Gathered and Scattered

This is just my noticing. Many of the former Presbyterian congregations try to distinguish themselves from the Congregationalists as a “gathered congregation”. This is nonsense. All that gathered mean is that it is a church that is formed by a group of like minded people meeting together rather than one set up for an area. The fact is that ALL URCs are gathered. In fact all non-conformist congregations are gathered, technically even the Roman Catholics. Being a gathered church is the English norm.

What the Scots members are doing is contrasting being “gathered” with being a “parish” church in Scotland and therefore assuming that somehow therefore the Congregational churches which tend to be more local are somehow “parish”.

What they actually need to distinguish is probably local, civic and specialist. Local are congregations whose audience is defined by being in a locality, civic are congregations that are defined as being the URC for a specific metropolis (about the nearest thing we have to Cathedrals but they are spread pretty randomly: Birmingham has one, Sheffield does, but Manchester doesn’t and I don’t think Leeds has one either. Some smaller places: Chesterfield, Doncaster, (Wakefield used to) have them as well. There is no coherent structure to where they are and where they aren’t, they are town centre and will often act as a central church. Finally there are specialist churches, these are ones that have a specific bent to their behaviour, they may be into: healing, retreats and meditation, Social justice, gay rights. The local congregation tends to attract local people (although not all will be local), the civic congregation tends to attract people from around the town, and the specialist congregation has a wider spread yet.

Now the former Presbyterian Churches are often best set to become specialist congregations, they did attract people from a wider area; although I think the fact St Andrews Sheffield for many years had a member on the Isle of Skye was a bit extreme. The problem is they need to change their speciality, as being the “Scottish” is no longer a viable option (not since the 1970s).

All the church is called to do is to remain faithful

I have heard this several times. It sounds good even to me and if properly understood it is true but it is rarely understood. It is interpreted to mean “All we need to do is to keep going as we are.” That is dangerous, a false lie, it is the modern equivalent of the servant who was given one talent and chose to bury it in the ground.

The key word is Faithful. Most people associate faithfulness with things staying the same, with remaining as we are, with keeping the status quo. However faithfulness is one of relationship, it is not faithful to suggest inside a relationship that both people must remain the same to keep things as they are, there must in any relationship be space to grow and change. Indeed faithfulness is altering a relationship to accept the change in another. What would we think of mother who kept her baby in nappies as that was a way to faithful or insisted in carrying the child everywhere no matter how big they grew.  I think we would feel that such a person was psychologically in trouble. We know in our relationships with other people that being faithful is actually a matter of continual change.

So it is with God, the call for the church to be faithful is not a call for the church to be static but a call for the church to adapt its relationship to God as its circumstances and understandings of God change. Fighting to keep things the same because that is being faithful, is a failure of relationship, and far from being faithful it is highly unfaithful.

Who should the local congregation be evangelising?

I have heard that someone recently preached on how the church should be doing outreach to people whose alcohol addiction leads them to drink on the streets, people who are homeless and people who are sustainably addicted to drugs. Well I admit those are challenging areas to do outreach in. It is like it is a bit of a challenge to take the gospel to groups of people who no one has tried to take the gospel before. There are challenges and I fully accept its worth doing but…

… as someone who has been vaguely involved with it can I say there is one big problem, the area is over subscribed with those who want to be involved in it!  The people who around here fall into those categories go from one Christian mission to the next Christian mission and get food, clothing, worship etc from that.

The real challenge, the biggie, the one I fail at is …

To take the gospel to people who outwardly are the same as us. To cross the taboo line in society and talk about the faith with your friends. To be prepared to be ridiculed amongst those you socialise with. To be prepared to adapt church so those people who have never been to church feel welcomed and treated with respect, because they believe they won’t be. The challenge is not to bring the very different to Christ but the almost like us to Christ, who can and will ask awkward questions, may think you a religious freak and suspect you of judging them even if you don’t.

