Reflections on Rural Church Growth

Over the years, before, during and after my ordination, I’ve had the privilege of serving in both urban and rural church settings. Currently, I find myself in a mixed bag of churches, grouped together which range from a suburban parish right through to rural settings. One of these parishes is the church of St. James the Great, Rudry. This post aims to reflect and comment, just a little, on this particular church, as it’s growing.

The main reason why my blog has been so quiet over the last year or so has been because of my ordination training, of which the writing of my dissertation took up any otherwise free time to write my blog. However, now that pre ministry training has finished and I am now in the swing of being the Country Parson, I now feel able to take up my writing again. So this first blog since the silence is a “good news story”. It’s about a small parish church with limited resources. It’s a story of growth; church growth, both spiritually and numerically.

St James’, Rudry has, over the last year or so, started to see things change for the positive. Certainly over the last six months or so, there has been a marked change in the church family. There is an invigorating drive to share the gospel in word and deed, there is more hunger and thirst to grow in faith, and there is an outward looking vision fostered in the hearts of those who are established in that little community.

During the summer months of 2016, we were getting congregations around the 20 mark. This was a huge improvement on previous years where congregations were as low as between three and six people. So that’s a good news story in itself. But a few weeks ago, there were 43 in church (one quarter of which were under 18), and these are numbers we are seeing more and more every Sunday.

Why is this, and what has happened? Here are some of my initial thoughts and answers:

