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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 12

Yesterday, Olivia Newton-John. Today, the Rolling Stones. Mixed emotions, that is.After breakfast today, I helped another minister lead a communion service for the college body in the chapel. She had found some excellent material in Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson‘s book ‘Nothing Too Religious‘, including a powerful retelling of the institution of the Lord’s Supper that we used as a thanksgiving prayer.

An intriguing morning either side of coffee with Nick Helm, the Bishop of Sheffield’s Advisor in Spirituality. He lectured us on spiritual direction. Quite a lively debate ensued about the similarities with, and differences from pastoral care and Christian counselling. The second half was less lively, being a rather protracted history of the movement. That could have been shortened and we could have got into more meat, I think. But stimulating.

This afternoon, though, Phil Meadows once again led us into powerful and painful places, spiritually. His subject was Anabaptist Discipleship. He emphasised just how radical their rejection of infant baptism was, because it also conferred citizenship of the state. Rejecting it in favour of believers’ baptism was an act of civil disobedience. Hence, given the (unholy, in my opinion) alliance between the Magisterial Reformers and the state, vicious persecution followed. This was the first example of Protestant persecution of other believers. Phil shared with us two stories, including that of Michael Sattler. To hear the details of the persecution reduced some of us to tears: me for one. Hearing about their children just did for me.

Phil’s point was that we don’t have tongue screws attached to prevent us preaching the Gospel, so what are our metaphorical tongue screws? What things have colonised our minds and hearts to prevent us sharing the Good News, at the risk of lesser persecution? Clearly, the Anabaptists held strongly to believing that Jesus was Lord of all creation, way above all earthly rulers.

I was relieved we had a coffee break followed by the MA students having tutorials and library time. So I wandered out of college into the nearby village where I found a craft and gift shop. I shall be returning tomorrow with little presents for the family.

This evening, a session in which Stephen Skuce argued that what he called ‘evangelism in the power of the Holy Spirit’ – namely, evangelism where there is a clear demonstration of God’s power (for example, healing) – is the normative form of Christian evangelism. Another debate on that one. Nobody here seriously doubts that God can and does work in that way, but an interesting and passionate discussion about the relationship between evangelism and signs and wonders, also bringing in the question of large-scale missions versus one-to-one sharing. We covered a lot of ground.

In between all this, I seem to have earned the reputation as the techie on the course for the week. I have been in demand to help people with what to me are simple tasks, but which to others are daunting. Installing a Java update and uninstalling earlier ones for security reasons. Discussing phishing emails. That kind of stuff. I’m only too conscious of those friends who know far more about this than I do, but I’m glad if I can put my moderate knowledge of the area to use in helping others.

I shall be leaving here after coffee tomorrow. The MAs have a final question and answer session, but there’s no point in me staying to that if the consequence were to be hitting the M25 at Friday rush-hour time, so I’m looking for an earlier getaway if I can. I shall be said to leave behind the teaching and spirituality of this place and the people I’ve met. However, I’ve missed Debbie and the children, and I’m looking forward to a happy reunion.

Sabbatical, Day 11

First of all, a bit of techie stuff: late last night I finally succeeded in installing Ubuntu Linux in a separate partition on the hard drive of my laptop. Previously, I’ve managed to install it within Windows using ‘wubi’ on our desktop, but that PC always protested regarding a separate installation. Anyway, I saw a suitable hand-holding article in Computeractive magazine in a newsagent last week. I bought it and it came in handy yesterday evening. So now I can have some fun.

Or so I thought. Ubuntu doesn’t recognise the wireless receiver in the laptop, so I can’t connect to the Internet through it while I’m here. Windows Vista only for that task. I’ll be able to use it when connected via an Ethernet cable to our router at home. Not exactly the flexibility you hope for with a laptop, but at least there is an operating system that will to some extent substitute should Windows ever fall over or crawl in RAM.

