A moratorium on mission?

communicants roll

My introduction to irony came when I was but 7 years old, in the form of the title of the television programme. It was called: Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?

It seems to me that this title allows us a way in to thinking about something that’s quite difficult to talk about in many denominations including my own.

Here in this little corner of God’s vineyard we had a diocesan synod recently and in the company of others around the Scottish Episcopal Church we were asked to reflect on the diocesan statistics and to say something about what we thought that they meant.

It was obvious fairly quickly that few people wanted to get up and talk about what is very obviously not terribly good news.

Predictably, someone said that if we changed the way we measure the stats then maybe they would show that we are engaged with more people. Well, that’s true. However it is not really dealing with the question at hand. Some of the statistical records that we have got back over decades and are reasonably accurate. Indeed, I suspect the count we keep of how many communions each church has served is very accurate indeed. It is quite important, I think, to keep on recording the same statistics, even if in time, we decide that we want to know more in order to add something to our knowledge of what’s happening.

The plain fact is that like a lot of mainstream denominations, our stats are going down. It is also plain that this is not a universal reality. Some dioceses appear to be doing a bit better. And within dioceses, some congregations seem to be doing better whilst others are doing worse.

The whole point of gathering church stats is surely to try to understand the overall picture and see whether anything can be learned from them that will help people to plan for the future and make tweeks in our common life that might lead to growth – or at least starting to stem the decline. It is obvious that in this diocese at least, little that we’ve done in the last 30 years has made very much difference. We’ve had plenty of mission plans and plenty of decline.

One interesting observation that I’m looking at right now is at least worthy of investigation. It appears that those dioceses which are engaged in Mission Action Planning are declining at a faster rate than those who are not engaged in that exercise in Scotland.

Now, understanding why this might be so is rather important.

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Perhaps it is the case that dioceses that are facing a more challenging situation are more likely to engage in Mission Action Planning.
  2. Perhaps it is the case that the priorities set by dioceses in their Mission Action Planning are the wrong priorities.
  3. Perhaps it is the case that Mission Action Planning just doesn’t work and is in fact displacement activity that people engage in because it is easier than tackling the situations which lead to decline – something which is a very difficult thing to do.

The graph that I’ve posted at the top of this post is one that is causing considerable reflection here in the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway. It shows fairly consistent decline over decades. The only particularly significant interruption to a fairly constant pattern is a significant drop in the first couple of  years of this century. This could be because that period was just after the collapse of the Mission 21 initiative through lack of funds. It could be because this period also saw the retirement of Richard Holloway who had given the Scottish Episcopal Church a significant profile that has never been recovered since. And it could be for neither of those reasons, for some other reason or it could just be one of those things we can’t explain.

However it is also fairly easy to see that big changes in mission policy in the Scottish Episcopal Church have made little impact here in this diocese. We’ve tried to change the church so that the diocese is the focus of mission rather than having a Scotland wide policy and each local bishop is now thought of as the leader of mission in their dioceses. I’ve opposed that policy shift. Others have thought it was a good thing. Whether good or bad, there’s no sign in the numbers that it has made the slightest difference whatsoever. Similarly with the Diocesan Growth Strategy that a lot of effort has gone into here. Again, I’ve struggled with it as I’ve always thought the priorities were the wrong priorities. However my own views don’t really matter right now. It isn’t working regardless of what anyone thinks about it.

To some extent, we should expect the stats for this diocese to have declined anyway just through demographics. Glasgow is depopulating and the population of Scotland is moving East. We should probably expect to see a small rise in the stats for Edinburgh diocese that reflect this. It is also the case that we may be doing less badly than some of our ecumenical friends.

My questions at the moment are these:

  1. What lessons can be learned from churches which have been growing through this period against the trend? Are their priorities different to the priorities promoted through the mission planning tools that are often used?  (No-one ever asks me why we’ve grown here at St Mary’s).
  2. Why do we think anyone might want to join a Scottish Episcopal congregation and how do we communicate that?
  3. How do we develop a new ecumenism that allows us to ask openly:
    Who are the most likely people to come to repopulate Episcopal churches and what specific strategies do we have to attract and retain them?

  4. Should we be interested in thinking about the “market share” of those who go to church and how should we measure this?