  1. Because there is an emphasis on belonging – The congregation at Rudry have decided to make a marked effort to welcome people, not just to a feel good club, but to a church where Jesus is proclaimed as Lord. It’s always been the case that churches have been told to be welcoming. But there is a difference between welcome and hospitality. Over the last year or so, a greater emphasis on pastoral concern amongst the congregation, more social events and a drive to make all our church services appropriate for all ages (which is a very hard task, but not impossible) have resulted in church growth.
  2. There are more opportunities to learn – Because the congregation are active in socialising with each other (and therefore belong more closely as a family), there is a willingness to meet together to grow in faith outside of a Sunday morning. The parish has had one off / short series bible studies in the past which have been very successful, and not just with clergy leading (which I will come on to in a moment). But now, we have just initiated the formation of a house group as a joint effort between Rudry and another parish in our group. It’s early days yet, but the first signs reveal that this is will also aid in further spiritual growth, and depth. Meeting regularly to worship together, pray for each other and study the Bible together have been and will be vital for a growing church. House groups are a place of relationship building but they’re also for serious study of God’s word.
  3. The ministry of all God’s people – This is something which I have written extensively about in my dissertation. It’s also a hot topic of the Church in Wales at the moment as it seeks to save itself from extinction. Despite the downward spiral of the Church in Wales, Rudry is bucking the trend. One thing I argue strongly against in my dissertation is the clericalisation of laity. In order for laity to minister, they do not need to dress up in robes and act as priests; they can teach, lead groups, minister to the sick, evangelise and initiate their own projects within the church with the support of the clergy – that’s what we’re there for; to teach orthodox theology and empower people to live that theology out in their lives. To be there to cheer them on, to help them when they’re stuck, and rejoice with them when the Kingdom of God is extended through their responding to Jesus’ call. We need to move away from maintenance of the traditional understanding of Sunday Morning Worship (which, in Wales, is Eucharist every Sunday) and move back to a mixed mode of word services and sacrament services. Radical for some, but necessary if we are to minister effectively, I think.
  4. Practical application and relevant teaching on Sunday mornings – I’ve already touched on this, but Sunday mornings are now geared to be “all age” every Sunday. This is mostly because our building is small and we don’t have a church hall or any other room for the children to go to. We don’t have toilet facilities or running water so we have been forced, in some ways, to stay together. But, for us, this has been a good thing. Our sermons are now focussed to be all age. This doesn’t mean that they are watered down. Rather, it means that even if a sermon is delivered to adults, there is one part of it where the children can get involved. We have a “children’s corner” for them when they want to do something else. As far as my sermons go, I’m being intentional about trying to make them engaging, relevant, illuminating, and practical. I try to make them engaging by drawing the congregation in and taking part – this could be getting the children to do something for me, it could be a Q&A amongst the whole congregation, or it could be telling a story. I try to make them relevant by seeing where we are as a church family and using the lectionary scripture readings to speak into our current situation as individuals, but also as a church family. I try to make them illuminating by focussing on key truths about the Christian faith and aiming to teach them well. I’m not saying I’m a brilliant preacher! Rather, I’m saying this is where the focus of my sermon preparation lies. My dissertation has a section in it that talks about the biblical illiteracy of Christians in the present day. My aim is to empower people to be biblically literate. I don’t spend my time pointing out so-called “biblical inconsistencies” or sharing some new, trendy theological fad, or expounding weird facts, or dwelling on theological arguments over how many letters attributed to Paul are by him, or how many Isaiahs there were. My belief is that those questions are not for a Sunday morning sermon slot. You’re well within your right to disagree with me, and I completely get that my approach to this is partly (maybe even mostly) because I’m an Evangelical. But I’m just sharing what we have seen work in this context. Finally, practical; practical in the sense that I offer ways in which to apply the text to the every day life of the listener at the end, and sometimes provide resources to help people remember to do it, whether that’s an email, a bible verse to stick on the fridge or something else.
  5. Leadership – I think clear leadership is a more accurate “title” for this point. A church needs a shepherd. This doesn’t mean that The Leader makes all the decisions, but that rather the Leader is the one that brings everything together and holds a team. There’s a lot of discussion about how churches should be led, and personally I still think they need to be led by ordained clergy. But done properly, clergy can be there as pastor whilst enabling and empowering others to take leadership roles within the congregation. Leadership needs to be consistent and visible. This is something we are often wrestling with as the clergy team in the area have 6 church buildings (4 parishes) to cover throughout the week. So whilst we’re trying our hardest, this is a challenge for us.
  6. We take communication seriously – The congregation has done a brilliant job of making sure they get things into the local community magazine. Growth from this is hard to measure, but it shows engagement and willing to work with organisations outside of the church. It profiles what we’re doing and allows those who may come in the future to recognise faces from the magazine picture and to be familiar with who we are, what we’re about and why we do what we do. In the last month, the PCC has decided to revamp its notice board and to build a dynamic church website to extend our communication channels and to be present online. We’re also getting into social media to compliment the website. The website (at the time of writing) is due to be launched soon and its address is www.rudry.church

Of course, we’re just in the early stages of growth at the moment, and there have been many mistakes and hiccups already. Presently, we’re actually in a fragile time. The challenge for us right now is to continually and consistently monitor where we are and address challenges pertaining to growth as and when they arise. For a church with a small budget and a restricted building, this will inevitably mean sacrifices in the future; greater involvement of the whole congregation in taking up ministry within the church, and that dreaded one, sacrificial giving, if we are to foster the gifts that God has given us. The fact that we are now at seating capacity most weeks is one very large (but positive) challenge, and there are of course a few big, exciting answers to that challenge. So please pray for us as we seek the answer to “what, and where next?”.

 

Resources:

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Photo taken by “gazj38”, published on his Flickr Feed.

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Dean Roberts

Dean is a Minister in the Anglican Church. Currently he is Curate in the parishes of Bedwas, Machen, Michaelston-y-Fedw and Rudry in South Wales. He was born and bred in Wales, is married to Megan, and has two dogs called Taliesin and Melyn, and two cats named Sinsir and Hâf. He graduated from Cardiff University with a BA Hons. in Theology & Religious Studies, and has studied for an MA in Theology, Ministry & Mission at Trinity College Bristol. He also holds a Cert.RSCM from the Royal School of Church Music. He loves playing music, walking, reading, blogging and horse riding as well as going to the cinema and theatre. Read More @ http://deanroberts.net/about