Sunday, 3 January 2016

Church Growth - being a Masterchef?

Is Church Growth a bit like making a bechamel sauce?

You start with the basics - butter, flour - and make a roux. Then you add milk, slowly and carefully, stirring in each new additional quantity.

I suspect that Church of England congregations tend to think of adding new people as like adding more milk. So long as they are added judiciously and steadily, with the vicar and maybe some key sous-chefs doing some good stirring, and the Holy Spirit keeping the heat on, then they should incorporate smoothly and mean the sauce stretches further.

You can only add so much milk before there just isn't enough of the original roux to thicken it all. But a Discipleship Programme could be the equivalent of tipping in a bit more cornflour - or instant thickening granules - and helping it all gel.

But what if it is more like a Masterchef invention test? A fiendish one, in which you have to incorporate new ingredients into your plan as they are added to your bench?

You start with your basic roux. And at first, you are given some milk, so you make a bechamel sauce. But then you turn around and find some cheese and mustard at your elbow. So you stir them in, and it becomes a cheese sauce. Then you are presented with a bottle of white wine. You could stir that in, and some more cheese, and it could become a fondue...

The question I think we have failed to really address in church growth is whether our bechamel sauce is happy to become a fondue, or a cheese sauce, or part of a lasagne or moussaka, depending on what other ingredients turn up. Is 'church' bechamel sauce, or is 'church' whatever we make with the ingredients we are given?

Its the same question, really, with similar underlying fears, as how we 'integrate' refugees and immigrants into our country - or whether we really want to. Far right parties make great play of the image of communities being 'diluted', or becoming 'unrecognisable' - with the unstated assumption being that this is a bad thing.

Churches, too, in my experience, are wary of the 'wrong kind' of people joining. A nice problem to have, perhaps - but of course it doesn't work out like that, as we are very capable indeed of sending out signals that mean the problem never arises. Some people in some churches - and this is not limited to Church of England churches - speak openly of hoping that the church stays the same, even if that means continuing to decline - 'to see them out'. Clergy speak openly among themselves of congregations where this sentiment is frequently heard. Rather than embrace change, some of our members want, above all, stability until death, hoping only that they will predecease the congregation they belong to.

So questions about 'what is church' and whether it needs to stay as a bechamel sauce need to be openly discussed. And my view is that the greatest barrier to growth is the attachment people have to stability. If I can put it this bluntly, I don't think many congregations actually want to change. They would like to stir a bit more milk into the sauce to stretch it a bit further, if that's what growth means. But they have no intention of becoming a minor part of a lasagne, or changing entirely into a cheese fondue or something as yet unimagined. They are here to be bechamel, they like bechamel, and their vicar had better keep stirring that bechamel and not try to fancy it up.

Yet most of us vicars are trained at college to be aspiring Masterchefs. We've learned the fancy techniques, we've read the classic textbooks, we've eaten, so to speak, in the Michelin starred establishments and dream of one day running one ourselves.

Worse, we are told every other week that this is a competition, and that our invention and its results are about to be judged. Our bechamel sauce wants to be thinned a bit at best, while we beat ourselves up with visions of being thrown out of the competition for lack of inspiration and a poor showing on the plate. There is, to put it mildly, something of a mismatch of expectations here.

What do you think?


  1. Thanks Miranda, and interesting illustration, and I like the bit about thinning out the sauce, absorbing people etc.

    I am not sure though that it is true that many congregations don't actually want to change. I think that clergy say that too easily. Many congregations don't want to be told what to do (but then who does?). They don't want to be at the receiving end of other people's plans (but then who does?). They find it hard to unlearn what the previous vicars have told them, who were very enthusiastic about the very thing the new one wants to change. And they find it very hard to change to be something they have never seen (as you point out, you have eaten the new dishes at college, they have never even heard of them!).

    And that, I think, is where the great illustration falls down. If we are chefs and the congregation ingredients of the dish we are making, the power is all with us, they are 'done to', and who likes being 'done to'?

    They are people and we are people, some of them far wiser and closer to God than we will ever be. So its about leadership - helping people see the unimagined and have the courage and hope to dare to think we can have that here - not cooking!

    1. Thanks Jeremy! I agree that where the analogy falls down is in picturing the congregation as passive 'ingredients'. But then, I don't much like the image of them as sheep being herded either, so I guess we have biblical warrant to use imperfect imagery!

  2. I really like that analogy Miranda, it helps explain the complexity of change really well. I'd be interested in taking it further and wondering what happens when done of the sauce itself decides to change and the you get a mixed mix

  3. I really like that analogy Miranda, it helps explain the complexity of change really well. I'd be interested in taking it further and wondering what happens when done of the sauce itself decides to change and the you get a mixed mix

  4. Hmm. I think being change-averse is common because for a long time, it *worked*. If you kept things the same in the local church, people who were used to that would keep coming to church, and so would their families, for the most part. Sure, some would move away, but they'd drive back every Sunday (as do many of the older-but-not-yet-frail members of our congregation; though tellingly their children tend to go elsewhere).

    People like what they know. It's why franchises like McDonald's and Starbuck's and Pret do so well: in a strange place and hungry, I'm going to go for what I know, not what I don't know.

    One thing I'm really aware of with my youngest choristers is that the likelihood that they will stay in the parish as adults is really very slim. Most of them will probably go too far away to drive back. By having children in the choir, I'm not trying to ensure we still have a choir in fifteen years when the older members have died; I'm trying to equip the children to be active, contributing members of whatever church they decide to be part of later on.

    I think Jeremy's point about people not being ingredients that are 'done to' is important, though I think people who are trained and doing the work full-time are necessarily going to have to make some of the tougher decisions. But the common vision we work toward -- that needs to be on a broader level than parish level. I don't think the church should be like McDonald's, so there must be some kind of balance to strike between the parochial and the catholic; but we do need to think about the whole meal, not just the dish we are tasked with preparing.

  5. New people in a team always means one has in effect a new team with new dynamics & a new character. What I'm observing in ministry is that what God is calling us to be & to do as a local church community is in part determined & communicated by WHO God is adding to the mix. So for example when I first arrived both the profile & the context suggested children & young people should be a strong focus. So lots of time & energy was invested there - & yet the children's work has shrunk - conversely lots is happening with older adults coming to/ rediscovering their faith , plus new people with gifts in that area, which makes me think actually is that an area of both growth & ministry that a God wants priorities right now...

  6. I love this on so many levels.

  7. I’m a very poor cook and not a viewer of MasterChef but hope I’ve followed the analogy… I think stability and continuity are crucial to keep churches true to their purpose to meet the needs spiritual needs of their members over time – and non-members who seek out their local church at times of special need.

    I speak as fairly recent returner to church, in my 30’s, who would not wish to be part of an inflexible, unresponsive church that would (rightly) predecease me!

    I think the challenge is to change the way we serve our local communities where this is indicated, being engaged enough to be prophetic voice in those communities and to do this in such as way the long-term members can maintain (hopefully develop) their sense of belonging. Functional families can change, extend and develop over time; their most important traits are passed on and live afresh in each generation. Hopefully churches can be like this too? Trying to change too fast and leaving behind those who can’t cope with the pace is to be avoided if possible.

  8. Awesome analogy. In the last year we've been exploring as a congregation how "the church" is made up of whoever shows up. I think it's a little easier to illustrate as I can say as the vicar that "we clearly don't do it the way I'd want to each Sunday morning". We are all parts of the soufflé of Christ. I'm somewhere around the soggy bottom holding a piece of chili...