Saturday, 30 November 2013

3 Things NaNoWriMo has taught me...

...About myself, about writing, and maybe even about being a vicar

1. Accountability and score-keeping work, even when they are explicitly notional. By the end of Day 2, I was hooked on the little graph that the NaNoWriMo website produces for you, showing your daily and cumulative word count alongside the target line of 1667 daily words. I know my children will behave better (sometimes) to get a star on a star chart, and I have discovered over the years that giving a reward - sweets, or a film - for winning so many stars adds nothing to its effectiveness. The stars are their own reward. This November, I discovered the power of that for myself. I felt I owed it to that graph to keep it going up (and I felt it looking at me reproachfully when I got off track one day!).

2. I am even more competitive and driven than I had realised, but only against myself. I love to win, but I was to discover this November that this drive is nothing at all to do with beating others. One of the lovely things about NaNoWriMo is that you are never competing against the other participants, you are competing with them. We all cheer each other on, meet up to write together, and it is perfectly possible for all to be winners. You don't win by beating others, you win by beating your own sloth, fear and despondence to produce 50,000 words. It's not 'all shall have prizes' - you only win by writing those words - but there is no reason why everyone couldn't be a winner. I like that.

3. Perfectionism is the enemy of achievement. When I stopped worrying about whether the words I was writing were any good, I found it much easier to get my daily word count written. My mantra for November was 'you're not writing a novel, you are just writing a first draft'. Much easier, much more achievable, and much less rabbit-in-headlights. I actually planned this novel in outline back in the first half of the year. But when I had finished planning, and the time came to write, I froze. Having an achievable and not quality-driven goal defrosted me. then, because I'm an endlessly reflective practitioner (read, hopelessly over-analytical!) I started wondering if any of these lessons could be applied to my 'day job' of being a vicar.

Given the inescapability of the current Church Growth agenda - which I generally think of as a good thing - star charts and graphs seem immediately applicable. A new convert? have a gold star! Keep that Usual Sunday Attendance graph going steadily up!

However. When I think back over my experience in my first year in my current post, and compare it with my NaNoWriMo experience, the 'rabbit in headlights' panic is what resonates most strongly.

 I must get church growth! And just numbers aren't enough, it has to be good quality too! They have to be real converts, not transfer growth! And they have to be properly discipled! And start giving sacrificially as soon as possible so the diocese doesn't go bankrupt!

Panic. Freeze.

What might defrost this panic? Could something, like NaNoWriMo did for my embryonic novel, stop us staring into the headlights in terror and get us moving, slowly and steadily, in the right direction?

If the 3 things I learned about writing a novel are more generally applicable, then things I am wondering about are:

1. What about a star chart or graph? We collect attendance figures each week: I would be fascinated to find out what it would do to people's behaviour if that was graphed publicly, at the back of church. Would people feel more accountable to coming more regularly, to keep the graph looking happy? Or what about the PCC? We look at the state of our bank balance each month, but only rarely at our attendance figures. Maybe we should have the graph as a standing item on the agenda?

Or maybe this is more personal? I remember as a child getting a sticker each week in Sunday School, to go in my personal book: and now I have loyalty cards for Waterstones, Costa etc in my wallet, that get stamped each time I go...I would be wary of creating a consumer attitude to churchgoing, but I wonder if there is any way this sort of thing could be used to assist in habit-forming?

2. Church and diocesan culture can make the difference between whether church growth is seen as a game of winners and losers, or a shared endeavour. It is well known that the church has a very flat structure, with very few 'senior' positions with which to reward success, though, and this can encourage a sense of jockeying for position. Big churches throwing their weight around and threatening to take their people and money elsewhere doesn't help. How could a diocese, or the church centrally, use something like the NaNoWriMo structure to reward everyone's successes? Another thought experiment: what if the CofE website, when we enter our church statistics, sent everyone a certificate congratulating them?

3. Perfectionism. Hmm. This is a biggie. In all the Church Growth conferences I've been to and books I've read, people are always at pains to point out that quality is as important as quantity. Sometimes, this is an excuse not to bother with numbers: more often it is due to a genuine desire to make disciples, and a genuine concern to deepen the faith of those already in church. However. I wonder if this 'of course, quality matters just as much or more' rhetoric in fact stifles conscious efforts to grow the church by inadvertently causing a 'rabbit in the headlights' reaction? Maybe if we just concentrated on the numbers for a bit, without worrying about quality initially, we'd actually get some material to work on? Just a thought...

(Post edited slightly, 3.12.13)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Church Growth in Medieval Christendom

 I have recently submitted a chapter for a forthcoming book, 'Towards a Theology of Church Growth', edited by David Goodhew, to be published by Ashgate in 2014. It developed out of a conference of the same title held at St.John's College Durham, under the auspices of the Centre for Church Growth Research, in September 2013.

