75 questions for people who want to help churches to grow

Helping churches to grow is hard work but there are some things that need to be addressed to help congregations to grow which seem to be fairly consistent across churches which are otherwise very different in style. Some time ago I published two lots of 25 questions for people who want to help churches to grow.

I thought it was time for 25 more. The new ones are the first 25 below and then come the ones that I’ve published before.


  1. If someone were to hear about the congregation from a non-congregational member, what is the most likely thing they would be told?
  2. What is the smallest number of words you could use to accurately explain the ethos of the congregation?
  3. What are those words?
  4. What strategies do you have to get good quality photographs of life of the congregation to use online?
  5. Which of the arts does the congregation use in its worship and regular life?
  6. How do the church education programmes relate to contemporary culture?
  7. Do things start on time?
  8. What steps have you implemented to ensure you don’t have the same meetings over and over again?
  9. Do you have a set length of time for meetings and does someone stop them after they have gone on enough?
  10. How do you stop people making decisions in the car park before or after the meetings?
  11. Who chooses the hymns?
  12. Why do they choose the hymns they do?
  13. When was the last time the congregation learned a new hymn it sang more than once?
  14. How many different styles of singing the psalms do you use and is that enough?
  15. How many opportunities are there for weekly non-eucharistic worship?
  16. Which would attract more people, a course in meditation or a course on prayer?
  17. Is anyone working for the local congregation underpaid?
  18. Does your bishop/presbytery/judicatory body or person help enable growth or are they a distraction from it?
  19. Is there are three year budget?
  20. Is the congregation moving into or out of debt?
  21. What percentage of people in the congregation would have a basic understanding about the congregation’s finances?
  22. Does anyone ever break copyright law whilst acting for the congregation?
  23. How do you share good news about the denomination that you belong to?
  24. When did you last issue a call to prayer for the congregation and what was it for?
  25. If someone wants to make a confession is it clear who they should approach and how they should get in touch?
  26. If you didn’t have to go to your church on Sunday would you still go?
  27. Are the clergy happy?
  28. Are the musicians happy?
  29. Does the congregation have a stronger ethos than that of its denomination?
  30. What one thing could you change this week to make the worship better?
  31. Why didn’t you make that change last week?
  32. What steps are you taking to make the phrase “All are Welcome” come true?
  33. Do you do church business on a Sunday after church or is there a better time for that?
  34. In the next month are you more likely to spend time on ecumenical activities or church growth activities?
  35. Do people who leave become ex-members who have disappeared or do they still contribute to the life and ministry of the place?
  36. What is the noticeboard like?
  37. What is the first thing you see when you come through the door?
  38. Did you implement the recommendations of the last “mystery worshipper” you asked to give you a candid assessment?
  39. Which church events in the next six months will be newsworthy locally?
  40. Which church events in the next six months will be reported in the local media?
  41. Do you have enough staff and who decides this?
  42. What would your clergy really like to do that they can’t because of the laity?
  43. What would your laity really like to do that they can’t because of the clergy?
  44. Which would attract young families more – a bible-based week long summer activity for children or letting it be known that gay people are welcome in your church?
  45. Can you email those members of your congregation who want to receive regular updates?
  46. Do you email those members of your congregation who want to receive regular updates?
  47. Has someone done the work required to make sure emails sent to large numbers of people don’t end up in spam boxes?
  48. Who in the congregation has gifts that could be better used doing a different job in the congregation than what they are currently doing?
  49. Who is your volunteer co-ordinator and is it obvious how to contact them?
  50. Can you volunteer without being a member of the church?
  51. Do you have a decent church website?
  52. Is it up to date?
  53. Is it responsive – ie does it work on mobile phones?
  54. Does your own online profile feature your ideas and hopes and dreams other than a desire for people to turn up to church?
  55. Do you know what you are doing with twitter and facebook?
  56. Who could you learn more about social media from?
  57. Do you have a compelling reason why people should come to your church other than where it is or what denomination it belongs to?
  58. Can everyone in the church tell you in one sentence what that compelling reason is?
  59. What is your beginners’ course like?
  60. What comes after the beginners’ course?
  61. Do people like the preaching?
  62. Do people enjoy the music?
  63. Have you dealt with conflicts from the past?
  64. Are the people friendly?
  65. Do you have any new groups starting soon?
  66. Do you talk about making the world a better place?
  67. How will people experience joy if they come to your congregation?
  68. If someone from your past turned up unexpectedly at worship how would it make you feel?
  69. How do you identify newcomers and what do you offer them?
  70. What problems will arise if you do grow and how will you deal with them?
  71. Do claims that you welcome everyone stop you working at welcoming those who traditionally find it hard to find a home in church?
  72. Do you use language that is inclusive of everyone?
  73. How do you know?
  74. Is there any identifiable group of people that you can’t explicitly say are welcome because of how an individual or group in the congregation will react?
  75. Do you want to grow or not?

Cathedrals are growing. But so what?

I was interested, of course, to look through the press release this week about which churches are growing in the Church of England.

One might have thought at a casual glance and by the way that the headlines were phrased that there was evidence that the Church of England was growing again but it isn’t and the churches that are growing are not coming anywhere near to making up the losses from the churches which are not growing.

