|I wrote this in the late 1980s but there is still relevance today regarding ministry and as it addresses radical faith organisation at a time of steep decline.|
A visit into any evangelical bookshop will show on the shelves a range of books about church growth; Robin Gill has written from a more moderate perspective in Beyond Decline: A Challenge to the Churches. The purpose of this part-review is to see whether this book has anything to say to radical Christians and Unitarians.
A sociologist and a theologian, he uses his dual perspective to analyse decline and the means for restructuring mainstream churches for today's conditions. Most of all, however, he uses his experience as a non-stipendary priest in charge of a rural congregation - "praxis theology" (p. 6).
Whilst theologians are open to debate, the declining churches protect the faithful by emphasising doctrinal conformity. Being marginalised in a pluralist society churches feel they should hand out moralistic prescriptions (p. 20). Evangelistic campaigns are pursued for their surface signs of success but in reality they do not attract newcomers but those which are already handling Christian symbols and who wish to give extra denominational commitment (pp. 69-72). He criticises the reductionism of the radical, which catering for the already Christian cannot attract to a church someone who is already secularised (p. 131).
As he well observes, for example with resurrection, academics discuss a more limited critical range of options than ordinary belief (p. 15-16) and he hopes that such belief pluralism will be recognised (p. 19). Whilst the sociology of knowledge shows the differing relative nature of words used in faith (p. 127-8), the permanent element is supplied by the relationship of faith to God in Christ. That permanence also guards against reductionism, so that Jesus's eschatology can be reused today in terms of the nuclear threat (p. 133). He hopes that the explicit source of values of the churches will allow for sensitive pastoral and moral work rather than moralism (p. 63). Guilt of no growth should be avoided with flexible strategies for numerical growth whilst quality remains central (p. 80).
His greatest recommendations are a shift of paid ministry to where people live. Rural clergy should be supplied by unpaid (or partly-paid) non-stipendary ministers commuting to jobs elsewhere which is far better than amalgamating churches under one stipendary minister which simply continues decline. He sees new churches within cities using folk religion to attract new as much as lapsed members (although this does contrast with his claim for the centrality of eucharistic worship) (pp. 85-119).
The problem with Gill's approach is that when the sociology of knowledge highlights the relative nature of all statements, how does he know that behind them is the reality of God in Christ? Such a general claim obviously leads to many supporting it by adherence to the details so available in the creeds. Also the radical Christian does not reduce away doctrines leaving less and less in a realist sense but recreates faith by non-realism. Then what is felt in the religious individual and in the collectivity can be said; radical religion is about human mythology so created to tell us something about our longings and desires.
In a pluralist situation there is specialisation, and this is one of them. In churches where the mixture of Bible and creeds are interpreted as pointers to God in Christ they are also used to specialise. The broad Church, on whose resources Gill relies for his solutions, may be coming to an effective end. Whist ecumenism reduces differences between old denominations, new ones are emerging and perhaps new denominations too.
Gill's solutions in any case are very conservative unlike those of Russell (1984), whom he does not mention, where laity can adopt priestly roles like administering the eucharist. Why not train members of the laity?
Clearly this is a book referring most to the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of England where he draws on his experience. Yet there are some points of debate for Unitarians and radical Christians in freedom of belief and radical Christian Churches (the latter which may come into being as a continuing organisation).
Amalgamated churches under one minister lead to decline, he claims. It is perhaps the only way in which a congregationalist system can continue to afford stipends. Perhaps it is indeed better for a minister to have a part time or full time career and be attached to one church than spread around, unless in each church there are capable trained lay leaders. Other ministers, perhaps modelled on Tiller's (1983) support teams, can assist churches but would do denominational work and receive most of their stipend centrally. Ministry pay is too high for many congregations and unless there is change there may soon be no call for a ministry.
In a freedom of belief church it is too limiting to have a minister taking the pulpit every week. They should do no more than two services a month so to create a local market place of worship and ideas. The minister can show others what to do, and may give some help in production. Variety is the spice of life within Unitarianism. Involvement in this and pastoral areas generates enthusiasm. In the radical Christian model the minister may have to do more in defining boundaries but again it will have specially interested members.
In this age of mobility, community churches may be less important and people will travel to what interests them. Publicity outside must exist so that no one who could be interested fails to hear about the Unitarian or radical church. Then inside the standards of service taking must be high. The acid test is whether there are enough people interested in radical Christianity or a community of freedom of belief within each urban area.
Gill, R. (1988), Beyond Decline: A Challenge to the Churches, London: SCM Press.
Tiller, J. (1983), A Strategy for the Church's Ministry, London: CIO Publishing.
class="biblio"Russell, A. (1984), The Clerical Profession, London: SPCK.