Why aren’t we growing?

I. The researcher

Tim Sims is a successful businessman and corporate strategist. He has advised many of Australia’s leading companies, was chairman for Australasia/Africa of a major corporate strategy firm, and is the founder and managing director of a high-performing private equity firm. Over the past 30 years he has developed the distinctive ability to burrow down into the facts and details of a company, decipher the brute reality that the data represents, chart a path to improvement and growth, and work with the organization to implement change.

Tim is also an evangelical Christian, and a long-standing member of Christ Church St Ives in Sydney’s north. Over the past two years or so, he has been turning his analytical skills to a different sort of ‘business’—the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Tim has been driving a research project seeking to understand the current state of Anglican churches in Sydney. Why, he wanted to know, were Sydney Anglican churches (on average) growing no better than the population as a whole? And were there any particular variables or factors that might be the clue to improvement?

Tim’s work, which for convenience I will refer to as ‘the Research Project’, was based on a wide range of sources, including data from the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. He has also conducted extensive interviews and case studies with churches across the Sydney Diocese, and surveyed a large volume of reference literature. (Tim particularly credits the unique depth and longevity of the NCLS data and the support of experts in this field as being important in shaping the findings of the study.)

The Research Project findings have been presented to various groups and meetings around Sydney over the past several months. My aim in this article is to summarize the key points and recommendations, and then to interact with them briefly and foreshadow further thinking that needs to be done. It will by no means be a complete representation of all the research—there is simply not space for that here. And as I present and interact with the analysis, I will be doing so as a Sydney Anglican myself, and thus as anything but an impartial observer.

As I do so, my hope and prayer is that evangelical churches in other parts of Australia and the world will benefit, and derive whatever lessons might be most relevant to their particular situations.

II. Some brief context

Some context is required to understand the subject of the Research Project; that is, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. A whole article could easily be spent discussing the main features of Sydney Anglicanism, but in the interests of brevity here is a summary:

  • Sydney Anglicans are by no means monochrome in theology or churchmanship, but it would be fair to say that the majority of the diocese is Reformed-evangelical in theology and ‘low’ in its churchmanship (a minority of Sydney ministers would now ‘robe up’, for example, or only conduct set liturgies from an Anglican prayer book). Moore Theological College has been a key factor in shaping this theological character of the Diocese.
  • Sydney Anglicans are evangelistic in their culture, and embarked on a Diocesan Mission in 2002. The stated aim of the mission was: “To multiply Bible-based Christian fellowships, congregations and churches which equip and nurture their members and expand themselves, both in the Diocese and in all the world”.
  • The Mission has prompted a re-structuring of the Diocese’s finances to reflect mission priorities, and the pursuit of four key mission policies: focusing on prayer for God’s Spirit
    to work; enabling churches to grow in numbers, maturity, and in church-planting; recruiting more gospel workers; and reforming the organizational structure of the diocese.
  • The last 25 years has seen many
    young Sydney men and women head into full-time Christian ministry. The influence of the Ministry Training Strategy (MTS) has been significant in this. New churches are being planted at an encouraging rate.
  • Sydney is the largest and best-resourced of the 27 Anglican dioceses in Australia, accounting for around a third of all Anglican church attenders nationally.

All of which sounds pretty good. But could Sydney Anglicans do better?

III. The challenge?

Any strategic planning or analysis must begin with a brutal confrontation with the facts. All organizations find this difficult. Most of us in the room have some interest or stake in the current state of affairs—either because we helped create it, or because we are critics of it and want to go in a different direction.

Just to make things more interesting, an Anglican Diocese is not the easiest thing to analyse, especially since it consists (in the case of Sydney) of hundreds of largely autonomous congregations with varying demographics, people and resources, and local variations of theology and ministry culture.

This sort of large-scale analysis is also difficult from a theological point of view. If we simply try to figure out ‘what works’ so that we can roll it out more efficiently and have a better spiritual bottom-line, then we find ourselves in danger—not only because we end up compromising on key biblical truths in order to get more people in the door, but also because of the criteria we use to establish what ‘success’ is. In the case of Christian ministry, we look to God for the growth, and require faithfulness of his servants, stewards and fellow workers. Sometimes God will bless faithful work with growth; at other times, things will be slower—not always because of the quality or faithfulness of the work, but for a range of factors that lie outside our knowledge and competence.

However, ‘faithful’ is not a synonym for uncritical or complacent. Nor is an appeal to God’s sovereignty in salvation to be used as a fig-leaf for laziness or incompetence. Faithfulness requires us to look in the mirror and honestly face what we find there. If we can do better, then let us strive to do better. And if a broad-scale statistical analysis of our current circumstances—with all its generalizations and limitations—prompts us to understand ourselves better, and to do better, then that is to the good.

