Defining Church Growth for Traditional Anglicans:

Leaving behind failed models of church growth for new ones.


By The Rev. Matthew J. Mirabile

July 2021






A Necessary Revolution

The Continuing jurisdictions have existed, to a greater or lesser degree, as an archipelago of disparate, and at times, contentious bodies, in a state of slow decline, like many other churches in the West. If the witness of the Continuing churches is to thrive into the future, the movement needs to flourish and grow. Church Growth then, is of utmost concern.


The Right Reverend Stephen C. Scarlett, in his oft referenced paper Church Growth and Evangelism in the Anglican Catholic Church said, “We must realize that change is necessary–perhaps a revolution.” That a revolution is necessary is apparent every time church growth is mentioned.


As soon as those two words are uttered – “Church Growth” - Continuing churchmen are quick to voice disapproval. Talk about growth, parish vitality and evangelism and be prepared for endless rebuttal, from the tiring, “But we are in an anti-Christian culture and all the churches are in a state of decline”, to the pedantic, “The Holy Spirit (alone) is responsible for growth and any other efforts are man-made and to be rejected” and “The Church Growth Movement has been disastrous! We want nothing to do with it!” Well, that is clear. If there has been a wholesale rejection of anything church growth related, it shows! It shows in mission and numbers and mission effectiveness.


Those rebuttals are all fallacies. A church body that interprets any mention of growth in the worst possible terms will certainly not grow! Having denied the abuses of the movement, you have also denied any benefit as well. Abusus non tollit usam.


The resistance is telling. It suggests there is no growth ethos native to the Continuing Anglican movement or no new model of church growth/mission has taken root, but instead we have stalled on old and outmoded ideas. We must correct this deficit if an Anglican expression of the Catholic Faith is to be passed on. And I believe it is critical to do so.


I concur with all the points Bp. Scarlett raises in his fine paper and offer this paper as a sort of follow up to his imperative, albeit with the more biting rhetoric fitting for a revolutionary. I will reiterate some of his points because they are so fundamental, so essential, that they require emphasis. They also bear repeating because it seems every time there is an open discussion about growth we have to repeat them again and again.


Finally, as a member of the Joint Synod Continuing Forward Planning committee and work group, I feel it is important to address several other points not contained in his work. The first is our working definition.


What we mean when we say “Church Growth”

Church growth is not complicated. We make it complicated when we associate it with methods whose chief goal is numerical growth - people in pews. To achieve that goal, they rely on marketing methods and outcome-based strategies. We reject this entirely!


If you have in mind the Seeker-Friendly church growth movement of the 90s’ or the models that depend on committees and strategic planning, like the failed Millennium Development Goals of the Episcopal Church (from the 80s’ and 90s’), put them out of your mind. We are not talking about those models.


Those obviously stilted approaches, focus on one outcome above all others - numbers. I want to put this misunderstanding to bed once and for all: When we talk about Church Growth we are not referencing these models!


When we talk about Church Growth, we are advocating a process that puts the spiritual vitality of the individual and the parish at the foundation, prayer as the nails that hold every effort together, and a mission that engages the world around us with the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ as the blueprint. It employs the labor of every parishioner according to their strength and skill, and utilizes all available materials and methods to erect the building. When we say Church Growth, this is a fitting metaphor.


It would be helpful to develop a concise, easy to remember definition to describe our approach as traditional Anglicans today:

Church Growth describes our commitment to nurture the spiritual vitality of every local parish for the life of the world.

By this definition numeric growth is not the goal, but the natural outcome of a spiritually, psychologically and theologically healthy parish that organizes its members to nurture one another in love and heal the world within its reach according to its charisms.


This pattern of growth is entirely consistent with a catholic ethos that exists in a humble submission to the Holy Spirit as the chief architect of the expansion of the Kingdom of God locally and beyond – to Jerusalem, Judea and the uttermost parts of the earth.


This pattern is consistent with the model we find in Acts 2:42 where the church is organized and expands as the people of God devote themselves to apostolic teaching, fellowship, eucharist, and prayers - and this within the context of a self-sacrificing love that boldly bears witness, even under the threat of imprisonment and death.


It is consistent with the Celtic way of evangelism[1] by St. Patrick and Columba, the evangelical Anglican tradition demonstrated and advocated by Roland Allen[2] and put into effect in East Africa with lasting good effect, and the evangelical ministries of the Oxford Movement[3].


How This Pattern Generates a Growth Outcome

The definition and pattern we are advocating compromises nothing for the sake of growth. Indeed, it doubles-down, out of prophetic and pastoral urgency, on those Christian essentials and Anglican distinctives that make us what we are. It proposes no liturgical innovation, only those things which are permissible by the local bishop and our tradition. It rejects any compromise that demands the gospel bend to the zeitgeist, understanding that it is precisely at this moment in history we must boldly proclaim the truth, even if the cost is great. None of these are recipes for immediate numerical growth! In fact, some would say they are counter-intuitive. Perhaps that is exactly where we need to be.


Our culture has been reorienting around mysticism, authenticity and ultimate meaning/purpose for some time. According to the Social Cycle Theories[4] proposed by the Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, we may very well be transitioning to an Ideational Age where these values become ascendant. This is tempered by the hyper-modern/postmodern backdrop and social collapse of our time. How can our mission rise to these trends?