Anyway, to change the words of Olivia Newton-John, let’s get spiritual. The lectures have been extraordinary today, right from the get-go. Phil Meadows could hardly read a quote from Samuel Chadwick at the beginning of our first session this morning without weeping. A lecture that began in prayer ended in prayer, with some overcome by the power of the Spirit. A constant theme today has been pain at people in church not receiving Gospel basics. It hasn’t been the judgmentalism of such people that can be found in some evangelical circles: it has more been an agony. And the recurring response has been that we are just as free to proclaim the Gospel as we always have been, but with it we are free to be persecuted. There is a constant historical thread that people who have initiated reform or renewal in the church have done so from the margins (how postmodern is that? If you’ve followed my Starfish and the Spider posts, you’ll have seen it recurring there) and have suffered for doing so.

After lunch we had the coffee and cakes I mentioned yesterday. I ended up sitting again with Stephen Skuce, talking about all sorts of things from family to church life to – yes, the question of a PhD again. I shared a particular misgiving I have about the idea. Not the money: we’ll pray about that if it’s right. But I’ve been deeply concerned about motivation. I don’t want to explore this if it’s just an ego trip to get more alphabet soup after my name. Stephen encouraged me that there might be a number of worthy reasons for pursuing one. I really wasn’t ready for these conversations. Suddenly these ideas are accelerating and I’m thinking ‘Oo-er’. Clearly, I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth on Monday!

Well, I’m going to draw this to a close in a moment. I’m typing this whilst taking part in a chat with three other students about children’s openness to God and other aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Also, someone wants to find the Lego Gospel on the web and have a look. There are a few possible sites she might mean: The Brick Testament, this YouTube clip

or maybe this site.

See you tomorrow.

Sabbatical, Day 10

Two miracles in the last twenty-four hours: first of all, I slept well last night. Moving the bed away from the wall helped. I still can’t understand why the college thinks it’s a twin room, though. Not unless Snow White was moonlighting as an architect for friends. Thankfully, I’m alone in the room.

Second miracle: a meal tonight in the refectory that actually came with vegetables. After three consecutive meals accompanied by salad, this was a cause for thanksgiving. Not that the salads were bad at all – they were fresh and edible – but it’s good to have some balance in the diet. Besides, excess salad while snow is still around seems a tad strange.

Lectures have been good today. Two this morning from John Finney, the retired Bishop of Pontefract on the subject of personal and church renewal. Wisdom from an experienced church leader.

Two later from Stephen Skuce, the postgraduate tutor here. Controversial and provocative. He thinks the British church is done for, rather like the North African and Turkish churches of past centuries. We need to learn survival strategies, he says, in the way that the Chinese and Russian churches did under communism. He sees the emerging church movement as a group of lifeboats getting as far away from the sinking Titanic of the mainstream church as fast as possible. However, he thinks there are only twenty emerging church congregations in the UK. He should be in a position of authority on this, as Cliff College is the only place in Europe to offer an MA in Emerging Church studies. He doesn’t rate the idea of the ‘mixed economy’ church advocated by Rowan Williams as part of the Fresh Expressions movement. Fresh Expressions don’t generally count as emerging churches – I think I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.

Tonight he taught for an hour on William J Abraham‘s book ‘The Logic of Renewal‘. As much as anything, though, his purpose was to show the MA students how to research an author and a book. He happened to use a book that is on the theme of the week. It was interesting to see the students being taught these methods.

This evenng, I’ve been indulging my pleasure of offering technical support to someone with her laptop. I managed to get her wirelessly connected when the computer was hiding from doing that. I’ve also been listening to nervous students who’ve had tutorials today where they’ve had to present ideas for their next assignments. I made a suggestion to one woman about a possible book, but the tutor ripped the proposal to shreds.

Tomorrow, two of the students who will soon be celebrating ‘significant’ birthdays will be treating the rest of us on the course to coffee and cakes at the village tea rooms.

Plenty of other students tonight are watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine on DVD on a large screen via a digital projector. Me, I’m typing this instead. Sad? Maybe. Now, then, everyone together: “There’s Klingons on the starboard bow …”