Several themes emerge, including:

  • Significant Growth from Fresh expressions of Church (new congregations and new churches) with around 21,000 people attending in the 10 surveyed areas of the 44 Church of England Dioceses.
  • Significant growth in Cathedrals, especially in weekday attendance. Overall weekly attendance grew by 35% between 2002 and 2012.
  • Declining numbers of children and young people under 16 – nearly half of the churches surveyed had fewer than 5 under 16s.
  • Amalgamations of churches are more likely to decline – the larger the number of churches in the amalgamation, the more likely they are to decline

There are not many surprises here – these themes have been emerging for the last two years. The last of them might give us pause for thought in Scotland where the push to cluster churches together with the promise that this is the best way forward is sometimes heard quite loudly. I’ve always said that linkages are generally less than the sum of their parts and you have to travel quite a way to find a linkage that has led to growth.

My mind is particularly caught, of course, by the assertion that cathedrals are growing. Now, Scottish cathedrals play by different rules than English cathedrals but I’m still interested in what is being said about cathedral life all the same. It would be fair to say that the picture would not be so clear across Scotland when it comes to cathedrals. My own congregation is reasonably bouncy at the moment and that is sometimes put down by other clergy as being the “cathedral effect”. Oh, cathedrals are doing well generally, I am told by people who don’t want to listen to what it is that makes them do well.

Cathedrals are doing well. But so what?

Cathedrals in England are, at least in part, funded by the state. (Part also funds the maintenance of Glasgow’s medieval cathedral, but that is another matter and for different reasons). [UPDATE – English friends who have read this are keen to point out that one should regard the Church Commissioners as “external funders” rather than state funders. I take the point, but most of the subsequent arguments still hold]

No-one ever seems to say, “Well, cathedrals are doing well, perhaps we should have more state funding of churches”. There doesn’t seem to be much recognition that the state plays a big part in paying for what is going on in English Cathedrals. Here in Scotland the congregation of St Mary’s has to find the money to pay me. If I were the dean of an English Cathedral I would be in a Crown Appointment and paid by the state. Those congregations down south also benefit from cathedral canons being paid for by the state and certain maintenance being done, not least to Cathedral roofs.

People are also sometimes dismissive of cathedral growth because it seems to be based on the fact that lots of people seem to want to “believe and not belong”. In other words, people rather like turning up for something nice liturgically but don’t want to spend their time keeping it running. There’s bound to be a bit of this, but so what? The Church of England at least is predicated on the idea that it is there precisely for those who live about the place who don’t contribute their time and talents. That’s what being an established and national church is all about isn’t it?

It also seems to me that cathedrals are often powerhouses of volunteering. Hereabouts in Glasgow we’ve got about 50 people who volunteer their time and talents to take some kind of leadership role within St Mary’s and maybe another 100 or so who volunteer to do something or another along the way. And you know what, just a few of those people pr0bably want to belong and not believe for cathedrals are also places where the sceptical and the doubting can and do want to contribute something.

Then there are the reasons that cathedrals are growing.

I think that is isn’t difficult to name the things that make churches grow:

  • A friendly demeaner – or at least the notion that this might be a place where one might make some friends. Also known as finding God in other people.
  • A sense of the holy or the transcendent. Finding God in ways that in some way reach beyond the everyday and the humdrum.
  • Music that the congregation is comfortable with and enjoys. (And this one ain’t about style at all).
  • An attempt to present things as well as possible – yes the quality question. People are used to high quality presentations these days – why should they expect anything less at church.
  • Governance that can sort out trouble and help troubled people not to upset everyone else. We don’t think about this nearly enough but appropriate authority structures are crucial to any growing church.
  • Good welcome procedures
  • Good communications – websites and all the rest that are built on ethos and not just info

It so happens that cathedrals can often do quite well at these things. These are some of the reasons that they are doing well at the moment.

However, I can barely think of anyone from outside the cathedral scene who really wants to know why it is going well and who has much interest in learning from what cathedrals do well.

I may have a go at addressing some of the things said about “Fresh Expressions” in the C of E report later. For now two things are worth noting – firstly that there does not seem to me to be much evidence in the report that Fresh Expressions Thingys are making that much difference statistically because they seem to be being measured in very different ways to other more traditional congregations. Also there does not seem to be much research on who is paying for Fresh Expressions Thingys. The question of how many bums are on beanbags is hard to resolve. Who is paying for the beanbags is easier to establish and it very rarely seems to be the users of Fresh Expressions Thingys. In short, there’s a suspicion around that Fresh Expressions Thingys are being sponsored by rather trad congregations via diocesan grants schemes. That was certainly the feeling I got from Fresh Expressions Thingys that I encountered in the USA when I was travelleling there on sabbatical. The constant questions when Fresh Expressions Thingys are being talked about are how do you evaluate success, how much is it costing and who is paying the bills.

Having said all that, I was very struck by someone who said to me a while ago that the reason that St Mary’s is doing well at the moment is not because it is a cathedral but because it has been nurtured into being a Fresh Expression of traditiona church which happens to appeal to a bunch of people that never thought that church would have anything at all to offer them and who are surprised to find themselves caught up in the business of heaven in a place of surprise and wonder.

The Church of England research is fascinating, deserves to be talked about and raises far more questions than it answers.

Cathedrals are growing.

But so what?