My suspicion is that growing churches tend to have good music, good websites, interesting worship and look somehow out beyond themselves – so I find myself asking whether we could be learning something from that.

In other words, Why Don’t We Just Switch Off Our Mission Planning Schemes and Go Out and Make Our Churches More Interesting Instead?

Do we need a moratorium on mission for 10 years until we’ve done that?





  1. Lawrence Rosenfeld says

    Greetings from San Francisco!

    I am happy to ask:

    “Why have you grown there at St Mary’s”?

    • Thanks Lawrence – well, the things that I said were important at the end are certainly true for us – our music is interesting and loved and enjoyed by the whole congregation, the website and other online engagement still brings people in and the worship is interesting. People tell me that the worship and preaching are both hugely important to them. They also comment on the fact that the place seems both friendly and happy. (It won’t work for everyone, but no place works for everyone).

      I think it is also the case that we’ve been able to build up a profile that is based around our own ethos and values rather than that of the denomination.

  2. Stephen Ribin says

    i urge you to put into action your last points plus one significant extra. Encourage your parishioners to meet somewhere every day with one or two others and share a time of prayer. It could be in the morning over coffee. Or lunchtime in a restaurant. Or after work at a gym. Or in the evening at a pub. Just meet visibly every day and share a time of prayer. It’s a bit like fireworks, just light the blue touch paper and step back and let God be present.

    • I have never known a church to grow though having prayer meetings.

      • Aleks says

        FWIW, I was a part of a church for a while that great steadily (at least partly) through prayer meetings (this was in a college town in the US though).

  3. Ender's Shadow says

    You’ve not indicated what style of music you rejoice in. In England the Cathedrals are seeing steady congregational growth. This may well be that the quality of their music, combined with the abandonment of that tradition in most parishes, means that they become the only place where those who enjoy that sort of thing can get their fix.

    Or maybe the Cathedrals are doing something more worthwhile.

    As you say, we don’t know. However you might want to get some university students looking for a project to do a survey of your congregation – or even of the whole diocese by a group or at a higher level; 5000 isn’t an impossible number to survey. A well constructed web based survey might get a lot of replies, with the option of answering on paper for those who aren’t happy with the technology. From that you could get age, Christian background, national background, and some indication of why they are with you…

    • The music here at St Mary’s is mostly led by organ and choir, using an eclectic repertoire that is based in but reaches far beyond the English choral tradition.

      However, I don’t think that’s the point.

      I think that music that works is music where:
      1 – the congregation enjoys it at least as much as the musicians
      2 – the congregation enjoys joining in and the musicians enjoy the fact that they do
      3 – quality, quality, quality – no matter the numbers of people present.

      I think these things are more important than repertoire and style.

      • Ender's Shadow says

        Fair comment about what works with music, and given that, you may well be benefiting from the ‘refugee’ effect. I think however it is important to realise how alien that style is for many; the observation that classical music can be used to disperse loitering teenagers


        is a measure of this.

        Don’t hear me rejecting the ‘English Choral Tradition’ – but let’s keep this point in mind.

        • The choral thing is one of the strongest attractions for those teenagers who make a home at St Mary’s.

          There’s a band led church around the corner. I suspect that my three points apply equally to that style of worship.

          All music attracts and repels some people. It simply isn’t the case that band-led music universally attracts the young and choral music repels them.

          • Ender's Shadow says

            I absolutely agree it’s a mistake to generalise about ‘all teenagers’ – but we need to recognise the issue; for some on both sides the others’ music is HORRIBLE. Churches that want to claim to be ‘relevant’ to ‘everyone’ but have only one style of music present are deceiving themselves. That said it’s probably the right solution to appeal to one sub-culture rather than to leave all unsatisfied – but we need to recognise this as a choice with theological significance.

  4. In reflecting on why I attend church, I think it has a lot to do with public acknowledgement of my faith. I once heard a minister say during a sermon that he “would attend no matter what”. That’s the way it should be because I think church is important to God so that makes it important for us. A survey by people outside the congregation could be worthwhile – I’d be more likely to participate in such a survey.

    It’s essential that churches reach out to their community and members need to be involved in that. Sound catechesis of individual believers should be a high priority also. And fewer committees and meetings may be helpful.

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