Theory of preparedness and snow

I have a theory about what makes a place cope or not with snow in the UK.

Firstly there are two factors, one is actual snow fall and the other is belief that they have snow fall. These are not identical. There are places that have snowfall that don’t believe they have snowfall and there are visa versa places that don’t have snowfall but do have snowfall.

Belief in snow fall is not simply a matter of looking at the statistics, running a model of what chance there is of heavy snow this year and planning accordingly, it is something deeper. It is given the model what sort of precautions you think are necessary. In a place that believes it gets snowfall, they will nearly always take greater precautions against snow than in a place which does not believe it gets snowfall under the same predicted circumstances.

This comes from having watched Sheffield and Manchester cope with snowfalls. Sheffield believes that it snows in Sheffield. It believes that when it snows the city is likely to grind to a halt and it believes therefore that snow needs planning for. Manchester doesn’t. It believes that sheltered by the Pennines, snow is a rare event due to its warmth and therefore it should not make provision.

As a rule snow is heavier in Sheffield than in Manchester. So there is some validity for these beliefs.

However also as a rule, Sheffield has better provision for coping with the snow that does fall than Manchester. It is normally functioning again more quickly and has stocks for dealing with important path ways as conditions ease.

What seems to me is that belief is quantum. There are levels to it. It is not a smooth line. However I don’t think these levels are a simple binary “have snow” “don’t have snow” rather they have levels like “We always get heavy snow”, “Snow is a nuisance most winters”, “If it snows we will need to adapt” “we only need minimal precautions for light snow” and “snow is irrelevant to our planning”.

As actual snowfall is on a continuum. The people who tend to go to the level above rather than the level below in their snow preparations, tend to fair better if it does snow and have extra expense when it doesn’t.

Another thing to note is the belief is communal. The fact is that people in Sheffield talk about snowy winters as if they were the norm. They expect snow, therefore if the council cut back on snow preparations and then there was a snowy winter, it would have a far higher price to pay in Sheffield than in Manchester where people tend to shrug and say “this is exceptional, they could not really have planned for it”.

Inward is the direction of Christmas

And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:3-5 (English Standard Version)

 It seems that in this season of Goodwill towards all people there is a deliberate process of withdrawal from people that slowly goes on through Advent. We like Joseph in the passage above end up going back to our home town and family.

The first stage around the start of Advent, early December is the card sending. This is about as close as many of us get to wishing universal goodwill. We send cards to people we know, regardless of whether we have spoken to them, phoned them or been in contact through email or just plain sent a letter. All that matters is that last year they sent you a card, or that you are hoping they will send you one this year. Sending out several hundred Christmas cards is not unknown even in the days before the internet.

Next stage the office party, the Christmas drinks with friends and those you regularly see. Or just wishing people you see a happy Christmas, particularly as it can be quite a busy time  and you end up seeing people you have not seen for a while. Included here is the church carol service, the crib service, the Cristingle service and all the other special services that happen this time of year. Basically the time you spend with people around you.

As you get closer to Christmas you start giving and receiving presents. This diminishes the circle even further, these are people who are special, people who feel close too or people with who you want to share with at this time of year. You are now getting to the people who matter to you.

Finally Christmas arrives and we all go home to our families. At least that is what is supposed to happen and people will travel a long way to be home with their family at Christmas. You are not even really relating to your close friends. Christmas itself is heavily weighted towards spending time with your family and by family people mean blood relatives.

You slowly have been drawing in the only level left is the self.

It really needs some cultural rethinking of Christmas if we are to stop the crises, the rows, the bad practices that mark this time of the year. We have slowly made a focus for the event and the focus is not the Christ child but the individual.

The people who are really being countercultural are those who go an help in the Christmas Shelters, the ones who decide on this date to have some friends around for a meal and the people who open their homes to those beyond their immediate family circle. These people are rebuilding Christmas, they are the light bearers, that give me hope that sometime there will be a celebration of Christmas when there really will be good will towards all people rather than a stress laid on the immediate family and the individual that it cannot really bare.

