Attendance at the monthly Choral Evensong at St Paul’s Without the Walls in Canterbury had fallen to just one, while the choir numbered a respectable 18. And when this lone congregant was down on the rota to read the scriptures (ie, every month), he faced rows of empty pews, the choir being ranged in the stalls behind him.
So, what do you do when the church choir outnumbers the congregation?
You could ditch the Book of Common Prayer, arguing that its archaic language and otiose liturgy are meaningless to today’s generation. “Church growth is crucial,” said Fred. “We must modernise to be relevant.”
“We must become more acceptable to LGBTQIA and BAME and BIPOC and NS-SEC people, and make sure we don’t use words, expressions or tedious acronyms which stereotype, demean or exclude people,” Agnes insisted.
“We could get rid of the old church building and become a ‘Fresh Expression’ above the Chinese Takeaway,” said Bob.
“We should become sustainable. Let’s put solar panels on the roof, and have a debate about the environment,” said Maureen.
“We could go back to basics,” Michael ventured, tentatively. “Let’s focus on good preaching, good music and good fellowship. And let’s add good food, as well.”
Maureen harrumphed, and Bob rolled his eyes. Agnes walked out in disgust and the myopic bigotry. Fred wondered how they’d cater for vegans.
But a home-cooked meal was offered after each service, and the church grew from a congregation of just one to more than 70.
It isn’t mission rocket science:
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:42ff).
“People are drawn to our services and even after the pandemic we have had more than 50 people coming to services,” Michael added. “We’re interacting with people we never did before and it’s been hugely enriching for the parish.”
The efforts of St Paul’s Without the Walls have been celebrated online, and dozens of parishes have been in contact to learn to replicate the success.
“The Book of Common Prayer is seeing a real revival in churches across the country,” said Bradley Smith, Chairman of the Prayer Book Society. “New generations are discovering the beauty, depth and majesty of these words, many through services of Choral Evensong such as in St Paul’s Canterbury.”
Church growth is all about leadership.
‘Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls‘ (Jer 6:16).