Never mind the quality, feel the width

Might it be that if we managed to do things just a little better in church, more people might turn up?

Last week there was a significant report published for the Church in Wales as it considers the way forward. The picture is familiar – lots of buildings, aging congregations, clergy deployment issues etc. (Note that one of the authors of the report is our own Prof Peattie).

I was struck by the section on Cathedrals which says this:

We believe that cathedrals will have an increasingly important role in the church of the future. Experience from elsewhere shows that although church attendance generally is declining, cathedral congregations continue to grow. This is because they can be centres of excellence for preaching, education and music. People today are prepared to travel to find such excellence. This means that cathedrals need to be fully part of the mission and ministry strategy of each Diocese and, within the overall principle of collaborative ministry, their distinctive role needs to be taken into account for this, as well as for the Ministry Area in which they are situated.
Recommendation VIII
The distinctive role of each cathedral as a centre of excellence should be fully integrated into the mission and ministry strategy of its Diocese.

Now, I think that there is a lot of truth behind that comment about why cathedrals (and it is some cathedrals really, not all of them) are feeling rather buoyant at the moment. People are indeed prepared to travel to find good quality worship. Cathedrals often are centres of excellence.

However I have to admit to getting a little frustrated when people don’t seem to take on board what seems rather obvious to me. Namely that you don’t need to be a cathedral in order to do things well. It seems to me to be stating the obvious to suggest that if churches raised their game a bit (and everyone can improve – that’s the culture we are looking for, not a culture of perfection for there is no such thing) then just perhaps more people would show up. Also, perhaps more people would show up more often (one of the real problems now is that people believe they come to church just about every week when often they actually come just about every third week).

This isn’t about styles of worship either. A good deal of the attraction that many people have felt to the larger Evangelical churches in the last couple of decades has been about the quality of their worship. There too, people are prepared to travel and are often delighted to find what they are looking for.

We are often exhorted to do new things in church in order to bring people in. I’ve very, very seldom been exhorted to do old things well.

However, I’d suggest it is at least as likely to be successful as launching out in new directions for fresh expressions of being church.

(Or whatever this week’s cliché is).

Never mind the breadth – feel the quality. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money either. You don’t need to be loaded as a congregation to seek to up your game.

You might need to be brave enough to ask the organist who has been murdering hymns for 82 years to retire with grace and honour. You might need to be wise enough to agree shoe tactics with everyone who appears at the front. It might mean changing the way the hymns are chosen and asking regularly what the best ways of getting new material in the list actually are in your circumstances. It might mean working that bit harder on the preaching. (Is there preacher that can’t get better? – I don’t think so). It might mean setting up a worship committee and comparing its budget to the property budget annually. It might mean looking to cathedrals as training resources for the wider diocese in this area – though my most recent attempt to hold a day in St Mary’s for clergy and musicians from around our diocese fell flat on its belly.

It seems to me that there are all kinds of things that might be done.

We seem to recognise implicitly in the statements that are made about cathedrals that quality matters. Why do we find it so difficult to commit ourselves to the obvious consequences? What are we frightened of when we think of the words quality and excellence and associate them with worship?

Are we yet offering all that we are and all that we have?

Wave Goodbye

Oh, I do admire Google’s ability to fail.

They started something a while ago called Google Wave which they launched as the answer to life the universe and everything. It was going to be collaborative workspace, social communication, the new e-mail that everyone was going to flock to and generally more fun than feather boas.

It hasn’t worked and they’ve stopped development of it this week. Its a lesson in glorious failure. I admire the fact that they had a go and failed so magnificently. No doubt they have learned a lot and got lots of things to build on in the future.

I suspect it failed because the benefit was not worth the sign-up. It was proprietary software (you could only use it from within the Reign of Google) and that’s always tricky. Facebook seems to have managed to make a success of a proprietary model and there are lesser successes like Skype. In some ways its odd that Google hit the mark as the are big enough and butch enough to have a lot of power in the online world.

Google also has a model which is committed to glorious failure. They let their software-bods have significant time to work on dream projects that are not governed by managers. The theory is that the rare successes make it worth living with the failures that are inevitable from some projects along the way.

I’m interested in that for I work in a world which is often a success culture and people fear failure so much that they often won’t innovate.

I was asked this week where I would set up a new Episcopal church in Glasgow if I had a magic wand. I knew my answer immediately. I think there are two obvious targets in this city where a church might be established within five years or so. I’ve been thinking about that for a long time too. Mulling it over and brooding on possibility.

We’ve lost the knack of starting new congregations. A hundred years ago we did it constantly. The failure rate was huge, when you look back at the stories. However, if we could build a little bit of Google innovation into our heads we would realise that failure is inevitable and part of the growth cycle.