Thursday, 30 January 2014

Single Parents - A Missing Part of the Church Growth Jigsaw?

This is the second post in a series examining issues around church growth. In this post I want to explore one of the blind spots and areas of invisibility which I believe the research from the Church Growth Research Project and others is failing to address but which I believe are relevant in contemporary society. It is the first of two posts on this topic and is going to concentrate upon single parenthood as a social characteristic.

Reading through the research seems to touch upon parenthood, although issues of marital status appear to be avoided in most cases.

However, I want to argue that in the discussions of church growth and questions of how the church is succeeding or failing to engage with contemporary society the experiences of single parents in churches become important. I argue this particularly as the growth of Messy Church as one form of popular Fresh Expression is so important. I also point to the references made within the Cathedrals research to the services being designed or targeted at families with young children.

A question I posed in my research into the Experiences ofSingle Parents in Evangelical Churches regarding the religiosity of single parents was "can they, as has been suggested, be said to be less religious, or are there other factors which might make them less successful in the religious socialisation of their children? The question is then whether the lower likelihood of their children to attend church as adults results from them, or the children’s experience of church?"

I want to raise that question again in light of the recently published research but phrase it slightly differently, this time asking if single parents are amongst those contributing to church growth? And are changes in the church helping to make them more successful in the religious socialisation of their children?  

I understand these questions may be difficult to answer for a range of reasons but I think they are important to pose. Single parents now account for just over 20% of all families with children in England and Wales. Their growth as a proportion of the population has coincided with the steepest period of secularisation (although there is not a direct link between the two). In seeking to identify whether churches are becoming more successful in engaging with contemporary society this would be a relevant group to look at.

However, there are problems in doing this including the fact we don't actually know how under-represented single parents are in the church. The data provided to calculate this is at best incomplete and often completely missing. We also don't know how represented they are within the churches which are growing. This question has not been asked within research and it remains an area where we have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Secondly, we can't be clear exactly what the distribution is between white majority and black majority congregations and groups is. This needs to be explored because of the disproportionate level of single parenthood amongst some groups. It may be that the participation of single parents is growing, but primarily through the growth of black majority churches. Thirdly, we don't have adequate data to use to measure exactly what impact single parenthood has on a child's subsequent religiosity. Researchers such as Voas and Crockett have concentrated on samples of married couples within their research in this area.

It would also be interesting to look, amongst the lay leaders particularly, if they are more likely to contain single parents or former single parents amongst their numbers.

The reasons  I think it might be the case that these groups are more highly represented within Fresh Expressions particularly are that within my research it was found that the significant factors impacting the experience of single parents and the level of their involvement included the way that success was judged. Where the focus was on qualitative growth rather than on quantitative they were more likely to flourish. For these parents small groups were transformational spaces where they were able to grow. Whilst a number of Fresh Expressions didn't have small groups attached to them I wonder if Fresh Expressions by their very nature may have the similar conditions required for growth.

Growth involves change and this is something recognised by all the data available on the subject. My research suggested congregations which had gone through periods of change themselves were more able to support single parents by being able to identify with transition and loss as motifs in their lives.

Another important factor was attitudes to women in leadership. As the majority of single parents with care for their children are female environments which allow women to flourish and exercise their gifts will be more likely to utilise the skills of single parents. My very limited research suggested that single parents may already be in more positions of leadership than one might think and I would be interested to know if this is the case in relation to Fresh Expressions particularly, in light of the data on lay female leadership.

I would also be interested to know within the Fresh Expressions whether they are utilising the biblical material which tends to be missing from use within white majority inherited churches, due to its exclusion from the lectionary. Particularly here I am thinking of the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael including their relationship with Abraham and Sarah which provides rich material for use with single parents with and without care of their children.

So as I end this post I want to tentatively suggest that an addition to the areas for further research is the place of single parents within church growth and particularly within Fresh Expressions.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Church Growth Part 1 - The case for the micro-local analysis

Church growth is a hot topic of conversation at the moment, especially as the Church Growth Research Programme has recently published data outlining the findings of its research into the growth of a variety of forms of church including Fresh Expressions and Cathedrals. I come to the conversation having also read several texts relating to the topic recently including David Goodhew's (ed) book on Church Growth in Britain 1980to the Present and having on an informal basis observed and heard testimony on what is going on locally in the town where I live, Milton Keynes.
This is going to be the first in a series of posts exploring the topic.

Informally listening, reading and observing, but using the skills gained whilst doing my own research into single parents in Evangelical churches, three points have become clear:
Firstly, that social characteristics play an important part in the discussion of church growth. That is one cannot argue, as post-modernists tend to, that we are now so diverse gender, class and ethnicity are not key variables we should be examining. The evidence from a range of studies shows whilst there is a diverse mix and the niche label applied by some critics may be too simplistic in many groups the nature of what is being done who is becoming involved does relate in some way to social characteristics.

