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Is Big Always Beautiful?
Goliath 1, David 0.
Here's a modern day David and Goliath story for you. In 2005 Ian Proudfoot, a managing director of a UK chain of independent grocers, took on the Business behemoth that is Tescos. Now Tescos hadn't threatened to lop off the head of any champion that Proudfoot could rustle up but what they did do was to send vouchers to 6000 local households for 40% off at their stores. Sales at Proudfoot's family owned store plummeted as a result and he accused Tesco of aggressive bullying tactics and took his complaint to the Office of Fair Trading. Here's where the David and Goliath analogy ends instead of lodging the stone fairly and squarely in the giant's forehead it just rebounded off the helmet - the OFT said Tescos hadn't breached the 1998 competition act.
Ah well you can't win them all and lets face it it's hard to resist the allure of consistently cheap goods and ever recurring sales offers. The economies of scale weigh in the favour of Tescos who can afford to undercut everybody else simply because they pay less for the goods they provide. And it's not just Tescos, in 2004 the New Economic Foundation produced its report ‘Clone Town Britain' which warned that chain stores were turning Britain into a conglomerate of ‘clone' towns with every high street in the land fitted out with the same shops, same fast food restaurants and same Coffee outlets.
Big bad brand church?
There's a parallel to be drawn with the monopolizing capabilities of the chain store and the growth of numerically large churches around the world. Now I'm not simply referring to the mega churches that boast congregations of 400 plus (which account for 4% of churches in the UK i.e. 4% of actual individual congregations but proportionately a huge 25% of the church going population) but any church between 101 and 400 in congregation size that can have a ‘sapping' effect on either smaller congregations or congregations that are less well resourced. This middle band - the 101 to 400 group - accounts for 26% of churches in the UK and 50% of churchgoers. (Brierley: 2006. 153)
Let me explain. Tescos growth can be compared to that of a Bindweed. The Bindweed is a plant that sends out shoots to strangle other plants in the vicinity and so consumes the nourishment those plants would receive for itself. It then shoots out smaller plants, which grow and reproduce the effect. So a big Tesco's opens drawing custom away from small businesses in the area and uses the profits for growth. It's a model that has been used to describe organizational approaches but has also been used to describe types of Church growth as well.
So a big successful Church attracts Christians who otherwise may have gone to a different church in their vicinity. The big church gets bigger and in turn will plant congregations in areas that make sense geographically i.e. the locales in which their church members are clustered. So some members may end up back in the area they've previously commuted from as a ‘clone' plant of the original bindweed.
Now I have no problem with this style of Church growth. And not only is it inevitable in fact it's vital for Church renewal - many areas do need plants that can be supported and sustained by a ‘mother' church. The problems occur when Churches have no mission mindset and so have no desire to ‘plant out', or if the church that's growing is deliberately aggressive in its growth - for instance is not communicative with the churches in the area it's planting in to, or, obviously, if what's being replicated produces more weeds in the Kingdom than fruit.
But whatever the reason for this type of growth it's bound to have repercussions on how the Church overall grows. We are now in a unique place in terms of history for the ‘Bindweed' model to become dominant and, as we'll get on to, youth work plays a key factor in this. So why is today's context particularly primed for such growth?
1. Hyper-mobility and the decline of traditional denominations
Yep, sounds like a book title in its own right but I'll try to keep it short. Migratory church growth is at an all time high because of the twinning of these two. Firstly we've never been more socially mobile. We come into contact with more people in the average week than a medieval person met in a lifetime. We travel three times further today than we did in 1952 and in 2001 we reached a rate of over 1.5 million housing transactions per year. As we're more mobile it means if we don't like the church we're going to we can travel to another one within commuting distance. Also if people are constantly on the move that means they're also having to choose new churches to go to, in effect there's a massive filtering process going on with the church population precisely because it has become so mobile. Imagine iron filings clumped around a magnet being suddenly set free to be attracted by bigger and better magnets - that's the effect of hyper-mobility.
Adding to this is the fact that there is now less loyalty to traditional denominations. Increasingly we choose churches not on the basis of a particular doctrinal stance but according to our own criteria. This is not necessarily about a consumerist approach to church - church shopping as it's frequently called - it's also down to the fact that we're doing unity better.
There's far more cross denomination co-operation than ever before. Festivals such as Spring Harvest and New Wine have encouraged a broad cross spectrum of denominations to rub shoulders. When it comes to denominations Christians have found out that what unites is greater than that which separates us.
This factor is only going to play more of a role in the future. Young people working side by side at mission festivals like NE1 who worship, learn and do social action together are, thankfully, going to grow up realizing we're all part of the same family.
And this is only being further emphasized by the growth of ‘Kingdom' teaching, we're all being encouraged to see that we're citizens of Heaven first, members of our own particular denomination second. Also new disciples either don't know, don't understand or don't care about doctrinal differences so they are unlikely to factor in to how they do or choose church.