With these cautions and caveats, we are ready to look at the facts. The challenge facing Sydney Anglicans is simple to articulate. Our overall numbers are small as a percentage of the total population, and annual growth is modest. Based on Weekly Average Service Attendance data of all ages, Sydney Anglican congregations are growing at around 1.4% per annum. On average, each year a congregation of 100 sees something like this happen:

+2.4 Newcomers (church attenders, including young Christians growing up through the congregation)
+5.8 Switch in (transfer from another church)
-5.0 Switch out (transfer to another church)
-1.0 Drifted
-0.8 Dead
+1.4 Change (compound annual growth 2001-2006)

At one level, this is cause for thanksgiving, because it could be worse. In fact, in most of the rest of Australia, in most denominations, it is. Almost every other Australian Anglican Diocese would be delighted with these figures, instead of the significant decline they are experiencing.

However, when looked at more closely, and in relation to other factors, the modest growth in Sydney Anglican churches presents a more pressing problem.

For one thing, it can barely be called ‘real growth’, because the population of Sydney is growing at around the same rate. Currently Sydney Anglicans comprise just 1.3% of the total population of Sydney, and Sydney is growing at around 0.9%. If we maintain our 1.4% average annual growth, we will remain a very small proportion of the population.

There are also financial implications. The real cost of running our churches is growing faster than 1.4%. This is partly because Sydney Anglicans have succeeded in doing what very few other Anglican Dioceses in the western world have done in the last 30 years: increase the number of full-time gospel workers being recruited and trained (ordained ministers, youth ministers, children’s workers etc.). We are employing more workers, and this has (obviously) significantly increased the cost base of our congregations. However, at least to this point, there has not been a matching growth in people attending church. Unless there is significant growth in attendance (and thus giving), and relatively soon, this equation will become increasingly vexed.

However, perhaps the most disturbing trend uncovered in the Research Project concerns the demographic changes in Australian society, and how this creates a time-bomb for Anglicans everywhere.

An interesting youth story

The first thing to notice is the difference in age profile between a Sydney Anglican congregation, an Anglican congregation in the rest of Australia, and the Australian population as a whole.

Sydney Anglicans seem to be doing a good job of ministry to teenagers. We have about the same percentage of that age group in our congregations as in the population as a whole. But we then see under-representation by 20-49 year-olds, before reflecting to a lesser degree the Australia-wide Anglican trend of being over-represented in the 60+ age group (Figure 1).

A distinctive youth story graph

The inference that Sydney Anglicans are quite good at youth ministry is born out in National Church Life Survey figures that show significantly higher levels of satisfaction for children’s and youth programs in Sydney than in other parts of Australia. There is a story to tell about youth ministry in Sydney, and why it has been so successful over the past 40 years, but we must leave that for another time.

The story that the Research Project highlights concerns the changing face of Australian marriage and family. Since the early 1970s and the introduction of ‘no fault divorce’, there has been a significant drop in the number of stable marriages in Australia, and a corresponding decline in the number of children born to stable marriages. In fact, the decline in the number of children born overall started earlier, in the early 60s, no doubt due largely to the introduction of the Pill.

Now, if it is true that churches have not being doing well in winning new adult converts over the same period, we would expect the decline in church attendance to roughly match the decline in births. And that is what we do see in church attendance across all denominations in Australia (Figure 2).

Matching decline in attendance graph

What does this mean for Sydney Anglicans and their growth?

The Research Project argues that Sydney Anglicans have done better than most other denominations and dioceses in resisting decline not so much because we see vastly more people converted as adults, but because we have done a better job at ministering to the young people of our church families. Proportionally, we have many more young people in church than other Anglican dioceses. And this is largely the reason we have not declined—even though we lose too many of our young people in their 20s, either to other churches (increasingly the Pentecostal churches), or to the suffocating waters of secularism.

The added challenge of social mobility

The high degree of social mobility in our cities makes the environment even more tricky for Sydney Anglicans—and indeed for all churches. Nearly 40% of our congregations will leave every five years, simply because they have moved house. And accordingly, the same number of potential attenders will move into the suburb. Sydney Anglicans are not losing members through this. If anything they are very slightly gaining on the figures quoted above, but this high level of transfer creates enormous instability within congregations, and something of a popularity contest between churches. It makes it harder to develop stable structures and leadership and continuity.

What does it all mean?