A modest proposal for calculating MaM contribution

I am firstly going to tell you why a funding purely on membership and one purely on income fail.

The simple reason is that people are canny, to use a good northern word. They won’t do anything illegal but if funding depends on either of these they will do their best to reduce the amount they pay by minimizing the funds for this. The way not to have members is to de-stress membership and to rarely ask if people want to become members. The way to shrink income is to put money into trusts for the congregation rather than directly into the congregation funds.

What at present you get in the URC is a swapping between these two methods of calculating Mission and Ministry contributions. I am going therefore to make a sugggestion that is more complex and harder to therefore fix.

The contribution should be worked out as follows

.5*ministry received+ A*(members + (adherents&children)/B)+C*(income)+D*(Financial Reserves)

Let me take each term on its own

Ministry component
No congregation should pay less than half of the ministry it receives in a give year. That is why the first amount is actually calculated from the ministerial stipend. Members get to understand that MaM is tied to the Ministry they receive. There probably needs to be a cost for non-stipendiary ministry put in as well to cover insurance and such.

Membership component.
A is a set amount worked out on the number of members and the number of children and adherents reported. Adherents is the posh name for those who regularly come to church but aren’t members. B will be greater than 1 but less than 5, and weights the fact that there are genuinely less committed members.

Financial component
I have split this into two, income generated in the year. Is the money that goes through the accounts of the congregation as their income. This must include, free will offering, money raised from hire of premises, fundraising and other donation. It may exclude grants from external bodies that are ear marked  specific purposes.

Also I have suggested that reserves which means trust funds and other savings under the control of the congregation should be rated separately. There are congregations with huge reserves and there are congregation with no reserves. Reserves in my opinion actually are a hindrance to mission as they make a congregation feel secure where it is. However I do not think this can be taken at the same rate as the actual income. So I suggest that it is rated at a level no higher than the interest it would get in a normal savings account.

Penalties for not supplying information on time

  1. If a congregation fails to  provide its financial year end, then it will be allocated a sum of twice the (median church income per member)*(no of members)
  2. If a congregation fails to provide membership numbers its membership will be taken from last recorded figures but calculated as membership+adherents +10% for each year since last reporting
  3. If neither figure is returned the first calculation will use the figure in the second calculation to estimate the second.

These figures should usually work out as considerably more than the figures that a congregation would have if it supplied the necessary information.

What should be charged for a synod:
I suggest that at a synod level the MaM should work out as:

Cost of local ministry in synod (excluding all synod staffing)+ Synod costs(including all synod staffing) + central office costs + mission correction.

You have noticed I have split the cost of ministry and mission into three.  I think that needs to happen. We need to know what goes centrally, what is spent at synod level and what is spent on local ministry. It is important because at present the fact that we only have stated amounts for the overally amount, and that if synods appoint a minister to a central role, they get the funding out of the same pot as that which pays for local ministers, means that there is little accountability of synods about this. If they appointed a lay person to such a role they would have to find the money for the post out of reserves. That is wrong. These posts need taking out of the calculation for local ministry and put on their own. We need to have equal funding from central for posts whether they are filled by an ordained or lay person. I would suggest that central office costs are simply divided between the number of synods.

Finally I have put in the mission correction. This is the fiddle factor. It can for instance allow central resources to be directed towards specific work within a synod. It can be used to even out the income of synods from trust funds and the like and it may take into consideration deprivation experienced within a synod.

This amount should be the amount the synod is expected to raise from local churches minus the amount it contributes from its own funds.

Becoming a member of a congregation

Very few people wake up one Sunday morning and decide lets go to church today out of the blue. Even fewer then decide on a random congregation within ten miles of their home for that intial visit to a congregation, and very few decide at the first time of going that this is where they are going to settle. I am stating this as it is something we all really know but it is amazing how many congregations behave as if this is how people should behave.

