I’ve just heard an interesting story from a couple who are members of the congregation at St Matthew’s. They had a meal with friends who attend the 8:00AM service. While there, they met some other friends who attend the weekly Thursday morning service at St Matthew’s, and then some other friends who come at 10:30AM on Sundays. It turns out that none of these other friends knew each other, despite them all attending the same church! (I thought it was disappointing that they didn’t then bump into some of the 6:30PM congregation and complete the set.)
At St Cross, the situation is simpler: there is just one service on a Sunday, and a monthly midweek communion, which is usually attended by people who also come on Sundays. So, people at St Cross tend to know one another. But across the two parishes we have four or five congregations who may or may not know anyone who worships at another time or in another place.
In one sense, this is not a problem. Many of us are creatures of habit and attend church at a time and place to suit ourselves. Each of the services has its own characteristics and we find a congregation in which we feel at home. There’s nothing new in this: the Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent said in a light-hearted note on growth in the Church Times:
“it always used to be 8 o’clock for the individualists, 10.30 for the families, and 6.30 evensong for the depressives!”
Obviously, we don’t want to categorise all churchgoers in such a simplistic way, but it makes the point that people like choice and the church tries to offer a variety of styles of worship to appeal to the greatest number. Church growth research also suggests that people like a certain amount of predictability from one week to the next. (We decided to lose Matins at St Matthew’s because it was so different from anything else in the 10:30AM slot: people who come to All-age worship one month and then Book of Common Prayer Matins the next – or vice versa – wonder what kind of church we are, contemporary or traditional? If you love one, you might hate the other.)
At a recent PCC morning (yes, your church councillors gave up a Saturday morning to think about how we can encourage the church to grow!) we looked at attendance at St Matthew’s. Like many other churches, we need to face the uncomfortable reality of aging congregations and declining numbers (along with financial worries and the demands of looking after a Grade II listed building). The service registers tell us that All-age worship is the best attended service of the month (particularly on special occasions), followed by our monthly Parish Communion at 10:30AM. Attendance at the other 10:30AM services is sometimes worryingly low. 8:00AM communion is fairly steady, and the 6:30PM congregation consists of a small number of stalwarts, mostly older people, who love their BCP service.
We are trying to develop our styles of worship so that people have confidence in what they come to and what they might invite others to attend. The Christian website Ship of Fools sends a mystery worshipper to drop in on unsuspecting church services to see what they offer to visitors. What would a mystery worshipper make who attended one of our services? Do we have something that we can offer with confidence to a visitor?
But back to the point with which I began: how can we encourage our diverse congregations to become better acquainted? (If we think that’s a good idea!) Of course, there are various social and fundraising events throughout the year – from Walking Day and coach trips, to Christmas Fairs and concerts – which encourage people from each of our congregations and beyond to meet one another. And this month of September sees both churches marking their patronal festivals – Holy Cross day and St Matthew’s day fall a week apart each September (on the 14th and 21st respectively). Both churches are holding special events on the Sunday nearest to encourage church members to meet each other, and to reach out to those on the margins and beyond in our communities. Of course, calling it a ‘patronal festival’ is hardly likely to draw in the crowds, but it gives both churches an opportunity to celebrate what is good about our shared life and our service to our parishes. I hope that you will get involved with one or both of these occasions. Who knows? You may meet someone who is a regular worshipper at your church whom you don’t yet know. Better still, we might meet some parishioners who are not yet regular worshippers but who might just like what they see and consider coming back for more…
St Cross: Come on and Celebrate! Sunday 13th September
4:00PM on Sunday 13th September at St Cross. Open air worship (weather permitting) followed by craft activities and refreshments in church.
St Matthew’s Church Festival Sunday 20th September
10:30AM on Sunday 20th September. All-age worship, followed by refreshments. Hopefully, afternoon tea later in the day (volunteers and cakes required!) and Evensong at 6:30PM.
If you can help with any of these events, please let me know.