The bottom line of the Research Project is that, unless something changes, the current modest growth rate of Sydney Anglicans is not likely to continue. The demographic changes in our population mean that the numbers of young people coming through will continue to diminish. The tap is steadily being turned off. Our relatively strong children’s and youth work will no longer prop up what might otherwise be a net decline in attendance. And just to magnify the effect, we also have a very sizable older cohort who will depart to glory in the next two decades.

It is small comfort to notice that this pincer movement will crush other Australian Anglicans more quickly and devastatingly. They have an even older average age profile, less success in ministering to youth, and are doing even worse in finding new adult members or converts.

However, the fact that Sydney seems better placed than other dioceses is no reason for self-congratulation. Unless something is done, these twin effects will likely result in decline in the generation to come.

What are the implications?

Let us just note two.

Firstly, these figures underscore the importance of a strong youth ministry. A strong ‘feeder’ youth ministry would seem to be non-negotiable for most congregations. Sydney Anglicans should not be complacent about this. The Research suggests that even though we are doing better than many others, there are still significant weaknesses, especially in the 12-15 age group. Only about two thirds of young people attending Sunday school in Year 6 remain in youth group at age 15. Can we do more to retain them?

The Research Project also suggests that how we think about youth ministry may need to change as the number of youth diminishes, and as the nature of ‘adolescence’ changes. At one level, we see our young people ‘growing up’ more quickly than ever—in terms of their access to information and ideas. However, at another level, adolescence is lasting longer. The social structures that characterize ‘youth’ are now extending well into people’s 20s, yielding a different social pattern than in previous generations. (There was no concept of adolescence a century ago.)

This presents an opportunity for extending our success in youth ministry forward into the early-to-mid 20s. This would seem to be a key priority—because over the past 30 years or so Sydney Anglicans have lost significant numbers of members in their 20s (hence the under-representation in this age group). Can we help our young people navigate this extended transition into adulthood more effectively? How would we do that? This is one of the significant questions the Research Project prompts us to ask.

However, the second and more significant implication of this part of the Research Project is that we must face up to our failure to find new adult converts/attenders. As already noted above, for every 100 people in our churches we gain 5.8 each year from people switching into our churches from other cities or denominations. But we lose just as many through people transferring out or drifting away from church (a total of 6.0 people on average), and a high proportion of the 2.4 newcomers that we add to our attendance come through nurturing our ‘home grown’ young people or long-term returnees rather than conversion.

We are speaking in averages and trends here. Individual churches of course see adult converts and new attenders, but as a whole Sydney Anglicans are not reaching the non-Christian adult population of our city.

The next question we must ask is: why?

IV. Hard questions

To ask why Sydney Anglicans are seeing only a small number of adult converts is to ask a hard question. It’s hard because it hurts. We long to see the lost around us brought to salvation, and it pains us that they are doing so in such small numbers. It’s also hard because there is an implied criticism. Are we doing something wrong? If so, whose fault is that?

It’s also hard because we are talking about people, not unit sales. And not just people but people with a spiritual life (or lack thereof). So imagine a young couple comes to one of our churches, are warmly welcomed, hear the gospel compellingly and prayerfully presented, are faithfully and sensitively followed up afterwards, but never return because they did not like what they heard. Does that count as success or failure? You would have to say it counts as ‘success’, because we have faithfully done our part, and must leave it to God to do his.

And finally, these are difficult questions because there are multiple variables. There is no one simple answer. Here too our presuppositions come most into play—for example, about what’s required for someone to be converted, what role church meetings have in evangelism, and so on. We cannot deal with all these issues now, but let’s look at the analysis that is being put forward.

The Research Project firstly suggests that some of the common reasons we posit for our lack of growth do not stand up to analysis. For example, it is tempting to think that the reason so few Sydney-siders are joining our churches is that they are largely hostile to Christianity and to churchgoing. We can certainly gain that impression from some sections of the media, whose stance towards the gospel (and in particular towards Sydney Anglicans) has been largely negative for the last two decades. This is the narrative of secularism—that modern cities like Sydney are on a trajectory towards an ever-increasing rejection of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

This is one of those narratives that everyone finds easy to believe, because it suits both sides. It makes the secularists feel that they are steadily banishing the superstition of religion from society, and it makes the churches feel better because it provides an external explanation for their decline.

However, there is little evidence that the secularization narrative is accurate. Even on a general level, responses to the question “Is there something beyond this life that makes sense of it all?” show very little change between the generations. In fact, it’s interesting that the elderly have the strongest opinions at both ends of the spectrum (Figure 3).

