine’s cards to Mummy. They had also jointly signed one to me. But then they derailed things.

For the better, I might add. This evening’s quiet meal somehow ended up off the agenda in favour of a family lunch trip to Pizza Hut. And since I had been away for five days until yesterday, I think a family meal out was probably the better option. Our romantic evening has instead become me clearing down hundreds of emails that arrived while I was away (no exaggeration – I’ve deleted four hundred) and Debbie doing the ironing.

However – in response to popular demand – well, one comment by Olive – here is some more information on what I sketched last night about ‘the life cycle of a congregation’. I don’t have time to rework this substantially, so what follows is simply a copy and paste from OpenOffice of the notes I made in Stephen Skuce‘s lecture. Therefore, please be aware that the structure of what follows is his, not mine. All that is mine is my attempt to record as faithfully as possible what he was sharing with us in the lecture. I went straight from this lecture to coffee and then drove home. There are some compelling parallels with a lot of church experience, but also some gaping holes, as he indicates in the section entitled ‘reflections’. But I hope they might lead to a useful debate in the comments below.

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A CONGREGATION

STEPHEN SKUCE

Understanding this helps us know where we are and help us diagnose what to do next. Various proponents can be found on the web, including George Bullard.

Western linear thinking – but much of life is cyclical.

Gene structure of a congregation (Bullard)

  1. E-factor is concerned with energising a congregation or group, such as a project within a congregation.

  2. P-factor is for programmes and schemes. A congregation that is to become stabilised and growing needs structures.

  3. A-factor is concerned with intentionality. The way a congregation expresses itself in mission statements, and how human and financial resources can be used efficiently. Specific goals, outcomes, plans.

  4. I-factor is concerned with inclusion. How are individuals and groups drawn in and assimilated into the congregation. How are factors like power and conflict handled?

Ascent scale of a life cycle

  1. Birth – high energy levels, organised around vision, or the charisma of the founder. So many ideas bubbling up they can’t cope. The need isn’t dreams and visions but needing to broaden the congregation in order to carry them all out. People are generally very unified in a church plant, because they have all chosen to be part of the project.

  2. Infancy – time scale of this move from 1 above is hugely variable. The high quality of personal relationships matches the enthusiasm. High level of inclusion immediately. Programmes not particularly developed or thought through: this is not a problem. One or two who were present at birth may have drifted away, however. Time needs spending to develop the sense of mission. Ministries start to develop – worship team, social caring project, etc. Distinct roles and places within the church, rather than stage 1 where everyone pitches in everywhere.

  3. Adolescence – energy levels high, focussed on development of congregation. Everyone busy. Early unrealistic idealism has been curtailed. Not completely seeing eye to eye over future direction any more, although not falling out. Early leaders from stage 1 are beginning to take a less active role. The church planters are moving off to start something else. Others have been burnt out already. Paid staff may burn out. Membership still needs to be broadened to cover a range of interests and different understandings of faith.

  4. Prime – by now comparatively a large and successful congregation with strong interaction between inner and outer members. Intentional and inclusive. Still working well for newcomers who join. A number of programmes, which are organised, visible and attractive. We are pastorally caring for one another. By this stage the danger of the dominance of one or more groups has started to emerge. Youth leaders and children’s leaders may conflict, for example. Separate roles become more important than the group identity. Starting to splinter. Conflict resolution skills need to be developed in order to keep things smooth. Overall the church still moves where it’s meant to be going. Visitors from elsewhere come to see good practice. Commitment levels and financial giving are both high.

Descent scale of a congregation

  1. Maturity – hard to distinguish from ‘prime’. The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking. Maintaining high standards mean that changes start to be questioned. Still a good welcome for newcomers, but those who are a little different don’t fit in so well. Church members very busy, just not quite so enthusiastic as they were before, because they’ve been busy for a long time. Members feel important and affirmed. Corporate vision of the church, e.g., mission statements begin to develop, even though they become an exercise in navel-gazing.

