Why we need to take poor church attendance ‘very personally’

Sharing our faith in relationships of love and friendship is the key to church growth, argues Ken Morgan, co-ordinator of the parish renewal program.

December 11 2015“Most Anglican churches do a good job of helping people feel like they belong.” It seems like an odd thing to say, but I say it nearly every time I run a Pathways workshop. When it comes time in the workshop to map out all the activities a parish might have running, most parishes have plenty of activities like playgroups, homework clubs, conversational English groups, after-school kids activities, walking groups or any number of other activities where people can come and make friends. In fact, it’s unusual to find an Anglican church that doesn’t run some kind of program or activity that fits the ‘belonging’ category.

There are literally thousands of people who don’t come to church on Sunday and probably wouldn’t call themselves Christians, but who feel very much at home in a group that meets under the Anglican Church banner some time during the week.

‘People belong before they believe.’ It’s an idea that lately is so often repeated as to have become passé. My straw poll research indicates that it’s true for more than 80% of people. So if Anglican churches are so good at helping people belong, we should be seeing plenty of people becoming believers and coming to Sunday worship, right? Well, no. We see some, but not as many as we would hope.

There are some simple explanations for this. Some parishes don’t run activities where people can learn about the Christian Gospel, ask questions and respond to the invitation to ‘repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Activities of this type include the Pilgrim Course, Christianity Explained, Catechumenate programs, or Alpha. We call these ‘Embrace the Gospel’ environments. Other parishes only run such activities infrequently or at times when people attending ‘Belonging’ activities can’t get to them. Regularly inviting people to consider the good news of Jesus must be a priority for every parish. As Bishop Stephen Cottrell says, “If we don’t share the Gospel with others there’s no point in church”.

But even offering an appropriate ‘Embrace the Gospel’ activity is no guarantee that people will be interested in coming along. And we should take this personally: very personally.

The overwhelming majority of people making a first-time faith commitment already have strong and personal relationships with a number of Christian believers, be they friends or relatives. Jesus didn’t simply arrive, deliver a few sermons, die, rise and ascend. He made deep friends who loved him, served him and provided for him, while he in turn loved them (John 15:9-17).

People are more likely to participate in an ‘Embrace the Gospel’ activity if they’re personally invited by a friend that cares deeply. They’re more likely to accept that invitation if they can see the positive role that faith in Jesus plays in the life of their friend. And they’re more likely to know about the positive role of faith if their friend tells them about it.

What’s this got to do with ‘Belonging’ activities? Simply this. It’s not enough to merely offer an activity, or even to create a pathway of activities. Our challenge is to use ‘belonging’ environments as an opportunity to become good friends with whom we share our lives and resources and our faith: friends that we invite to embrace the Gospel, not just for the survival of our church or the success of our mission, but because we care enough to want them to experience God’s love as we have… God sent Jesus because he loves people. Jesus sends us for the same reason.