There is something beyond this life that makes sense of it all graph

In comparison with other things, confidence in the church, and attendance at church, remain higher than we might think. 39% of Australians have a high level of confidence in churches (ranked fourth after the police, health system and education system). 71% report having attended a special church service in the last year, and 40% a regular church service.

In other words, although the outspoken atheists and cultured despisers of Christianity may seem very prominent to us, this may well be because they are over-represented among the media gatekeepers and opinionisers. The population as a whole is not nearly as hostile to Christianity or to churchgoing as we think.

However, there is a very strong view in the community that while churches are quite good places, and Christianity is a positive thing, actual church attendance is unnecessary to be a Christian. Even regular attenders believe this in startling numbers (Figure 4).

Real Christians don't need to go to church graph

So the situation (broadly speaking) is that we have significant numbers of people who are vaguely positive towards church and Christian belief, but ambivalent about actually attending. This is borne out in the significant numbers of visitors who flow through our church doors each year but do not stay. On any given Sunday, in an average Sydney Anglican church of 100 there will be:

  • 80 people who come often enough to report themselves as ‘weekly attenders’
  • 20 fringe or infrequent attendees.

That group of 20 infrequent attendees is made of 40 people who come more than monthly, and 280 people who come less than monthly (which could be anything from a one-off visit to someone who comes 6 or 7 times).

On top of this, the average church of 100 will have at least 600 people come to a special service run by the church (a baptism, funeral or wedding).

These figures are quite extraordinary. They are not evenly distributed—that is, not every church of 100 gets this number of visitors. However, for all those who don’t see these figures, some must get even more to generate this average.

What is equally extraordinary and disappointing is that, given this flow of visitors and infrequent attenders, so few decide to stay. Our ‘conversion rate’ is very low—that is, the rate at which newcomers or visitors find compelling reasons to stay at our churches and become regular attenders.

We can’t help but ask why. Indeed, churches often do ask why, and various explanations are put forward to explain growth or lack of growth. Common factors mentioned are things like:

  • the particular suburb the church is in
  • the ethnicity of people in the suburb
  • if the suburb is a growth area
  • the length of service of the pastor
  • the staff ratio (i.e. number of congregation members per staff).

However, statistically, none of these factors correlates to growth or decline in attendance. The reason a particular church is growing (or not) has almost nothing to do with these factors.

So why aren’t we growing? The Research Project posits three reasons.

1. The content and presentation of our church meetings are not sufficiently compelling. 42% of non-attenders or infrequent attenders say that their main reason for not going to church is that the services are “boring or unfulfilling”. This is the highest rating factor in their stated reasons for not attending (ahead of not agreeing with the church’s beliefs or moral values). Responses like these need to be taken with a grain of salt—after all, this figure is based on a broad-ranging community survey of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The “boring and unfulfilling” services they are talking about might be long-remembered school chapel services of their youth, or Roman Catholic masses, or anything.

However, if such a high percentage of our visitors come in the door, sit through our church meetings, and never return, then it should certainly prompt us to look honestly at our gatherings. What is it like for a visitor or newcomer to attend your church? Do you give them a compelling reason to come back?

By far the best way to answer these questions is actually to invite a friend to come with you to church. As the meeting proceeds, with your friend sitting next to you, you will become painfully aware of all the ways in which your gatherings are embarrassing or incomprehensible or simply mediocre.

As far as the Research Project is concerned, it is assumed that better and more compelling presentation does not mean the watering down of theology or solid biblical teaching. But there are massive questions involved about the nature and purpose of church, to which we must return.

2. Lack of genuine spiritual growth among congregation members. Churches where congregation members report strong levels of personal spiritual growth—of growing in prayer, in knowledge of God, in depth of discipleship—are also churches which succeed in retaining newcomers. And vice versa.

This may be because spiritually maturing Christians pray more for their newcomers! It may also be because genuinely growing Christians are the kind who invite other people to come along, and love them when they do come. However, it is also because an authentic or ‘real’ group of Christians will be a much more attractive group to join than a bunch of superficial ‘social Christians’. We would all want our newcomers not only to think “This is the kind of message and content I need to hear again”, but also, “These are the kind of people I want to meet again”.

There is no faking this. It can’t be done with a brochure or a program. The extent to which our congregations themselves are an advertisement for the gospel is a function of how well they have been schooled in the life that ‘accords with sound doctrine’, as Titus 2 puts it. This relates to the quality of the discipling in our congregations. How effectively is each member being pushed forward in Christian maturity?

3. Follow-up is inadequate. It is quite common in Sydney Anglican churches for visitors and newcomers to fill in some sort of response/visitors card. And many churches would then send some kind of letter or email to the visitor thanking them for coming, and perhaps inviting them to a newcomers’ lunch.