  2. Aristocracy – more like a club than a church. Busy but not energetic. People enjoy coming to meet their friends. They defend their positions and territory. Status and inclusiveness can be factor. Dwindling base of support as fewer newer and younger people join. Newer and enthusiastic members are not joining. Lost sense of mission. Nobody can recite mission statement, even if it’s on all the stationery. A need to restore God’s sense of purpose through the history of the church. What was our secret in the past, and can we recapture it?

  3. Bureaucracy – people are disillusioned and the good old days are no longer sought. If loads of kids turned up we wouldn’t have the leaders. People defend status. Boundaries. People are a bit suspicious of each other – why are you doing that? Several factors induce the suspicion, but the reasons are lost in the mists of time. Structures are rigid. Hope still exist if the silent or powerless can be heard. Change is possible with new leadership (not the minister, because that post has been changing, but rather the key lay leaders).

  4. Death – the congregation is all about preserving the past or the building. The building is of great historical importance and the community would miss it if it weren’t there. Despair about the congregation’s future – it’s not going to last but it’s going to last while I’m alive. A hospice church, allowing me to live out my life of faith in ways I like until I can die with dignity. No missional impact in the community. Doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. You can’t change the hospice church, where people are now so tired and old and can’t change that now. Alternatives for the building or mergers with other churches or circuits are considered. We kid ourselves we’re doing it for mission and growth, but we’re doing it to eke out another ten years of existence. Mergers are like two drunks staggering out of the pub at closing time, holding onto each other, but they can’t and they collapse to the ground. More chance if congregations are going to come together if all the premises are sold and something completely new built.

Reflections

  1. This may illustrate a relatively small congregation or groups and ministries within a large congregation.

  2. There is nothing inevitable about the growth or decline.

  3. It depends more on the spiritual leadership than on sociological factors.

  4. External factors, such as good or bad actions, can have a significant influence.

  5. The changes in the surrounding community are not included.

  6. Times of revival (as a God thing) are discounted in this analysis.

  7. Death is deserved if a church is apostate.

  8. What does the picture of the early church in Acts and more established congregations in Revelation 2-3 impact on this?

Bibliography

  • Bullard, G., ‘The Life Cycle Model’ www.bullardjournal.org. (2007)

  • Grundy, M., Understanding Congregations (London: Mowbray, 1998)

  • Saarinen, M. F., ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ in Action Information (Alban Institute, May/June 1986)

Sabbatical, Day 6

I haven’t really done any sabbatical work today. Friday is usually my day off, and I’ve kept it much like that. I think it’s good to keep the rhythm. So after taking the children to school, I stayed on, because on Friday mornings I do twenty minutes’ reading with a group of Year 1 children.

Late morning, Debbie and I headed into town. We needed some more bargain school uniform for the monkeys and struck gold at Marks and Spencer. Yes, really. Then we continued our recent habit of having a cheap lunch out together. Yates’s Wine Lodge (why do they put that extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe?) had a two-for-£7.95 deal, and it was good for the price. The downside was the company at the next table. Two young women with a pre-school boy. One was his mother, poor lad. All sorts of unsavoury conversation that youngsters shouldn’t hear. Debbie swears one of them got him to drink a mouthful of her shot. Some kids don’t have a chance.

Meanwhile, I have been following all week the case of Caroline Petrie, the Christian nurse who was suspended for offering to pray with a patient. She offered prayer, the patient declined, Mrs Petrie did not pray. The patient was not offended, but told someone else she thought it was strange. Next thing, Mrs Petrie is under investigation. She has previously been disciplined for offering prayer cards. The Daily Mail reported this on Monday,as did the Daily Telegraph. On Tuesday, the Mail reported support for her case from the Royal College of Nursing and the Christian Medical Fellowship. Today, the Mail reports her reinstatement, but – along with the Telegraph – also quotes a further potentially sinister development. The Department of Health published a document last month in which it warned that doctors or nurses who attempted to preach to patients or other staff would be treated as having committed harassment or intimidation under disciplinary procedures.

