The Seven Actual Marks of Mission

The Anglican Communion website tells us that the Five Marks of Mission are an “important statement on mission which expresses the Anglican Communion’s common commitment to, and understanding of, God’s holistic/integral mission”. The were first set out at an Anglican Consultative Council in 1984.

The Five Marks of Mission are:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

And these things get rolled out at many a clergy conference and General Synod and spoken of as though they are really important.

The trouble with the Five Marks of Mission is that really they should be the Seven Marks of Mission and include Motherhood and Apple Pie. They are clearly good things. They are clearly aspirations that every church should have. The honest truth though is that I’d have been surprised if as many as 1% of the congregation at St Mary’s today would have been able to name the Five Marks of Mission without having the opportunity to look them up. Most people wouldn’t of heard of them. And unfortunately for the many people on those very many clergy conferences, the Five Marks of Mission bear little connection with what actually makes a church grow.

There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with the Five Marks of Mission but if you want to make your church grow a bit they are better descriptors of what you might expect to observe in a living vibrant congregation than actually things which will do the business for helping your congregation to grow.

And the thing is, people in the church generally would like their congregations to grow a bit. There’s not much wrong in most congregations that another couple of dozen faithful giving members couldn’t put right.

And it is my view that it isn’t beyond the boundaries of possibility that most congregations could find another couple of dozen giving members fairly easily if they sorted their lives out according the Seven Actual Marks of Mission rather than getting all hung up on the Five they are told they are supposed to be concentrating on.

The Seven Actual Marks of Mission (or Marks of How To Grow A Congregation), are these:

1 – A community that enjoys singing things
2 – Ability to deal with conflict. (And a leadership structure that allows this to be done).
3 – A sense of humour that isn’t an optional extra
4 – Life changing liturgy and preaching
5 – Being truly welcoming
6 – Confident leadership
7 – Ethos, ethos, ethos

1 – A community that enjoys singing things

There have not been many revivals of life and energy in churches that have not included singing have there? It seems to me that a good deal more attention should be spent by the churches on music.

The honest truth is that liturgical style matters far less than whether people are enjoying what they sing and feel as though they can join in.

I’ve been puzzled recently at the phenomenon of some evangelical churches going so far down the “band-led worship” pathway that the band seem to be the only ones singing whilst the congregation watch. (This is not merely my observation but a critique that I’ve seen evangelicals themselves making). Whatever your style, I’m convinced that an enjoyment of singing together is one of the primary things that makes people come to church. Furthermore, when it is obvious that the congregation is uncomfortable, grumpy about style and choice of music or just plain unsupported by those trying to lead the music from the front it is an instant turn off. Those trying out a church won’t go back if the music is miserable.

So why not make it more of a priority in mission planning and ordination training? I never understood why I was continually asked what I needed during ordination training and when I told them the answer (singing lessons) it was pooh-poohed. Everyone can learn to sing better and everyone in the church business can learn how to help a congregation sing better too.

You can’t sing as a congregation? You can’t grow as a congregation.

2 – Ability to deal with conflict. (And a leadership structure that allows this to be done).

Nobody likes conflict but here’s the thing – where two or three are gathered together, there a disagreement will break out sooner or later. Because Christians are particularly naughty? Because the devil always finds a way in? No – just because people are people. It is the way it is. There will be conflict. People will disagree.

A significant measure of a congregation’s ability to grow is the manner in which it deals with conflict.

Again, ordination training for me was characterised by conflict and there were no safe mechanisms for sorting it out. Whilst you can learn negatively from experiences it wasn’t a good start. I suspect one learns most from the ways in which conflict is dealt with by those whom one trusts.

Someone once told me that when someone gets angry with you it means they trust you with a part of themselves which is vulnerable. It was a key insight that turned around the way I see conflict and the way I try to help other people deal with it when it occurs.

And by the way, some churches have decision making structures that don’t allow conflict to be dealt with. A governance review every 10 or 20 years might not be a bad idea. We changed our constitution a few years ago and suddenly my job became a doable job after decades when I think the structures were putting all kinds of unreasonable pressure on the people who held the post I now hold. It is difficult to change a church constitution. It should be difficult. However, it shouldn’t be impossible.

3 – A sense of humour that isn’t an optional extra

I suppose you can try and grow a congregation by being po-faced but if you want a short cut, find a way at laughing at the absurd. Go further, find a way at laughing about yourself for the collection of pomposities and contradictions that makes up you isn’t to be taken entirely seriously.

Or so I’ve found.

I’ve always admired that saying which I think comes from Richard Giles to the effect that good liturgy should be such that it feels as though everyone is about to laugh.

Quite so.

4 – Life changing liturgy and preaching

If liturgy and preaching is not about changing lives then don’t get out of bed to do either. Again, liturgical style doesn’t matter nearly so much as whether what we do moves people, challenges people and celebrates people.

I can’t tell you how many times people say to me that I’m very lucky because I have all the resources of a cathedral and that makes it possible for us to have lovely worship.

