The two reports about church growth that came out recently are exercising my mind. Two issues come out of them which have caused many sharp intakes of breath across the Church of England. One is the discovery that multi-parish benefices, or lumping a lot of parishes together under one minister, is a significant factor in church decline and churches flourish much better when they have a leader of their own. The other issue is the fact that so many fresh expressions of church are led by lay people and indeed by lay people with little or no training. And that these congregations or churches are, by and large, ‘working’.
So is it really rocket science to say simply: let each church prayerfully choose its own leader, a member of that congregation. Give them permission and encouragement to lead that church for a year at a time (damage limitation, both for the church and for the person). That person can take charge, prioritise their church, take the initiative without being handicapped by always needing to wait until the day the overbusy ordained minister has time or energy to make the new good ideas happen. Lay people can just get on with it.
Yes, yes have oversight: the wardens and PCC would still be there and you would need an ordained person in contact with that local leader to pray for and with them, cheer them on, advise them, point them towards useful resources and who can find out what on the job ‘training’ would help the local leader do the job better. It’s unlikely to be a six week course in hermeneutics but might well be how to read the Bible aloud in church or how to have a discipline of personal prayer. Let the diocese provide that training centrally to make it cost effective. The ordained person can offer eucharists, weddings, funerals, baptisms to the churches in their care but won’t be available for every service every week every hour of the day: the local church has to make up its mind what it’s going to do with the three – four – five – maybe more weeks in which it can’t have communion.
Messy Churches and other fresh expressions of church have proved beyond reasonable doubt that if you give a Christian permission and resources, s/he can start and sustain a great missional growing church congregation. We don’t need to be ordained. We’ve also shown that if you give a Christian the responsibility of leadership, that Christian grows in their faith and is renewed in their love of God: risky leadership is a massive step in growing disciples. Imagine a village church where a sixteen year old takes charge for a year. Or a humble, loving eighty year old. Or a passionate thirty year old. Or a competent sixty year old. Imagine the effect on the life and faith of those people. Imagine what – and who – they could bring to their churches.
What have we got to lose? And what an exciting prospect for a church and for an individual who picks up the opportunity to lead! All we need is permission.