Secondly, that there are still blind spots and areas of invisibility which the research is failing to address which are relevant in contemporary society.
Thirdly: the relationship between churches and congregations is not as simple as it used to be. A church which is growing may have within it congregations which are declining and a church which on first glance appears to be declining may actually be growing. The definitions of church which we have been using and traditional ways of understanding the measurement of church attendance may need to be changed.

I want to take these in reverse order in this series of posts. Today I start with the relationship between churches and congregations.
I recently sat in a meeting where people in our local Area were sharing what their churches were doing. One church which I am familiar with, as a local preacher, ended up with contributions being given by three different people.

It started with the church steward who spoke in a tone which seemed, to some extent, tinged with disappointment whilst trying to acknowledge the hope within what she was saying. The main Sunday morning congregation appears to be struggling but there are other congregations using the church. She talked of another denomination using the building on a Saturday for their services.

Next the minister of the church rose and spoke about the Ghanaian congregation which had begun in 2011 and is looking to be formally recognised in their own right from the beginning of June this year. This is a growing and vibrant congregation and in response to recognising the reality of life for this congregation they are looking to extend their hours to accommodate shift workers and to raise the money for a mini-bus to allow those for whom transport is an issue to be collected.

Finally another minister spoke about the way this church building is known to the homeless of the town as it is one of two venues used by a local housing charity.

This is clearly a growing and vibrant church, but within it the dominant congregation, (I use dominant here in terms of being the congregation which has or has had most responsibility for maintenance and so on), has seen decline over recent years. To see the full picture of growth one has to take a holistic approach and go beyond traditional denominational boundaries and beyond the understandings and experience of the congregation which has been seen as the dominant one. It also requires one to rethink classifications of white majority and black majority churches. This church has both a white majority congregation and a black majority congregation within it.

This need to look at the whole picture also applies when looking at churches which contain both inherited church congregations and examples of Fresh Expressions. Whilst page 69 of the church growth report on Fresh Expressions identifies that "only 43.7% use churches" to meet in it has to be recognised that within the Fresh Expressions looked at that represents over two-fifths and just under a half. This is a sizeable number of churches which have mixed congregations and who may be experiencing a mixture of trends according to the congregations and initiatives being referred to within the same building. Again, this was something the meeting where we were listening to each others stories reflected upon in the context of a minister who was talking about discussions going on in her building about "what is church?" and "who are the church?" It is also an area we need to recognise tensions may exist where those who are part of the dominant congregation expect there to be a cross over between the Fresh Expression and the inherited congregation and become disillusioned or slightly resentful when this does not occur.
Within this there is also the interesting issue of some Fresh Expressions and other congregations using buildings which are no longer in use for regular worship. One example, locally, is a historic church which has limitations on its use but which is being used for occasional one off events for the community by the Community (Pioneer) Minister. Another is a former Wesleyan Chapel which is now being refurbished by a new church which is not part of any traditional denomination. The descriptions of growth in Church Growth in Britain show this re-use of churches is one way in which some Black Majority Churches have been able to find space.  When we are looking at how many churches have closed we need to be more ready to ask how many buildings are no longer in use by any congregation?

This last point brings me on to a point which is made in different ways by both Church Growth Project reports regarding statistics and the way it is becoming difficult to gather adequate data in an increasingly complex situation.
So, I would argue as others have, that not only do we need to take a both a global and a local approach, "glocalized" approach to identifying church growth, as Goodhew argues, but we need to drill down even further and look at the micro-picture within churches themselves.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

What Cinema Teaches us About Language

I have been to see three excellent historical films recently: The Butler, Mandela and 12 Years a Slave. Each of these has had something powerful to say to the audience about the way we have engaged, as a society, with differences in ethnicity in the past and the way in which power relationships have operated.

Watching the films I was struck by how the language relating to them has been used within the debate about LGBT rights and particularly to the discussions around the divisions within the Christian community regarding LGB issues. The Butler was looking at mid-late 20th century experience with reference to the civil rights movement. Mandela was dealing with apartheid and 12 Days a Slave with slavery. Whilst with the Butler it made me look more favourably on the use of such language in the case of the other two films I felt deeply uncomfortable and I want to urge people to be more careful in the language that is used in their debates.

First I want to look at the reaction I had to Mandela and 12 Days a Slave. Both looked at specific and contextual issues and ways the ways in which power was violently used to oppress others by controlling their movements and restricting their liberty. Whilst I appreciate that there are strong and clear parallels, particularly in countries where there is institutional violence and/or discrimination is enshrined within law against LGB(andT) people there is a difference because of the way slavery and apartheid operated. Part of this difference exists because, as a variety of people have pointed out, ethnicity is observable and sexuality is not embodied in the same way.