However, ongoing personal follow-up of visitors is rare—phoning and/or visiting them, sticking with them over time, seeking to understand where they are ‘at’ spiritually and helping them to make progress, personally inviting them to our homes and to our small groups, and so on.

This sort of intensive personal follow-up is highly effective, but clearly cannot be undertaken by the pastoral staff alone—which is why it often does not get done. There is simply no time. The lack of personal follow-up of newcomers, then, is a problem not really of organization but of training. We have not trained our members for this ministry.

V. What to do about it?

The recommendations that flow out of the Research Project are in a sense not all that radical. They constitute a fairly straightforward set of suggestions for church-based evangelism based on the observation that there are more than enough potential visitors and newcomers to keep us busy and growing, if we could do more to retain them. The prescription is essentially to focus our efforts on:

  • improving the content and presentation of our public gatherings
  • building a more ‘authentic gospel community’ where Christians are genuinely growing in discipleship
  • being more consistent and personal in greeting, following up, and integrating newcomers.

The Research Project describes this first stage as ‘back to basics’, and this seems a fair description. With these basic areas in better shape, the next step would be to maximize the strength of these core activities by such things as:

  • engaging in a more proactive invitation ministry; that is, going out seeking more newcomers and visitors
  • planting churches in new areas where there is strong potential for visitors, newcomers and invitation.

The final aspect of the Research worth noting is the recognition that a re-ordering of church priorities and activities towards improving the quality of our ‘core business’ will need to be driven by the pastoral leadership of Sydney churches. This is challenging, because (as the Research Project notes) pastors already feel stretched, pressured, and to varying degrees inadequately prepared for the task. Many report being close to burn out. There will clearly be a need to help, encourage and support pastoral leaders as they clear their diaries, cancel some events, and lead their churches to focus on core priorities.

In conclusion, it is also important to point out that the Research team sees the work done so far in the Research Project as Phase 1—as a call for action, and an initial set of recommendations, not the end of the process. Further work is already under way to work out what specific and practical steps would be most useful to take. (The Briefing will aim to bring you more on this as it becomes available.)

VI. Reflections

What are we to make of the Research Project, and especially its key conclusions and recommendations?

The ministry presuppositions we bring will heavily influence how we react, and what key lessons we derive. The ministry philosophy that The Briefing has been defending and promoting for the past 23 years is based on the sufficiency and power of the word of God, a prayerful trust in God’s sovereignty, and a bias towards people and training over structures and programs (the three Ps: proclamation, prayer, people). With these assumptions on the table, here are four brief personal reflections, and some suggestions about where the discussion needs to continue.

1. The nature of growth

To ask “Why aren’t we growing?” (my summary title, I hasten to add, not Tim’s) is to ask a numerical question, and to seek numerical answers. This is a reasonable and valid thing to do, but we must keep reminding ourselves that numerical growth in churchgoing is a means not an end. Persuading people to visit and then remain at our churches in itself amounts to little. Some of the world’s largest churches numerically are among its most disgracefully distorted and heretical. The end goal is not ‘bums on pews’. The end goal is to see people transferred from darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son through the powerful work of his word and Spirit.

However, church is an excellent place for that to happen—for people to be exposed to God’s word as it is regularly preached and discussed. Church is a good place, in other words, for real gospel growth to happen, the kind of growth that the New Testament actually speaks of. Gospel growth is what happens when the word of God takes root in someone’s life and bears fruit, bringing them to repentance and faith, and leading them to love, holiness and godliness. This is the only growth worth having, and it only happens as we plant and water God’s word, and pray that God by his Spirit would “give the growth” (1 Cor 3:6).

Consequently, it would be foolish to conclude from the Research Project that we should dumb down our church gatherings, shorten the preaching, reduce the Bible readings, cut back on prayer, and have lots more music in order to be more appealing to visitors. It may indeed be more immediately appealing—in the sense of non-threatening and non-challenging. But over time, lite’n’easy church produces lite’n’easy Christians (which hardly amounts to ‘authentic gospel community’). Our meetings should focus on a deep engagement with God through the Word and prayer, because this is how gospel growth happens. If we want visitors to experience real Christianity—something substantial, compelling, and worth getting out of bed on Sunday mornings for—then the Research Project can be seen as a call to take our meetings much more seriously; to increase their quality, their substance, and their challenge. (Interestingly, this is actually supported by the Research. According to Tim Sims, ‘serious church’—church that is real and substantial and genuinely edifies its members—does significantly better than superficial ‘seeker service’ gatherings.)