Another factor in eroding the influence of the denomination is the impact of para-church organizations and in particular the resources they produce. Publications produced are aimed right across denominations in order to appeal so whether it's Sunday school outlines or small group studies they don't display a particular doctrinal bent. Christians in the UK now follow a much more common creed whether we acknowledge it or not.
So thanks to hyper-mobility, we're no longer ‘bound' to go to the church down our street. And thanks to denominations having less of a hold on us when we move to a new area we are no longer ‘bound' to go to the church we may have attended in our youth.
Also a less positive repercussion of the big festivals that can influence choice of church is relative deprivation. Relative deprivation means that you don't feel you've been deprived of something until you compare it to what everybody else has. As Tim Booth once sang in 90's student anthem Sit Down, ‘If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor.' We could live with the teaching/ worship/ Kid's work at our church until we saw what truly great teaching/ worship/ Kid's work is like at the big festival. Is this what starts people on a search for a different church, or at least influences what they look for in a church when they move to a different area?
2. The youth work factor
Two fifths of churches have no work among those under 11, 50% have no work with those aged 11-14, and three-fifths no work with those aged 15-19. So you've moved into a new area with your young family. Do you go to the church within a mile of your house that has no youth work or the church twenty minutes drive away that has youth work? Who can blame you, in a society where Christianity is becoming marginalized, if you want your children to go to a church where they can mix with believing peers? And children are obviously happier in a church where there are children. In an increasingly child-centered culture, as one parent told me, parents are happy with a church when their kids are happy with a church.
Or you're a youth worker fresh out of college. You go for an interview at a church that's paying 16k a year, no accommodation and there are only a handful of people under the age of 20. The Church, of course, wants you to ‘grow' their youth work. But wouldn't that be easier to do at the church down the road that had 30 teenagers, was offering 20k a year plus accommodation, and where you'd be joining a team of Senior pastor, assistant pastor and a family worker?
Partly this is a question of critical mass. Stakes are high, youth work is becoming increasingly mission focused because we've recognized that there are so few young people in contact with the church. So do you exert time and energy trying to turn around a church with few youth or do you lend your weight to a church whose youth work already has momentum? It's no wonder, that as a 2003 article in Christianity pointed out, that trends show that it's the churches with youth workers that tend to grow. And no wonder then that so many churches are on the hunt for a youth worker. Do we have to admit that the churches dependency on professional youth workers to do youth ministry has, effectively, crippled much of the church? We've encouraged the growth of youth specialists so much that churches without youth workers have little clue how to go about it and so their numbers end up dwindling?
Of course there are many other factors to be taken in to account and it's often because churches lost touch with their young people in the first place that the youth stopped going.
The continued rise of the Tesco Church?
So is this ‘snowballing' effect inevitable? Is it only the churches that are well resourced that are going to grow? Effectively yes but as I said earlier the bindweed model of growth is not inherently bad. Also it can be copied in order to provoke growth. Some denominations that have been struggling with numbers have stripped down some of their own resources in order to re-energize or lend weight to their churches that are either growing or have the potential for growth - it's a form of pruning back to provide the rest of the plant with more energy for new shoots.
Also with more co-operation across denominations and para-church organisations there is more potential for pooling resources: youth workers who work part time for a church and a schools work trust, Churches with smaller youth groups amalgamating their teenage work with other churches. This, in fact, is exactly what some independent retailers have done in response to Tesco's monopoly on the market: a group of Ironmongers in Cornwall banded together in order to compete with Tesco's buying power so that they could provide better value.
And if churches only grow with an abundance of resources then perhaps the churches need look no further than their own four walls to provide them. As Robert Warren points out in The Healthy Churches Handbook it was only when a Bishop threatened a church with closure that the congregation became so stirred up to do mission that they actually began to grow. This highlights the fact that if churches want to grow they cannot simply sit back and wait for the resources to arrive, neither can they afford to ‘lean' on the specialist, it has to be a team effort.
A mission focus is key to church growth as Warren points out because it seeks to empower the laity to do outreach and in so doing helps disciples mature. This is also borne out by a recent report on growth in the diocese of London. Currently 22% of Londoners regularly go to church. In a survey by the Church of England to find out why some of its Churches were growing one factor that marked them out was that they'd deliberately sought to appoint incumbents who were ‘expected to be not a parish pastor or a congregational chaplain but a leader in mission. The culture is to appoint mission - focussed, innovative and energetic clergy, able to work collaboratively in a team with other church members and release them into ministry.' Success then isn't dependent on the numbers we produce but the type of disciples we produce.
So there you have it. The Kingdom of God is not always about bigger but it is always about better. Perhaps it's not about being Tescos but about being that unique Delicatessen whose staff work tirelessly together to bake bread that people can't resist coming back for time and time again.
Jason Gardner is the youth culture researcher for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.