The main way in which parallels have been drawn with apartheid and slavery in the debate in the church relates to the way the bible has been used to justify the discrimination. 12 Days a Slave did have scenes which showed how the bible was used in this way, but these scenes also indicated the difference. Slaves were forced to sit and listen to these passages by their oppressors as part of a systematic process. Slavery was (and in some places still is) an economic form of oppression and the use of the bible was intended to support economic dominance, as was apartheid.

LGB issues are not linked to economic relationships in the same way. Yes, the bible is being interpreted by a dominant group in a particular way, but in this case it is not linked to economic relationships. Where the parallel does lie is in that discrimination has been justified by particular interpretations of the bible which others argue are being misinterpreted or are contextually specific and that the group being discriminated against has taken an alternative reading of the bible which focuses upon liberation.

That brings me to The Butler. I have to confess having heard Bishop Alan Wilson and others use the language of civil rights with regards to LGB issues the past I have sometimes been more than a little sceptical. I am the sort of person who would have been a suffragist rather than a suffragette in Edwardian Britain and so felt the civil rights language has been part of an polarisation which has failed to appreciate the complexity of the issue. However, watching The Butler and seeing the way in which discrimination was shown to operate I understood that the LGB(andT) debates within the church do relate to a civil rights campaign and that those taking an activist stance are needed as well as those of us quietly working for slow movement forward.

The experience of those who have suffered discrimination due to their ethnicity has to be seen as similar but also different to those suffering discrimination due to gender identity or sexuality. To seek to use some of the language in other arguments and debates does not give due respect to those who have suffered from that form of oppression (be it slavery or apartheid).

However, in some cases the language does need to be applied. There are LGBandT people in various places who are suffering repression and real physical threat as well as the fear of imprisonment due to their sexual orientation. Within the UK there are those who are facing direct discrimination from churches and church structures and policies. The is also a culture in many denominations that indicates all is well as long as LGB people behave in a certain way or remain silent on particular issues. The work to change these policies or attitudes is part of a civil rights campaign.

It is for this reason I would urge any Methodist reading to positively engage with the consultation currently on Same Sex Marriage and Civil Partnership the Methodist Church of Britain is currently undertaking. Whatever may be said about this consultation and what it is and what it is not for those of us whose lives it directly impacts this consultation is about our civil rights.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Learning from the Synesthetic

Today my husband and I went to the Tate Modern to explore the Paul Klee exhibition there. It was an exhibition I had previously been around with a friend, but it was my husbands first visit to this particular exhibition. As I went around I observed an interesting thing taking place, my husband became unusually absorbed with the art. I knew the look that spread across his face from almost as soon as we entered the first room what was going on....he was having a particularly strong synesthetic reaction to the art.

To explain to those not familiar with what synaesthesia is it can take different forms. There is a cross wiring of senses which occurs which can take various forms. For one synesthetic I know it takes the form of shapes being seen in response to stimuli, for another there is a feeling similar to electricity and for my husband it involves sounds having colours and colours having sounds, and sometimes textures, shapes also influence the tones of sound.

Klee's work, which was part of the Bauhaus movement, is full of shape and colour and so was something which induced a lot of response in terms of sound as well as visually for my husband. Thus, he was able to experience the exhibition on a level which most of us would not be able to. As we went round I asked him at various points to describe what was going on....something he was only partially able to do. As he said, "I would really need the right equipment to be able to demonstrate it" and even then I suspected that as somebody who is not a skilled musician it would be difficult if not impossible for him to reproduce what he was actually hearing.

The experience my husband had may have been nearer to the artists own understanding of his work than most of us can appreciate. Klee was a trained musician and Amy Ione has produced an interesting paper looking at how both he and Kandinsky were influenced by the interplay between sound and vision. Kandinsky as a synesthetic was using what he experienced according to Ione, whilst Klee she argues was conducting a range of experiments to help his art.

I was struck walking around how this deeper understanding and experience which could not fully be expressed in words is a similar experience of spirituality which some seem to have. There are individuals, often associated with varying monastic traditions, who appear to have access to an understanding or experience which goes beyond that which most of us have. Then, there are also those who have had visions or experiences of the divine which go beyond that most of us can or will experience.

One of the people who would come into this category who has influenced me is Julian of Norwich. Julian of Norwich was a visionary who became an Anchoress in the fourteenth century. She had a range of visions which helped her develop a deep and rooted spirituality which has sustained others through the centuries.

I believe we have much to learn from both the synesthetic experience and from those with an unusually deep spirituality but in order to do this we need to find ways to help them express that which on one level cannot be expressed.