The Great Leap Forward (Part One)

The New Politics of Ecclesionomics for the Church of England

The Great Leap Forward (Part One)

Your Church Can Grow! Nine outstanding alumni pastors join Dr Robert Schuller for a power-packed Institute for Successful Church Leadership… You will learn…how they made their churches grow, what makes success, how obstacles are overcome, ministry principles that work, and how to build a great church… (Advertisement for Church Growth Conference: Christianity Today Magazine, July 1987, p. 62).

I had to pinch myself the other day, when reading the Church Times. This doesn’t happen often – the pinching I mean. But pinch I did, as I read of plans for 10,000 new lay-led churches by 2030. Moreover, ones that did not costly need buildings, or costly well-trained and theologically-literate clergy. As these new lay-led churches will all be headed by the ‘right kinds’ of Christians, there should be no fear of heterodoxy being modelled, or heresy being taught and preached. Orthodox Christianity – the gospel – has presumably never needed egghead theologians or church fathers to guard the truth or correct error. There are many self-appointed purveyors of truth leading churches in London right now who can keep us all on the straight and narrow. These are the ‘right kind’ of Christians, so we can all relax.

We were also told we are going to double the number of children and double the number of “active young disciples” (presumably the passive ones don’t count, whoever they are). This breath-taking news comes from the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication in London. Many of these churches, we are told, would start small with only 20-30 people meeting in a home. I pinched myself again. Who has a home big enough for 10 people, let alone for 20-30? Some may, but most won’t. Then there is the maths. To grow at the rate of 10,000 by 2030, there will need to be three new church plants per-day. That’s right. Three a day; twenty-one per week.

The drivers of this initiative are sufficiently savvy to recognise that this ‘vision’ could be received with some of the weariness and apprehension that might customarily accompany just one more new initiative. Their counsel was instructive here. This is not a new initiative to bolt on to existing programmes, we were told. It was, rather, a re-set of the compass. All the things that are currently going on, guiding, preoccupying and consuming the energies of the church can be set aside, and this new, final push, fully embraced, would set us on the right course.

The Great Leap Forward? This seems to be what was on offer, and in a week marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, I wondered at the possible parallels. I had to pinch myself again when I read the Archbishop of Canterbury had stated that “we don’t preach morality – we plant churches; we don’t preach (therapeutic) care – we plant churches”. Growth and multiplication, it seemed, had become our apotheosis. Forget care, forget morality: just go forth and multiply.

The article in the Church Times appeared opposite the announcement that the Methodists had just voted to permit same-sex weddings. As over 90% of the UK’s young people affirm same-sex unions, and regard such unions as completely normal and a matter of equality, I did wonder what kind of morality and care the Church of England was modelling for our gay and lesbian neighbours. I wondered too, how we were going to double the number of “active young disciples”, given our toxic record on sexuality and gender. Or address our issues of care for clergy under the heel of brutalising CDM proceedings, or being mangled by the machinations of the NST. Or, our care and compassion for the victims of abuse, who are given the run-around by our reputational PR-managers.

I am also doubtful about house-churches being the next bright hope for the future. At their last peak in the 1980’s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died. Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity. Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares. I am sure that the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication has taken all these recent church history lessons on board. But I do wonder who these new 10,000 safeguarding leads in the lay-led congregations are going to be, and who is going to train and supervise them. Bishops, perhaps?

I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people. Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals. Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an a-la-carte basis. Few of today’s evangelical youth will read evangelical books. Many have never heard of the likes of John Stott or Jim Packer. Nor are students getting advice on sexual relationships from the likes of evangelical gurus such as Joyce Huggett, Lewis Smedes or John White. Christian Unions at our universities and colleges are numerically tiny, and primarily exist for comforting fellowship and mutual support.

However, the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication is here to “[equip] today’s churches, planters and pioneers to multiply”. The Centre leads with an encouraging quote from that doyen of the Church Growth Movement, C. Peter Wagner, taken from his Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010): “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches”. The question is, exactly what is that is being multiplied, and why?

The bishop and missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin diagnosed the problem with the Church Growth Movement with these words:

Modern capitalism has created a world totally different from anything known before. Previous ages have assumed that resources are limited and that economics – housekeeping – is about how to distribute them fairly. Since Adam Smith, we have learned to assume that exponential growth is the basic law of economics and that no limits can be set to it. The result is that increased production has become an end in itself; products are designed to become rapidly obsolete so as to make room for more production; a minority is ceaselessly urged to multiply its wants in order to keep the process going while the majority lacks the basic necessities for existence; and the whole ecosystem upon which human life depends is threatened with destruction (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, London: SPCK, 1986, p. 38).

This might seem sufficient as a critique, in effect framing church growth thinking within the ecology of capitalism. But Newbigin turns the critique into something altogether more surprising, and here perhaps has in mind the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 3:6 and 5:23; Colossians 1:18 and Colossians 1:24):

Growth is for the sake of growth and is not determined by any overarching social purpose. And that, of course, is an exact account of the phenomenon which, when it occurs in the human body, is called cancer. In the long perspective of history, it would be difficult to deny that the exuberant capitalism of the past 250 years will be diagnosed in the future as a desperately dangerous case of cancer in the body of human society – if indeed this cancer has not been terminal and there are actually survivors around to make the diagnosis (Newbigin, 1986, p. 38).

As Albert Einstein once opined, not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that is counted, counts. Counting ‘members’ or the hard, inner core of congregational attendees does not tell the whole story; indeed, it does not even account for the half of it.

