The new Church of England report on the church in rural areas – Released for Mission, Growing the Rural Church – catches my attention because of the title combines the themes of mission and growth, which are themes similar to those challenging the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Episcopal students in the missiology class I’m currently teaching at Pittsburg Theological Seminary (PTS), an institution of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
What does the CofE report mean by mission? How is mission as understood by the report related to growth? Does this report represent an advance in a major church’s thinking about mission in the 21st century?
Nearly two-thirds or 65%, of Church of England congregations – 10,199 – are in rural areas, according to the report. Average Sunday attendance in these congregations is 40 (versus 60 in urban congregations), and almost all the rural congregations are in what the CofE calls “multi-church groups,” clusters of congregations served by a single clergyperson or clergy team.
The 35 students in the missiology class at PTS are generally from Pittsburgh and from rural western Pennsylvania, and many testify to the difficulty of stimulating mission awareness, vision and engagement in congregations that are small and rural, intent on maintaining existing patterns of church life at the same time that they worry about their economic and demographic viability. Rural congregations in Vermont face similar challenges, as do rural congregations of many denominations throughout the USA.
The CofE report is based on a well-designed survey that included many interviews, and leaders in many USAmerican churches can surely resonate with observations such as:
There was a frequent lament that some (not all) congregations were stuck in a rut and were not open to new ideas or approaches but were desperate for people to come to church to ensure that the building remained open and the familiar worship continued. In a few of those situations it had been possible to develop a new congregation or fresh expression alongside the existing church, which took significant additional time and resources for clergy and lay people alike.
The major headings of church life considered by the report are: worship; mission: evangelism, fresh expressions and growth; clergy roles and responsibilities; leadership; ministry of lay people; governance; structures; and church buildings. The 36-pages report closes with nine recommendations.
Under the heading of “Rural Multi-Church Ministry in the 21st Century,” Bp. James Bell, chair of the Rural Affairs Group of General Synod, includes in his foreword a good missional note but also simultaneously confuses concepts in a way that is characteristic of the report as a whole:
A Christian presence in every community is more than a strap-line – it is the heart of English Anglicanism. It is the expression of our obligation, as the church for all the people of the nation, to leave no community untouched by the gospel of Jesus Christ, lived out among the people of every place. Ministry and mission in the rural church is highly demanding of energy and imagination. Growth is being realised, but much more remains to be done.
Leaving no community untouched by the gospel is an authentic missional vision. Then, however, ministry and mission are combined in one ambiguous phrase, as they are in so many church pronouncements on both sides of the Atlantic. What does the bishop mean by ministry, and how is it different from mission? Are the two distinct, or are they combined simply to cover a vaguely visible waterfront?
Immediately moving on to church growth suggests another confusion, namely, that mission is intrinsically related to growth, and perhaps even that the mission is to grow. Unfortunately, the Executive Summary of the report strengthens this concern in its opening sentence: “This research was developed to explore whether mission and growth were possible within rural multi-church groups.” At one point in the report growth is interpreted broadly and helpfully in terms of discipleship, service and outreach, and numerical growth, but the major section head, “Can rural churches grow?” makes it clear that numerical growth is the primary focus.
There are lots of other instances of the tangling of ministry, mission and growth in the report, including in its final recommendations. Fortunately in the first of those there was enough clarity to suggest that deaneries and dioceses “include an intentional focus on mission and evangelism.”
The concern behind the report is sincere and well-founded, the research was well organized and conscientious, but the articulation to the church as a whole would benefit from clearer distinctions that, in turn, would enable the Rural Affairs Group to issue a clearer call to rural congregations about ministry, about mission, and about growth.
Numerical growth is desirable, without question. New Testament writers were not shy about counting heads as they described the ministry of Jesus and the growth of the early church – and neither should we be shy about numbers amid the challenges of the contemporary church. Whether in Cambridge, Zimbabwe, Peshawar or Vermont, I’ve been an assiduous head-counter. Attendance and membership figures say something about the vitality of a ministry, the internal networking of a congregation, and the outreach of the people of God.
The mission of God, though, is something different. Mission is sending and being sent across human social boundaries to bear witness in word and deed to the reconciling work of God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s it: bearing witness across boundaries. The first and most significant boundary for any community is the very boundary that defines the community, as in “our congregation, our parish.”
When we reach beyond who and where we are to meet and work with with others not part of our community – that is when we are distinctively on mission. Ministry is the full range of service to which God calls us, whether inside or outside. Mission reaches beyond ourselves. That’s why “outreach” is the most common synonym for mission. And every church community is called to reach beyond itself, not for the sake of growth, but for the sake of God’s mission.
Growth is a fruit of mission, but it’s not the mission. This calls church leaders to have a bifurcated consciousness. The major priority must be mission: discerning what God is up to in the community and the world, then joining that movement faithfully and bending one’s shoulder to the plough – regardless of possible benefit or detriment to the church. Yes, one needs to be concerned about growth, but only as a fruit of mission, not the goal of mission.
This conviction arises out of actual historical practice, one instance of which I included in the book Horizons of Mission:
St. Peter’s Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a parish concerned about its survival when my wife and I joined it as pastors. Like many city parishes, it had been declining steadily since World War II, so the congregation was asking, “Will we survive? How can we pay the bills? How can we attract more people so that we can make it?” It was clear, however, that asking survival questions was a recipe for not surviving. The questions that needed asking were mission questions: What is God calling us to be and do? How is God moving to restore people to unity with God and one another? How is God calling us to serve the people of Central Square, where many are poor, many are recent immigrants and crime levels are high? How can we offer community to local people who feel alone and alienated? Without quite realizing it, these were questions the parishioners were longing to hear, and when we asked them a new vision for being church began to take hold. The parish engaged community children through an after-school ministry, immigrants through English as a second language, the marginalized through a meals-in-community outreach, and the general public through a coffee house. St. Peter’s developed a global ministry that supports missionaries, took sixty people on pilgrimage to the Bernard Mizeki Festival in Zimbabwe, and promotes Jubilee debt cancellation. Survival was soon a non-issue as the liturgy came alive, prayer groups met and welcome brunches filled up with newcomers. As a suburban youth were changed by mission, now an urban parish was transformed as it responded to God’s mission call.
I repeat: Asking survival questions was a recipe for not surviving. The questions that needed asking were mission questions.
“Released for Mission” is a promising phrase, as is “Growing the Rural Church.” In this instance the two are linked in ways that may prolong the church’s inability to energize its people to participate in God’s mission and postpone the fruit of such faithfulness.
[Click here for the Feb. 2 Anglican Communion News Service news release about the report.]