Post updated 25.11.13; the full text of this article is no longer available here - you'll have to wait for the book! But here is the intro and conclusion:

Growing the Medieval Church:
Church Growth in Theory and Practice in Christendom
c.1000 - c.1500

Revd. Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes


This chapter discusses three key questions concerning church growth theory, and the reality of church growth, in medieval European Christendom. First, was church growth needed in medieval Europe? By the year 1000, all of mainland Europe was at least nominally Christian1. Paganism had been wiped out, and it would have been hard indeed to find anyone who had not been baptised as an infant. Rulers were Christians, and increasingly law and society were organised on Christian principles. Christianity was officially the compulsory religion of each emerging nation state. In this context, was the concept of church growth meaningless?

There is substantial academic debate surronding the question of to what extent medieval Christendom was genuinely an 'age of faith', or whether Christianity had simply been superficially overlaid on an essentially pagan culture.2 Such debate is beyond the scope of this paper to address, but it points to some of the subtleties involved when considering questions of church growth in this context. More importantly for our present purposes, there is a myth in the modern popular imagination that “everyone went to church” in medieval times. This chapter will therefore look at the evidence for levels of church going, and what scope clergy and others saw for growth in the medieval church. Accurate statistics for church membership and attendance in the medieval past are notoriously absent, but this chapter will consider what historical sources can be brought to bear on questions of church attendance and church growth.

Secondly, this chapter will then consider the medieval sources that explicitly discuss church growth. Through the words of those who were writing about this subject in the medieval past, we shall look at how church growth was conceptualised in a society where most were assumed to be at least nominally Christian. In particular, we will look in more detail at the ways in which the metaphor of 'growth' was used in medieval theology, as there are some very interesting differences here with our modern use of the concept. What did a medieval theology of church growth look like? And finally, this chapter will turn to the simple question: did it work? Was there church growth in medieval Europe?


So what can we, as budding theologians of church growth today, usefully learn from the medieval worldview? In most of our theology, the arguments and concepts that were formed in the medieval period remain foundational, and it does not seem unreasonable, therefore, for us to look here for help in formulating a contemporary theology of church growth too. In doing so, there are four points that I would like to draw out.
First, an historically accurate assessment of medieval levels of church going is a helpful corrective to the mythology of a golden age in which 'everyone went to church'. Contemporary discussions of the difficulties of evangelism often focus on the uniquely problematic nature of our post-modern context, in a way which can gloss over the reality of the situations faced by our colleagues in previous eras. It does seem to have been the case that clergy in every generation have worried about how they could increase the level of church attendance and affective Christianity amongst their flock. An awareness of this may help to prevent counsels of despair, and prompt a new realism about the task that confronts, and always has confronted, the church.

Secondly, the fully fleshed out way in which medieval theologians understood the metaphor of 'growth' is an important resource as we seek to discern a theology of church growth. Understanding the primary task as keeping down the weeds, which are constantly threatening to overwhelm the garden, resonates very accurately with the lived experience of clergy and others involved in trying to grow the church in practice. It is very easy to feel discouraged by these dynamics. A great deal of hard work is expended, yet the result is not often a great expansion of the vineyard, but simply (at best) the only-to-be-expected harvest of the vines that have been tended. In our modern understanding of work, we expect to see a product, the fruits of our labours. Emma Percy draws theological attention to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who distinguished between three different realms of human activity: labour, the domestic tasks needed for everyday life; work or fabrication, where the end is a tangible product, and action, the work that builds up human communities.56 We tend to conceptualise working harder as producing more. Yet the wisdom of the medieval theologians of church growth would suggest that the work of ministry might be more helpfully seen as parallel to domestic work – washing, ironing, cooking a meal and washing up – which needs to be done, but then needs to be done again, than to artisan or factory work, which produce a measurable product. This does not mean that growth does not take place, but it is more analagous to natural, organic growth – the growth of a garden, or a child – rather than capitalist expansion and productivity.

Thirdly, and more positively, this survey of medieval church growth would suggest very strongly that intentionality is key. Throughout the history of the church, it has grown – numerically and in spiritual depth – when people have chosen to focus on that task.

Finally, there is a further historical question which arises from this evidence for medieval church growth. To what extent did this growth in lay involvement, in the depth and vibrancy of medieval Catholic religious practice over this period, inadvertantly give birth to the Reformation? To extend the metaphor of growth: even if we assiduously keep the weeds under control, we can't control the shape of the growth that God gives, or whether its fruit will be to our taste.