Furthermore, I have received a press release today from the Evangelical Alliance in which Hazel Blears, the Government’s Communities Secretary, told faith groups that if they accept money from the state, they must not use it to proselytise. They may speak about their faith if spoken to, she says, but clearly taking the initiative to mention it would be forbidden under a forthcoming ‘charter of excellence’. She then says she doesn’t want to strip away the very reason why faith groups show compassion! The Alliance’s Director of Public Policy, R David Muir, responded:

“The Government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.

“Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.

“But we are glad that the Government recognises how integral our faith is to the services we provide, and is open to discussion on this critical issue. We look forward to working with them.”

All round, then, seem to be threats against Christians making the first move in sharing their faith and using it to offer comfort and hope to people. Here are a few random reflections:

1. None of this should surprise us. Whatever the faith of Blair first and now Brown, the Labour Party runs these days on a fundamentally secular humanist creed. Let’s here none of that ‘the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism’ mantra. It may have been true in the past. It isn’t today. Christians should expect such opposition.

2. Nevertheless, none of that should stop us crying ‘foul’. All these cases are about discrimination against the freedom of religion the Government supposedly signed up to when it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. And while part of me is wary of the secular philosophies behind that document, the Government clearly doesn’t want to accept that sauce for the goose is a tasty accompaniment for the gander as well.

3. We also need to reflect upon ourselves. How much of this might we have brought upon ourselves through insensitive ‘witnessing’? Please note, I’m not saying Mrs Petrie was. I don’t know her, and the fact that she didn’t press on with a prayer for her elderly patient when the offer was declined suggests that while she is upfront with her faith, she is probably not the aggressive sort. Nevertheless, most of us know Christians whose demeanour in faith-sharing makes us cringe, let alone what the non-Christians feel.

4. However, an attempt to prevent us from taking the initiative is effectively a tactic to shut us up. I believe we have to earn the right to speak by loving, holy, just action, but that does not mean we cannot speak first or simultaneously as well.

5. The ‘public money’ argument is specious. It’s not Government money, it’s taxpayers’ money. And while we elect officials to use it, they are stewards, not owners. Do they think Christians should not pay their taxes? This kind of argument amounts to an attempt to strip us of our democratic voice.

6. There is a huge case of historical amnesia here. As today’s Mail article rightly points out, many of our hospitals were explicitly Christian foundations in their origin. In the church we would want to say more than that, in crediting the rise of the infirmaries and more recently the hospices to Christian vision. So to tell a nurse her faith must come second forgets the origin of much health care in this country.

7. Furthermore, no Christian can put her faith second. I am fond of telling the story of an elderly Local Preacher from my home circuit. He was interviewed for the post of Secretary to the local Co-Operative Society. “Where will you put the Co-Op in your loyalties?” the panel asked him. “Second,” he replied, “to the church of Jesus Christ.” I don’t think he meant that all his time would be spent at church, I think he meant that his faith would determine his life. He got the job, and did it well.

8. Nevertheless, putting our faith second puts us under suspicion in society. There is huge historical precedent for this. It’s what Daniel did, praying towards Jerusalem while serving faithfully in Babylon. It’s the centuries-long suspicion of Catholic loyalty to the Vatican. In the name of what is currently calle ‘community cohesion’, authorities call people together to a common loyalty that is effectively a secular creed. Hence other phenomena in our society today, such as the opposition to faith schools, or the legislation that has made it increasingly difficult to have organisations that are exclusively staffed by Christians. Do we cave in? The biblical answer seems to me to be ‘no’. However, that means accepting the consequences. We’re not remotely near the situation Christians found themselves in when communism ruled eastern Europe, but there it was well known that people of faith would not get on well with their careers and would suffer economically for their beliefs. Might we be seeing the thinnest end of that wedge here, or is that alarmist?

I think that’s enough from me. What are your thoughts?