There is certainly more thinking and discussion needed on what constitutes a compelling, well-presented church gathering that edifies established member and visitor alike. Stay tuned for more on this in forthcoming Briefings.

2. Church and evangelism

The Research Project argues that we can make really significant gains (in adult converts and new church attenders) through evangelizing and integrating visitors, whether those who come spontaneously or those invited by a member. I agree that this is a perfectly valid approach. In fact, it is a sensible and obvious approach. If we want to evangelize people and see them saved, let’s start with those who voluntarily walk through our doors!

However, two qualifications are worth making. The first is that, while church-based evangelism is perfectly good and right, church isn’t the only place, or even the primary place, for evangelism to happen. We also need to reach out and make contact with the vast numbers of people who will never come near our churches—the people we rub shoulders with every day at work, in the street, in our families, in our neighbourhoods—and especially those from other cultures and faiths who would find coming to our churches strange and difficult. We need to train all Christians to be praying and working together towards sharing the gospel with outsiders—whether by hanging around in coffee shops and talking to people, or joining social or sporting clubs so as to evangelize the members, or by simply inviting our neighbour to read the Bible with us. We need to reach out as well as to welcome in. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, although many of the recent debates about ‘attractional’ versus ‘missional’ models sometimes lose sight of this.

The second qualification is simply to recognize that while gospel growth happens in and through our church gatherings, the purpose of church is not evangelistic as such. The Christian congregation is a gathering of the saved around God to hear his word and respond to him together. As Christians gather to do this, we can make our public proclamation of God’s word intelligible and accessible and welcoming for visitors. It only takes a little love and thought to do so. But this does not mean building the meeting around visitors, nor constructing the meeting to attract visitors—to press their buttons, to tell them what their itching ears long to hear. God’s word should set our agenda in church, not what we perceive to be the interests of the visitor.

3. How to build authentic Christian communities

The Research Project highlights the need for real growth in authentic Christian discipleship among our members. How do we build such a community? How do we grow such disciples?

Here again, one’s ministry presuppositions come to the fore. If we really believe that it is through the word of God and prayer that genuine disciples are grown and genuine gospel community nurtured, then our response to the challenge will be to consider how each one of us may more effectively, more frequently and more challengingly apply the word of God to one another’s lives, praying that by it God would bring forth the fruit of his Spirit.

It must happen on Sunday, but it can’t be limited to then. It won’t happen through better structures and management and programs. It won’t happen through focusing on ‘community’, and doing things to help people feel warmer and closer to each other, or more socially connected. Authentic gospel community springs from the word of God, as we speak it to each other, exhort each other, pray for each other, and live it out with each other.

Some readers may recognize that I am basically repeating the message of The Trellis and the Vine at this point. There is no shortcut to gospel growth and authentic community. It comes through the consistent personal multiplying of Bible-focused discipling at every level of church life (Sunday gathering, small group and one-to-one). And the truly beautiful thing about genuinely growing disciples of Jesus is that they have a heart for other people. They realize that to be a disciple is to be a maker and grower of other disciples. Which brings me to my final reflection.

4. The importance of personal follow up

I love it when research backs up my prejudices, and, in suggesting that we should be looking hard at how we greet and follow-up newcomers, the Research Project confirms a long-held conviction of mine. However, the kind of follow-up I have in mind flows out of the growing gospel community mentioned above, where disciples are being trained to minister to others. The ideal way for newcomers to be followed up is for a mature Christian to stick with them, for months if necessary. In fact, the Research shows that follow up is more effective if done by a non-paid member of the congregation. We need to do the slow but immensely powerful work of training our people for this vital ministry.

Growing disciples, training them for follow-up, building a community of growing disciples—this takes time. It involves the messy business of people-work, not simply the casting of a new vision and the reorganization of structures. But if we take the time and do the work, and God in his kindness blesses our labours, then the lasting impact will not only be deep but wide.

17 thoughts on “Why aren’t we growing?

  1. Tony, congratulations on the new online Briefing! You and your team have done an excellent job, and I hope and pray that this site is widely viewed.

    I’ve got some comments and questions regarding your article, but I thought I’d put a “well done” up front!

  2. Thanks for the summary of the report, and your thoughts on the recommendations too. I was encouraged to hear you talk of Trellis and Vine fundamentals. And while this certainly is not a thorough or complete appraisal, one element I thought should have been included in our efforts to see God’s glory shine through our churches in quality and quantity, is the family. And that the diligent work and sacrifices of godly mothers and fathers raising godly children and providing a picture of the character of God through those relationships (though imperfect), are the ideal ‘group settings’ and even the idea ‘one-on-one’s. Im quite convinced that the state of our families correlates to the state of our larger family.

