We had an excellent observation from Hallam Murray at the Annual Meeting last week. As usual, we had to receive a report on the number on the Electoral Roll (our Church Membership list), and Sunny Walker-Kier reported that last year the number on the Roll stood at 202 and that this year the number stood at 207. About 24 people had been removed from the Roll, owing to their sad death or moving away, and 29 people were added. Hallam remarked that the number on the Roll always seemed to stay at about 200 and he wondered how we could grow any further.
Coincidentally, for the first time this year the Research and Statistics Unit at the Church of England’s Offices in Church House, Westminster, have sent me a ‘dashboard’ of statistics based on our annual parish returns. It’s a useful snapshot of St Mary’s. Among the figures are those of Electoral Roll numbers since 2006 and these look like this:
*These years mark the required complete renewal of the Roll from scratch. The sharp drops in the year or two after complete renewal are probably evidence of over-enthusiastic entry on the Roll.
So it very much looks like, if you take the years around the complete renewal of the Roll as exceptional (there’s usually a big push to get people to go on the Roll then), that Hallam’s point is very well-made. St Mary’s, typically, is a church where between 180 and 210 people consider the church significant enough to enter their names on the Electoral Roll.
But, like all statistics, you need to go a little beyond the face value to see what this might mean. In the years I’ve been at St Mary’s I tend to take the opportunity to remove people from the Roll when I know they’ve left, moved away or, sadly, died. So, since 2011, we know how many people have been removed
Taking 2017’s figures as an example what these figures reveal is that, although 24 people left the Roll, nevertheless the Electoral Roll went up by 5, which means that 29 people considered St Mary’s their new spiritual home. The growth of 5 may be modest in headline terms, but in fact in real terms we replaced the 24 who left with 29 people. This is striking because, in a declining church, we would expect the Electoral Roll number to slowly decrease, but St Mary’s is managing to replace and modestly grow. This is a sign of health.
Of course, the main reason for all of this is the transient nature of our community. People come and go from Battersea all the time: it’s part of the nature of inner urban life. So, on the one hand, our challenge is to draw people in and welcome them when they arrive (and the evidence of continued healthy numbers joining St Mary’s is encouraging to us of that) while, on the other hand, perhaps we need to be ensuring that, as and when people do leave, we have done what we can to ensure that they don’t stop going to church but have been equipped and encouraged enough that they look for a church to join wherever they move to. Perhaps part of our ministry, especially for the healthy number of young professionals who join us for a while, is to help them find their way into church life after a time away from it.
Hallam’s point is of course still valid: growing any further is challenging, especially when every year (typically for reasons of mobility) we see 10% of the congregation move on. Church growth experts say that growing your church at 5% per year is a healthy level of growth. If we were to welcome 5% new people every year, our numbers would be slowly declining. So St Mary’s is having to grow too fast to stay still. Of course, it’s encouraging to be growing numerically in such healthy numbers; but welcoming, involving and introducing significant numbers people to the church (and often to the Christian faith) presents a challenge to the whole church and one we ought to think about more carefully.
Put simply, rather than worrying about growing numerically any quicker, maybe our focus should be on ensuring that those who – thanks be to God – do join us in good numbers find the church to be a place where thoughtful faith, genuine spirituality and Christian community are encountered. There’s more to 200 than meets the eye.
Food for thought…