When people start a blog post 'This is not a complaint about anyone' they are rarely believed. But this is not a complaint about anyone. It's a conversation starter.
There was a joke told to me about thirty years ago, and I guess it had been around for a while before that. It concerned a vicar.
Every morning he was seen walking out of the house and along to the railway line. He stood on the bridge looking along the track. As the first train of the day passed beneath the bridge he did a little leap of joy and danced his way back to his house.
More on that later.
In one of the parishes in which I work there is a usual Sunday attendance of over 300 in four congregations across two worship centres. The electoral role is about 320 or so and those we might call our members (over 16 years of age) number about 340 or 350.
For some months now we have been talking about, and planning, how to improve outreach. The parish might be blessed with large numbers but this is more through residence than successful evangelism. Massive growth in numbers in the 1980s and 1990s corresponded with people moving into the area as it was allowed to grow under the North Somerset Development Plan.
As part of this we have suspended our small groups this month. We are holding a series of congregational meetings to discuss whether those small groups might be the key place to get this improvement to happen. We have invited all church members to these meetings, not just those currently in small groups (you might call them home groups but ours don't all meet in homes).
The first two meetings (one daytime, one evening) have been good. I am sure I should be grateful that a total of 110 people have wrestled with our opening session and asked great questions. There is clearly an underlying nervousness about change, something my personality type finds it very hard to understand but I try and listen. The opening few comments suggest that it is the support and care people value about their small groups and this has corresponded to a reluctance, over the years, to grow and multiply.
The end point of the conversation, for our small groups, has not been identified. You can't have a conversation if the end point is fixed. The end point of the conversation for the church has to be fixed. If we don't get real about outreach then we will do what a near neighbour church has done - grow old and be in danger of death.
Here's the conversation I want to start. If 110 out of 340 people came that is about a third. However radical the decision making of this holy bunch of the committed and concerned how should we communicate it to the two thirds who couldn't make it, didn't see the point or weren't bothered?
Those of us who try to lead the church are not trying to force anything through, despite the feelings of some more outspoken members. We are genuinely trying to have a conversation about improving evangelism and see our small groups as being at the heart of this.
But I fear that we will have a hard job on our hands convincing the two-thirds that any decision or policy change was genuinely arrived at through prayer and dialogue. As the 'nam vet says, 'You wouldn't know man; you weren't there.' Maybe that is simply what I should expect life to be like.
Asked why he got so excited about the train the vicar in the joke (remember the joke) said, 'I get excited because it is fantastic to see something in this town that moves without being pushed.'
If I ever show signs of becoming a train-spotter please take me out the back and have a harsh word with blunt sticks. But I understand that vicar.