Strategic Development Bids… playing to our strengths?

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October 11, 2016 by Worship, Community, Formation

As I write, a load of dioceses – I have no idea how many – will be shaping their latest bids to the Church Commissioners for funding for development.

These are Strategic Development Bids, not given simply to sustain dioceses, but to help them develop and grow.  A summary of currently funded projects is provided on the C of E website.

It’s a fairly new process, developed in response to the Resourcing the Future task group report put before the Church’s General Synod last year.   Through a competitive bidding process, Resourcing the Future aims to:

make a significant difference to [dioceses’] long-term mission and financial strength, by supporting major growth and change activity which fits with dioceses’ strategic plans.

There’s lots to be excited about in this if, like me, you believe that the Church needs permission to think a little more missionally.  Or even, perhaps, a gentle poke.

Funding programmes like this help people imagine that things could be better, and to concentrate on how.  As the task group report says, the challenge is not to manage decline but to invest in growth.   As dioceses orientate themselves around the idea of mission or growth, they start to imagine what might be possible.   Getting people to bid for this kind of money is one way of stopping them burying their heads in the sand.  It provides a common focus, so it can help organisations to become teams.  It also encourages people to look beyond their usual horizon for ideas about what works.  A funding stream is a powerful level for change.

Funding programmes bring hazards as well as hope.  One is that grant funding can provide an obsessive focus on counting and measuring things.  Another is that, by accident or design, it can generate groupthink across a whole organisation (there’s a hint of this in the  recently funded bids, as we’ll see).  A third is that it can detract from small, creative ideas at the ground level and leave everyone involved in shaping a bid wrestling over a couple of big creative ideas.   In other words, it can reduce creativity rather than encouraging or amplifying it.

Those are all risks which the Church Commissioners hopefully already know, understand and mitigate.  So leaving them confidently on one side I’ll ask instead:

Have the dioceses, in reply to this opportunity, have been playing to the church’s strengths?

Here’s an example of where they may not.    Of the sixteen funded projects listed in the summary, seven heavily target children  or young people, another three clearly mention them as a target, and most of the rest speak of pioneer churches or church plants in a way that implies that attracting younger people is the challenge.

On its own, aiming young is not necessarily a bad idea, but it really is surprising that most diocese are taking similar approaches.   All the more so when you realise that none of the project outlines refer to older people in any way, while the word ‘ageing’ appears once, as a bad thing.   There is neither balance, nor – across the range of bids as a whole – an entrepreneurial exploration of different approaches.

Is that playing to your strengths?   No.  Probably what the Church of England knows best at the moment is older people.  Those are already the people who make up and run many of its churches.   They seem to be seen as a sign of doom and decline, which would be unfair, faithless and unChristian.  It’s also inaccurate.

Many people start coming to church when they retire.  Sometimes that’s to reactivate a long but vaguely-held faith; sometimes to ask for the first time the questions that 45 years of hectic activity have kept at bay.  Step away from the hurly-burly of the 18-65 and you’re often ready to explore community, activity, and even bigger questions of life itself.  I have met people recently in very diverse neighbourhoods who have found a real, vibrant and living faith in their sixties.

And what a time of life to find it!   Arriving into retirement with an eye on what’s next rather than what’s past means that a new learning journey begins.  There’s the potential to turn active and curious individuals with time, energy, skills and resources into missional and empowered communities.  You can see this being done in inner cities and urban outer estates as well as prosperous suburbs and rural market towns.

This is hardly a short-term approach.  Most retirees can expect enjoy decades of activity, growing into their community in a formational way – in an era when we are worried about the hollowing out of community and reduction of volunteering hours.  A church engaging with lively 60-somethings is well-placed to remain at the centre of community life for decades to come.

Those churches that receive this group the best build a big tent.    Some in that tent will have evangelistic energies reminiscent of what others of us experienced in our teens.  Others will be driven by a pastoral care or a love of community and will need to belong as a way of learning how to believe.  The big tent also makes pastoral space for the more broken, too.  As a single example, think of an individual bereaved soon after retirement: it’s a tragedy through which the church can help to hold them steady, giving a pattern of life, a network of acquaintances who slowly become friends, and activity that keeps them getting out of bed each morning, until some colour can slowly return to life, and the words ‘grace’ and ‘hope’ can find a little meaning.

It’s perfectly possible in this country to find a church that has no younger people at all, but even that doesn’t mean that it’s dying.   In a retirement area, ‘older’ churches may be restocking themselves at a perfectly satisfactory rate.   But in any case it’s not as if older poeple don’t know younger people.   Very often grandparents are helping their kids by looking after their grandchildren.   Faithful, grounded oldies may not be leading Messy Church, but they are often de facto church wardens when Messy Church meets, and sometimes they’re playing the guitar too.   In fact the mission to children and families is as likely to start with our already faithful older poeple as anywhere – if we let it.    The evangelistic spirit may be as strong in the last third of life as in any other – and hopefully with more wisdom.  In fact, research from the Willow Creek church in the US suggests that genuine evangelism tends to come with maturity of faith.  One retiree I recently met takes an active part in – and co-ordinates – his local Street Pastors.  He is happy to serve his local population most Saturday nights, but is quite clear in his encounters that ‘we are from the local church’ and finds this is a great time of night to expect questions about God, life and everything in between.

Another man in his sixties I spoke to recently said, ‘I don’t know why everyone who hits 65 goes on a retirement course.  They should just join their local church, like I did.’   He can see what our dioceses may currently be blind to: the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.

Drawing older people into faith is not an argument for doing nothing.   Mission always has a deliberate edge to it, and usually requires change.  But this is step change that local, existing churches can engage with and enjoy: simple, evolutionary step change for many local communities who may be totally foxed by more revolutionary approaches.

So yes, there may be a logic to ‘resource’ churches, church plants and missional communities.   But for the Church of England those are experiments, and we don’t need everyone trying the same experiment.   Meanwhile, if we miss the easy stuff, we may find we’re going backwards even if the hard stuff is half-successful.





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