What I want to do is to try and to get people first to re-imagine the way a person comes into membership.

I would suggest that there are two initial ways that a person may come into contact with a congregation. One is through a cultivated presence of the congregation, this covers everything from church noticeboards through social outreach to overt evangelism. What it does is make people think “Oh there is a church there!” The second thing is that the people either meet somebody or become aware that somebody they already know goes to that church. This tells them that “people like us go there”. Having been a church member I know there is nothing special about church members, but to the outsider I suspect they often feel like people from another planet. So for a person to consider going to a congregation they have to know something about the congregation and know somebody who belongs to the congregation.

There is however a third thing and that is there must be something that makes them think that Christianity is something they want to investigate or be involved in. If you want religious language some nudging of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that can simply be the feeling that those people who go there are nice people to know I would like to get to know them better but for the most part, people who decide to come through the doors on a Sunday to worship will have some idea that Christianity maybe for them. It maybe that there needs to be a social life to the church that gives a space where people who do not yet have this inkling that Christianity may be for them but who value the friendships they are developing with members of the congregation.

Of course the Holy Spirit can and does use members, there possibly also needs to be encouragement for people to share about their faith with this group. Now I do not mean that members need sermons telling them they must share their faith or else, but that there needs to be some sort of reward for people who do share about their faith. Now I am not sure how this is built in, the old evangelical practice of testimony, at its best gave people a space to try this out that was relatively non-threatening, i.e. the congregation are hardly going to be put out because you talk about God, and often brought rewards in their standing with the congregation. Some congregations might find it useful to have something to give someone and others may find that perhaps faith sharing groups might be useful as a place to share ones faith and to learn to share with others. Actually a good one, is to develop the practice of speaking of the times you see someone else sharing their faith.

Then comes the actual day the person decides, there are going to be reasons why they choose your congregation and the reasons are not probably going to be the ones you’d theoretically liked. They liked a Sunday lie in and your service was the one that allowed them that, or the opposite effect, that your service was early enough that it did not mean that the whole of Sunday morning wasn’t spent at church. It could be that a member is prepared to meet them and walk in with them, or even that they felt that so many people went to your congregation they would not be conspicious. 

However thats just the first week. This is when a welcome matters and that people are given the tools not to feel that they stand out like a sore thumb amongst the regulars.  Sometimes that might mean someone to explain the service to them, sometimes that might mean the quality of the greeting and sometimes that actually might mean that they don’t want any attention at all.

Often people then think the journey is over.  They have a new member but there are a lot of people who will drop out of church going at this point on. What you need is a culture that openly looks to integrate people into the congregation. That gives positive messages not just to the people who come in, but also to the congregation about the people who come in. How many churches could tell you how many attendees have started coming regularly in the last six months unless it is none? Do you make a point of noticing that a person has stopped being an occasional visitor and has started becoming regular. Do you know if such a person is someone who has had previous connections with the Christian faith (maybe someone whose active involvement with a congregation has lapsed but now wants to take on a new commitment) or is looking at it for the first time? How do you celebrate their coming in as part of the fellowship? How do you make sure they are visible to long term members and welcomed? I am not suggesting at this point particularly that they need to come into membership, but it is time they went on the adherents role! and that in itself is worth celebrating.

Then from there to church membership! Again positive work both on involving and educating them into the ways of the congregation. Time to them to evaluate properly whether they do want to belong and time for them to think about what it means to belong.

If a person has been attending regularly for two years then the question really needs to change as to why they are not member and there are legitimate reasons why not. However do congregation even know when someone has been attending for two years or does it all go unnoticed?

I hope what I have outlined is a process that is lot more complex than what is normally supposed. I also hope I have made clear that this process needs a lot more than just straight evangelistic technique, that both the congregation and the individual need to work at making this a path that is celebrated and seen as bringing rewards. Congregations are quick to seize on either the difficulties of new people, who don’t do things the way they always have been done, aren’t as reliable, meaning haven’t been attending for as long or perhaps are demanding meaning needing care and attention. If they do recognise people then it is more likely to be as somebody who helps us keep things going rather than an individual who will enrich the life of the congregation.