Well, I’m grateful for all the wonders of my own congregation but the truth is, I don’t need any of it in order to worship God and I don’t need any of it in order to lead other people in worship that has the potential to be beautiful, moving and yes, life changing.

Here, I did have something positive from my ordination training. I didn’t go to a seminary with a lovely chapel. I didn’t spend all my time as an ordinand swanning around in vestments. Our worship when I was training had to be created from what we had around us. It was always creative and we worked hard at it.

We had a weekly meeting when I was an ordinand which was kept secret from the members of staff who were not invited. The agenda was 1) How can we improve the worship 2) Any other business.

I can’t help but wonder what the effect would be on the national church if that way of thinking was fundamental to the life of every local church. It formed me and I still wake up on a Monday morning asking myself how the worship can be better and commit myself to having the conversations that are necessary to make it so.

Yes, I am lucky to have St Mary’s and all that it means. But throw me a bag of tea-lights and sing the words after me and I can take you to heaven any time, any place, any where. That’s what I was formed to do. And in this, my training did me proud.

5 – Being truly welcoming

You just can’t make a congregation grow without people feeling welcome. The fact that people are different means that there’s room for different welcoming styles. Some people like to be hugged and gushed over and others (I’m guessing most others in the UK) don’t. But somehow or another a congregation does need to exude a sense of welcome to people who are not already its members or it is simply not going to grow at all.

Most congregations think that they are welcoming because the key players in the congregation themselves feel welcomed when they come to worship. However, that’s not enough and it isn’t really what it is all about.

I’m prepared to say now that it is almost impossible to be a welcoming congregation without good on-line engagement. That doesn’t just mean having a website now either. The danger is that congregations think that because they’ve got a website they’ve done what they need to do.

It isn’t enough.

The question is not whether your congregation has a website. The question is whether people looking on-line for a congregation to try out (who exist in every part of the country no exceptions) can get to know the personality of the congregation and having encountered that personality find it attractive.

How many times do I need to say, if the opening words of your website are: “Welcome! St Agatha’s By The Windmill is a congregation in the United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway, one of the historic dioceses of the Scottish Episcopal Church, in full communion with the Church of England and all the Churches of the Anglican Communion! We welcome everyone. All are welcome in this place.” then you are missing the mark by quite a long way. People don’t join congregations for these reasons. They join congregations because of the people. They join because the people look spiritual. They join because the people look godly. They join because the people look as though they are having fun. They join because the people look diverse enough to find a space for them. They join because the rector looks and sounds like someone you wouldn’t mind conducting your daughter’s wedding next summer. They join because one day they might need these people to gather for their funeral. They join because they are lonely. They join because they have something to give. They very, very rarely these days join a congregation because of its physical location or its denominational affiliation.

6 – Confident leadership

Congregations need confident leadership. That means flexible leadership, collaborative leadership but fundamentally it doesn’t mean the absence of leadership. One of my great worries in recent years is that I fear that very many clergy seem to think that they are called to give only pastoral leadership. Whilst caring for a congregation is fundamental, it is a long way from being the only tool in the priestcraft toolbox. You also need to have some understanding of how systems work, some wisdom about how people work and some knowledge of how you yourself tick. Authentic leadership is about far more than just looking after people. It is also about inspiring people, setting the direction for people, saying the things that people need to hear and sometimes saying things that people wish you wouldn’t.

I went on a leadership training course last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it did make me wonder all the way through why my own church doesn’t make any serious attempt to boost the leadership skills of its clergy. (I fear sometimes that the answer is that the desperation to DO MISSION means we’ve no energy to boost the things that would actually attract people to our churches).

7 – Ethos, ethos, ethos
This one can’t be avoided. A congregation that is to grow needs to have a conscious ethos and needs to be able to express it.

It is not uncommon for people to look at successful congregations and see particular elements of the worship (a band, a 30 minute sermon, a time for “praise and worship”, a large collection of blazing thuribles etc) and try to replicate the experience by putting those elements in a service that has not had them before. The result is more likely to generate conflict than growth. The starting point for growth is ethos. If a congregation knows why it exists then it will grow. The things that large growing churches have in abundance is a confident sense of what they are there for. If you know your purpose and everyone involved accepts what it is then you can bring more people in who want to share that vision.

If you look across the churches, it is not just big city evangelical churches which are growing. It is churches which know who they are. That’s why self-consciously Anglo-catholic churches which are a mile high up the paschal candle can do reasonably well in the current climate. The churches which seem to me to be struggling are those who rely on their geography to bring in a crowd. The parish is dead. If you want to grow a church the hard way then promote it as the church for your locality. Far easier is to find the essence of the congregation – the core reasons why people might encounter God in that place and once you’ve got that, distil it and let the world know.

Here in St Mary’s, we’re Open, Inclusive and Welcoming. Well, that’s what we hope to be. We fall short of it. We struggle with it. But it is who we are and everyone knows. That ethos brings people in.