  3. Ok, a couple of sharp questions for you now, Tony –

    1. Is there anything in this report that has changed your thinking significantly? I ask this because of the (self-deprecating, I understand) reference to having your prejudices confirmed.

    2. Given that your proposed “strategy” is essentially the same as what the Briefing has been saying for 23 years, and given that Sydney Anglicans have been a primary audience of the Briefing during that period, why isn’t the diocese doing better?

  4. Hi Craig

    Thanks for the kind remarks and the astute questions.

    1. Yes, the research did change my mind on a couple of things. I think like many people I have tended to think that the reason we don’t make as much progress as we’d like is due to the hostility of our environment (secular, hedonistic Sydney, with a mainstream media who don’t like us, multi-cultural change; etc). It’s always easier to blame ‘them out there’. But the research pointed out that there are still large numbers of people quite positively disposed to Christianity and to church — in fact, who DO visit our churches. But we aren’t doing a great job of retaining them.

    The other thing that I hadn’t thought about before was the stuff on youth ministry and demographics, and the extent to which our success in this area might be masking our lack of success in reaching adults. That also challenged my thinking.

    2. I think Sydney Anglican ministry has undoubtedly made real progress in a number of areas over past two decades — for example, in keeping the gospel and expository preaching at the centre of our ministries (in the face of challenges to do otherwise), in raising up lots of young men and women for full-time ministry (esp via MTS), in building a culture of church-planting, in re-focusing the diocese’s resources and priorities on mission, and so on. These have been things which The Briefing has rabbited on about at different points, but who knows to what extent we made a contribution? I’m grateful for whatever help we may have been.

    However, the thing that comes out of the research, and which is also really the main argument of ‘The Trellis and the Vine’, is that there is one area in which we haven’t made much progress; and that is, the third P (in the Proclamation-Prayer-People triad). We haven’t done as well in personally training and mobilizing large numbers of people in our congregations as disciple-making disciples; in building a culture of personal discipling, ministry and follow-up that extends beyond the staff to a significant proportion of the congregation. We’re still a bit clericalized and professionalized. I won’t repeat the argument of T & V here!

    Or perhaps I could adapt Chesterton: it’s not that a people-focused training-oriented approach to ministry has been tried and found wanting; I think it has been found difficult and not tried.

    In many respects, this is why we are launching into a new era with The Briefing. We think there is still lots to do in promoting, discussing, exemplifying, facilitating, and resourcing this aspect of ministry.

    Hope that helps. Thanks again for the questions Craig.

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  6. it’s not that a people-focused training-oriented approach to ministry has been tried and found wanting; I think it has been found difficult and not tried.

    Speaking confessionally, I think this is so true. The longer I go in pastoral ministry, and the greater my leadership responsibilities, the less I seem to be involved in training others for ministry, and even sometimes in deploying others to do such training.

    In ‘running a church’ there is great inertia against me training the church members.

    Praise God a lot of them get on with it anyway, and sometimes even train themselves.

    But boy, what a frustration. Go back and read T&V, or rather schedule in the action items arising from Col’s training sessions.

  7. We haven’t done as well in personally training and mobilizing large numbers of people in our congregations as disciple-making disciples

    Yeah, that probably meshes with my experience too. Small groups were meant to address this, to an extent, but they miss something that one-on-one relationships seem to have. One-on-one stuff is really difficult too, though – I work in one area, live in another, and church in a third. Meshing schedules and locations is pretty hard.

    I’m also interested to consider Tim’s first point, about creating more compelling meetings. I will be interested to see what you guys come up with in this area.

    For myself, I think some of our pulpits have maybe lacked some passion. I think Piper has challenged some people in this area, this week. The thing that made him so compelling at One, IMO, is his obvious heart-on-the-sleeve passion. Piper is no great expositor – I think we all know that. I want the best of both worlds – our excellent local exposition, combined with genuine gosh-this-guy-really-believes-what-hes-saying passion. I believe that will make for a compelling meeting.