The challenge is to make it possible for people to assemble a route into a congregation and when they appear to be doing so, to create ways to support them in so doing.

Why Congregations might not want growth.

It is always assumed that growth is good and that congregations are always in favour of growth. I have come to the conclusion that a congregation may well be cautious about growth and that the reasons they are cautious are powerful reasons.

Firstly the easiest one to get hold of. Growth implies change. It is highly unlikely that if you attract new people to join you that they will be exactly in the same mould as current members. Simply because if they were the chances are they would already be members. Now it is true that the people comining in will change to fit in with the congregation, but to a lesser extent the congregation will have to change to fit with the new members. However many people in the church look for to the church as a place of stability in a world of change. The idea that new people coming into the church will change how the congregation does things, is not attractive.

Secondly new people within the congregation are very likely to reset where the power exactly lies. This may be because they happen to relate more easily to one group of current members than another. This may be because they have specific skills, this maybe because they naturally do things differently and thus question the common place assumptions of the congregation. When power starts to move between people it is an uncomfortable experience.

Thirdly size makes a difference to how you can do things. A congregation that likes to do things together, to involve everyone and does not like to be separated up, is going to find it has it increases size to over one hundred it is harder and harder to do things that way. This is because humans do not sustain endless relationships but normally about 150. You simply have to work much harder to be tight knit sort of congregation if you have 150 members than you do if you have 50 members. I suspect congregations over 250 simply don’t function that way.

Fourthly outreach seems to me to entail a level of being open and vulnerable, that a congregation has to be open to rejection by people outside it, to being told it is not wanted and probably to having things not done how it would like them if it is truly to engage with people who are outside the church.

What exactly do we mean by “welcoming and friendly”?

Let me be clear as far as I can ascertain all United Reformed Churches are “Welcoming and Friendly”. By this I don’t mean all congregations claim that. All congregations of all denominations claim that. What I mean is that from my own experience, I can only think of one congregation I have ever heard of as being unfriendly and that was a decade before the report. Also I have been reading Mystery Worshipper reports on Ship of Fools it seems to be a constant theme when talking about a United Reformed congregation.

I have sort of felt that when the growth experts, go on about how a church should be welcoming and friendly at least as far as the URC is concerned, they are preaching to the converted. We have sorted what being welcoming is at least as far as the reports go. People are not being turned away from the United Reformed Congregations in vast droves because the congregations are unwelcoming. It is not just a matter that congregation have to more welcoming and people will flood in. If I could suggest anything to the church people interested in Evangelism it would be that they let go of being a welcoming and friendly congregation and concentrated there efforts elsewhere. Being a “Welcoming and friendly” congregation only matters once you have people coming in. If those people never come in, then it does not matter how you perfect your skills at being “friendly and welcoming” you will not recruit anybody.

However my view is changing. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that all United Reformed Churches are doing their best to be welcoming and friendly and for the most part suceeding. What I no longer believe is that all United Reformed Churches understanding “Welcoming and friendly” to mean the same thing.

So does a church being welcoming and friendly mean:

  1. that others in the congregation recognise you, are mildly interested in what is going on in your life and are ready to chat when you meet
  2. that the congregation provides happenings on a daily basis so that you never need to be lonely but can always go down to the church and chat with somebody
  3. that they keep a note of when you are not in church and check how you are when you are absent for a couple of weeks
  4. that you find it easy to form friendships with people there
  5. that they are ready to help you out even if this is your first visit to the congregation.
  6. that someone greets you at the door and some one talks to you at your first visit.

I guess that the list could go on. The point is not that one of these is correct and the others are wrong but that people will construct being a “welcoming and friendly” congregation to be those of the above that they are good at. Some congregations will even decide that certain of those behaviours are anything but welcoming and friendly.