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?