  8. This is very helpful and thought-provoking, and I believe everything applies equally in the Brisbane Presbyterian scene (which seems to be doing quite well, although I don’t think this level of research has been done on it).
    I would like to see Figure 3 presented the other way around, the age groups clumped together to show the spectrum of belief for each age group. This would lead to a somewhat different conclusion, and definitely needs more analysis. While it is true that the outspoken atheists over-represent themselves, there is clearly a marked decline in full-on belief in the younger age groups (only 10% of the 15-29yo group – the “secularisation narrative”) which really is a problem that is not being addressed, and that does not bode well for the future.
    Another interesting point is that “the purpose of church is not evangelistic as such” (although there are Biblical precedents for some evangelism to happen in this context). Yet a big part of the current model seems to be “Your (the congregation’s) job is very simple, just invite them along to church, bring ’em in. We (the ministry team) will do the rest, all the hard work of preaching a compelling, irresistable Gospel message”.
    There is not much analysis of why it is just so darn hard to invite the people we rub shoulders with to church – for many it would be easier, and less threatening, to invite them to a seance (not that I am recommending that at all). To clarify, I don’t mean that they would feel threatened by the prospect of a confronting message or even not understanding all the cues, but because they think such strange and foreign things go on there. I would love to have a better understanding of the (generally incoherent) world view that makes direct relational evangelism OR inviting them to church so difficult.
    I believe the model needs to be more like Ephesians 4 “some to be evangelists … to prepare God’s people for works of service …”, and 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope … with gentleness and reverence”. I can empathise with Sandy’s remarks about training others for ministry, even though I am on the
    other end.

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  10. Having grown up more Sydney Anglican than Sydney Anglican, and then experiencing weekly church at Hillsong for the last year – I can tell you the answer to ‘why aren’t we growing?’ –


    kids are born to SydAng families, grow to teens, grow bored of the service style and then move on to Hillsong or similar churches, and never come back.

    And why would they? Hillsong is an exciting place. Great music, (mostly) good teaching, full on prayer and gospel outreach.

    Sydney Anglican churches on the other hand are getting older, continue to look down on the youth, and at best tolerate, at worst despise, the role of music leadership in church.

    Hillsong could also teach SydAngs a bit about communications within and without church (yes, even ‘follow-up’), but enough for now.

  11. Thanks Tony, enjoyed the article and love the new Briefing format! I had the privilege of hearing Tim Simms presents his findings at our recent FIEC conference. It was a stimulating talk. I found his research on when and why people drop out of church particularly challenging and it’s given us reason to reconsider why we do the things we do here on the coast.

  12. Hi, interesting article. It would be interesting to discover how Sydney Anglicans are perceived by (a) the general populace and (b) other Christian groups. If we see evangelicalism as a market place with the different denominations offering a product then I wonder what is distinctive about Sydney Anglicanism over and against the other evangelical groupings etc. From my limited perspective it strikes me that Sydney Anglicans have tended to water down Anglican identity in a bid to be more accessible and in so doing may have lost what made them distinctive. If someone prefers worship that is more free church in style then why would they attend a church that is trying to be more free in its style when they can go down the road to just what they want? If someone prefers liturgical worship then why would they stay at a church that is becoming more free in its style when they can go down the road to a higher church etc?

    I also wonder why you are loosing the youngsters when they hit their 20s. Is it that they are going to a university outside of Sydney? Is it because they want to try something new just to see what its like? Is it because they then become exposed to other Christian views and find the Sydney Anglican approach to be …assert appropriate adjective…? And so on.

    I don’t have the answers. Who knows what God has in store?

  13. I think there are some issues here that need careful analysis. What, in the mind of the average person, makes church ‘boring and unfulfilling’? We assume this has to do with things we can fix, yet one of the comments above suggests we adopt Hillsong music et al to fix the problem. “Boring and unfulfilling” may well be a statement on the gospel we offer. In my experience we forget that people will often criticise what they say is the ‘way’ we do things, when, if one pushes them further, they admit it is the message they reject.

    I also think there is a leap from people saying that they have some kind of belief in God or Jesus to positing the view that the ‘securalization narrative’ is false. Again, when confronted with a clear explanation of the gospel people often leave. They often want a nice ‘feel-good’ message. As a visitor once told me, ” I want to feel God hugging me.”

    This is NOT to say that we should not work on welcoming people better. And I am all for praying the Lord may work through us to train those in our care in godliness and disciple making better. And I agree we need to look at how we do things with brutal honesty. No question about it.

    But let’s be careful in how we interpret the results. I have to say I found the presentation given to my ministry area unhelpful in some ways. To be told that we can ‘double our numbers’ by getting welcoming right is highly questionable.

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  16. While there is much food for thought in the article, I have a problem with the title. ‘Why aren’t we growing?’ catches the attention, but is negated by the article itself. As we read on we find that in fact the Diocese of Sydney is growing in contrast to many other dioceses and denominations. And the ‘modest growth’ is still greater than population growth. In fact, the last two years have shown growth greater than the 1.4% for the period 2001-2006. None of this is as much as we would hope for, but remains a cause for being grateful to God who gives the growth.

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