I don’t think that any church has all the answers to how to do mission or how to grow. My own certainly doesn’t and certainly isn’t perfect in achieving the seven marks that I’ve listed above. However, when I look at the churches which do well, it is these things which I see as key elements whereby a little development can lead to a lot of growth.

Remember the Five Marks of Mission?

No, no-one else does either.

On Friendship – for St Aelred’s Day and the Primates

This is an extract from a sermon I preached in 2009 after visiting Rievaulx, the place associated with St Aelred who has his feast day today. The central idea is that we would have a better world if the church had made a sacrament out of friendship rather than marriage. It seems particularly appropriate to repost this during the current Anglican Primates’ Meeting.


There is something about friendship which is tantalising throughout the gospels. Greater love, so we are told, has no-one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friend.

It seems to be an unusual and uncommon friendship that Jesus practises with his disciples throughout his life on earth. Ultimately, his crucifixion comes at the direct betrayal of one of his friends. Friendship is woven throughout the gospel scenes. Healings, teachings, parables and meals all seem to take place with the friendship of the disciples as a backdrop. And then the gospel writers highlight friendship in one or two key stories, such as this one we read today where someone’s life is changed by the action of friends.

I was tantalized by something that one of my own friends said a while ago about friendship, which I have not forgotten. It was a throwaway remark which lingered in the mind and which I’ve not forgotten. She said, “Isn’t it a shame that the church does not spend more of its energy thinking about friendship. If we based our theology on friendship, it might sort out all our other worries about other kinds of relationships.”

I thought that was brilliant – and worth sharing. Perhaps that is the theological work that we need to do. Celebrating what comes of our own friendships with one another. Delighting in teaching one another that friendship with God is not just possible but the very nature of God’s desire to relate to us.

When I stop to think about it, friendship is very important to me. And I know that I take a very contrary view on friendship to most people. I’ve always maintained that you can’t choose your friends. You can chose your family, but you can’t choose your friends. Most people think it is the other way around.

You can’t chose your friends, it is only your family that you can choose. That’s counterintuitive for most people and has got me into arguments several times. Yet people bend and manipulate family life in endless variations. Marriages, partnerships, inheritance, disinheritance, IVF, civil partnerships, conception, affairs, adoption, bigamy etc are going on all the time; people choosing whom they will regard as family. Friendship is different somehow. A friendship chooses two people and can’t really be forced or faked.

Last Sunday I led a guided tour around the church. It was great fun – not something I’d done before. We started out at the font and worked our way around the church taking the traditional order of the seven sacraments as our routemap. Baptism, at the font, Eucharist at the table and so on around the church. Finding places to talk about confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick – unction, which we thought about in the oratory over there, the old resurrection chapel where people used to bring coffins the night before a funeral and which we now use to pray and store the holy oils of the church.

One of the bits where I really had to stop and think (for this was not really planned out using anything more than the back of an envelope) was when I got to marriage.

What does the church teach about marriage that is sacramental these days. The inheritance we have is of a sacrament based on property and avoiding intimate blood relationships.

After I went home, I realised what I wished I had said. I wished I had said, wouldn’t it have been great if the Western Church had named Friendship as one of the sacraments? Wouldn’t it be great if we were taught to think by the church of the ways in which friendship between two people reflects God’s being and shines with grace that is Godly. For after all, I think that when I see couples preparing for marriage, the thing I hope for them most of all is that they will be friends. Would it undermine or enhance society if we made friendship our sacrament? If we let marriage take its honoured place amongst a whole host of relationships (teaching relationships, business relationships, therapeutic relationships, partnerships of so many kinds) which would benefit from being thought about as consequent upon a Sacrament of Friendship?

When I was on my way home from my recent holiday in Yorkshire, where my parents now live, I went to see an old friend from college whom I had not seen for 10 years. One of those rare treats that friendship gives – catching up after years apart. He is now a monk living in the North Yorkshire Moors. On my way in to the village where he lives, I went to see another monk. Well another monastery anway. I dropped into the lovely valley where the ruins of Rievaulx abbey stand. That was the place where a saint lived – originally from Scotland, Abbot Aelred lived in Rievaulx ruling a great monastery and writing his own ideas down which survive to this day. He is remembered especially for writing about friendship and was famous for allowing friendships between the monks rather than being suspicious of them as other abbots had been.

I sat in the ruins of that soaring Cistercian monastery and looked down the valley. Smokey mist was weaving in and out of the trees. Just like the ideas that I’ve been trying to explore this morning – you could not catch hold of it – it just hung in the air.

And I hoped for a day when we could rebuild something whole and holy from the tumbling ruins that seem to represent the modern church’s attempts to speak about human relationships.

A God worth knowing as a friend.

Church communities famous for their openness and characterised by good humoured friendliness.

And A Sacrament of Friendship that embraces, cajoles, emboldens, challenges, and comforts and whose borders are ever wider and whose circumference goes by the name of Love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.