1. Practice Authenticity. People are seeking authenticity. In an age where marketing and spin pander for our attention, authenticity is a powerful economy. Being authentically and unapologetically Anglican is intrinsically attractive. It means owning the entire Anglican Tradition and not cherry-picking it for what suits us. Nor is it an excuse for shoddy churchmanship, but is an occassion to express the highest vision of our tradition.


2. Be Inspirational! Western societies have experienced a wholesale collapse of public trust across all institutions. The credibility gap has become a great chasm between the church and our world. Attractional[5] models that focus on numbers and money cannot bridge that gap. An Inspirational model bridges the credibility gap by practicing inspirational Christianity: living in love in our churches, demonstrating charity to the world, and communicating the Gospel through Spirit-empowered witness. As Continuing churches take up just such a pattern (abandoning the subtle and pervasive Attractional mindset we unknowingly share with everyone else. ie. "people will attend our services because they are looking for our style of worship") we can reignite the flame of a credible Faith.


3. Beauty and Mystery. Churches that continue to pander to the passions and predilections of our decaying society will phase out with them. Churches that elevate beauty and mystery, speaking deeper things, will eventually persist and continue. This is the very definition of what it means to be a continuing church. A culture of death needs beauty and truth to help it regain its senses. The rich beauty of our liturgical tradition should be on full display. An emphasis on mystery, paradox and interiority are antidotes to cold rationalism, and empty materialism.


4. Meaning and Purpose. Materialism and hedonism have left us empty. Any church that helps people find meaning and purpose will gain a hearing. This domain is a convoluted space though, occupied as much by progressive values as conservative ones. The first bear the false promise of purpose organized around temporal things like climate change, sexuality and justice. The second offers the real promise of ultimate meaning through a relationship with the transcendent, but by uncomfortable truths. The call to repentance is therefore inseperable from the promise of real meaning and purpose, and must be carried out, ready to sacrifice any short-term and shallow growth for this prophetic duty. Here, we demonstrate that our conversations about church growth are not at the cost of our heavenly reward. Numeric growth is inconsequential to the long-term integrity of the Faith and the eternal destiny of souls when faced with eternity.


5. Authority. Amid the confluence of contradictory truth claims of a postmodern age, churches that possess and promote credible schema for the authority of their church will attract people looking for safety and security. The Roman Church for example, has offset losses because the Papal and magisterial claims propose a credible solution to the crisis of authority in our time. The Orthodox church likewise, has offset loses by promoting its antiquity and unity. Anglican-derived church bodies have yet to sort this out. Our divisions undermine confidence in the authoritative claims of our tradition. Against this postmodern backdrop we must have an equally robust locus of authority. Continuing Anglicans have this credible schema in a Consensual/Vincentian argument for its own continuity with the church catholic. As we fully possess and promote this argument as a primary locus of authority for our tradition, we will gain people looking for a refuge from the insecurities of our time.


6. Christ-likeness. The world around us is bound up by sectarianism and exploited by people who sow division and hatred. We cannot participate in that spirit. We are not called to be antiquarians or antagonists, we are called to give ourselves for the life of the world, as Christ did. Without cost. Without self-regard. People need to see selfless, good-faith actors in the world. Our calling to engage the many issues that face our society, from injustice to addiction, poverty to politics, with charity nd good faith speaks loudly to a society that is looking for credible witnesses. We cannot let our political and theological adversaries own the narrative of mercy and love. We must exemplify it.


Conclusion

It should be clear that we do not fixate our proposal on short-term results, but the long-term expansion of the Kingdom of God and continuation of this expression of the catholic Faith. Continuing Church Growth does not exist for the sake of metrics, but for the sake of Christ and His Church. That being said, metrics always tell us something. They indicate decline or increase, leaving us to examine the causes.


Over the coming weeks I hope to add more insights and practical details to this pattern of church growth. I also think it is important to recognize this as a pattern and not as a model or strategy to follow strictly. Patterns can be improvised on, like jazz musicians vamping on a scale. And the lead player is the Holy Spirit. Strategies and goals tend to rely on human reason, planning and our own (lack of) insight. It does not mean we don’t make plans or create strategies, but perhaps its more like writing music and then listening to the people you are playing with and for and making the music with and for them. Likewise, we must do a careful survey of methods and best practices, and propose strategies that fit our ethos, so we can utilize best building methods for growth and contextualize them for local use.


There are many implications for the statements above and I have only given a summary. Unpacking the building metaphor (as above) to provide a more useful set of details (like detail call-outs in architectural plans) can help us execute some of the ideas discussed and position us for an increased harvest, God willing. Lord, hear our prayer.


O GOD, who hast made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the whole earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to them that are far off and to them that are nigh; Grant that all men everywhere may seek after thee and find thee. Bring the nations into thy fold, pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten thy kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[6]



[1] Hunter, George III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000 [2] Allen, Roland. Church Planting Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours and The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1962 [3] Geoffrey Rowell. The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism. New York: Oxford University Press. 1983 [4] Sorokin, Pitirim. Social and Cultural Dynamics. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishing, 1957

[5] Hornsby, Billy. The Attractional Church: Growth Through a Refreshing, Relational, and Relevant Church Experience. Nashville FaithWords, 2011

[6] The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church. New York: The Seabury Press, 1976.

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