The mission of the Church is a vocation to serve communities, not just convert individuals into members and grow that body exponentially. Partly for this reason, the insights of Newbigin and other interlocutors may suggest the church growth merchants perhaps ought to be more cautious when it comes to framing ministerial and missional paradigms and ecclesial life, through the lens of growth-success-related moulds. As one writer puts it:

What is happening to ministries that equip the saints for the work of service when we adopt the language and values of the corporate world and describe ministers as Chief Executive Officers, Heads of Staff, Executive Pastors, Directors of this and that? Why is it that ministers’ studies have become offices? [This] may be superficial evidences of the problem … [but it is what happens] when the values of the corporate world join with the values of the market place in the church (Darrell Guder, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015, p. 37).

Guder’s missiological and ecclesial assessment articulates what many critics of the Church Growth Movement have said before. That for all the apparent success, there is an underlying functionalism that may be doing significant damage to the organic nature of ecclesial polity and its grounded, local life. The apparent success may, in fact, turn out to be a significant betrayal of identity, and undermine the actual mission of the church:

The more the Church is treated as an organization, the more its mission becomes focused on techniques designed to maximize output and productivity. We become obsessed with quantity instead of quality, and where we have a care for quality, it is only to serve the larger goal of increasing quantity. The Church moves to becoming a managed machine, with its managers judging their performance by growth-related metrics (Guder, 2015, p. 37).

Yet all the while we continue, at least in the Church of England, to shouts of “growth, growth growth!”. The emerging cognitive dissonance is serious, but we should not be surprised at its appearance in a body now being run as a hegemonic organisation, in which rationality and management have come dominate. The organisation, and its workers, have become tools of mechanistic management to maintain and increase production. This new system, to function, requires a constant diet of good news that raises morale and might conceivably increase production.

Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans (London: Collins, 2003) – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners. Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know.

She continues be explaining that a large part of the population was swept into this confused, crazy world. “Self-deception while deceiving others” (zi-qi-,qi-ren) gripped the nation. Many people – including agricultural scientists and senior Party leaders – said they saw these miracles themselves. Those who failed to match other people’s fantastic claims began to doubt and blame themselves. Many grass-roots officials and peasants involved in scenes like this did not believe in the ridiculous boasting, but fear of being accused themselves drove them on. They were carrying out the orders of the Party, and they were safe as long as they followed Mao. The totalitarian system in which they had been immersed had sapped and warped their sense of responsibility. Even doctors would boast about miraculously healing incurable diseases. She concludes:

Trucks used to turn up at our compound carrying grinning peasants coming to report on some fantastic, record-breaking achievement. One day it was a monster cucumber half as long as the truck. Another time it was a tomato carried with difficulty by two children. On another occasion there was a giant pig squeezed into a truck. The peasants claimed they had bred an actual pig this size. The pig was only made of papier-mâché, but as a child I imagined that it was real. Maybe I was confused by the adults around me, who behaved as though all this were true. People had learned to defy reason and to live with acting (p. 194).

Giant papier-mâché vegetables and livestock are not so very different from giant papier-mâché representations of churches and revivals. Their purpose is to excite and motivate. In the meantime, any remaining historic remnants of the established institution are subjected to intense bombardment. Their very right to exist is subject to frequent interrogations. Parishes – do we really need them? Let’s disinvest in those, and set up lots of new initiatives like Fresh Expressions and Cell Churches. Expensive established theological colleges and courses? We can train clergy in new ways, cheaply and locally. Do we really need our churches and clergy? We can do all of this with cost-free lay-led home groups.

In Mao’s China, these kinds of initiatives ultimately led to the Communist Party resorting to spouting meaningless slogans which they themselves knew made no sense. As the philosopher Roger Scruton argued, Marxism became so cocooned in what Orwell once called ‘Newspeak’, that it could not be refuted:

…facts no longer made contact with the theory, which had risen above the facts on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system. The point was not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant… In this way the concept of truth disappeared from the intellectual landscape, and was replaced by that of power. (Anne Applebaum in conversation with Roger Scruton, June 6th 2012, in A. Applebaum, The Iron Curtain, London: Allen Lane, 2013, p. 494).

Scruton added that once people were unable to distinguish truth from ideological fiction, however, then they were also unable to solve or even describe the worsening social and economic problems of the societies they ruled. Put plainly, I don’t think we want the church to be run by ‘visionary’ ecclesiocrats who keep setting hard-pressed clergy and congregations ever-greater numerical and financial targets in a gloomy climate of ecclesionomics.

Like a Maoist culture of old, the Church of England is now being asked to assent to another Great Leap Forward (i.e., ‘growth, growth, growth…’). In Mao’s China (1949–76), it was not good enough to profess to be a good Communist and loyal Chinese citizen. Chinese Communism was turned into a cult of personality followership: to survive and prosper, you had to demonstrate that you were a loyal disciple of Mao. Because Communism was simply too broad to police, and China far too diverse to control, Mao set additional tests of orthodoxy to be sure of whom he could really trust. In the end, the only ones left were those who truly followed him: the obeisant. The parallels in the current state of the Church of England are striking.

Hannah Arendt, our foremost scholar of totalitarianism, noted that totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty. That is part of the reason why Donald Trump got away with so much. He once said: “I value loyalty above everything else, more than brains, more than drive and more than energy”.

Trump’s exultation of personal loyalty over expertise is exactly what we see in the Church of England today. Dissent is not tolerated. No voice can be raised in protest. General Synod and Diocesan Synod are primed to emasculate criticism, deflect questions, and mute dissent. All Bishops are now ‘on message’, signed up to the Maoist-Capitalist vision of the Great Leap Forward with the mixed, fluid economy of the church giving free rein to those with the power and wealth to make the changes they want. This is now our Cultural Revolution in the Church of England: “let a thousand flowers bloom”.


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