Did we grow to love the fringe too much?

I resisted for a while, especially when I hoped lockdown would be short but eventually I succumbed. I realised that my hair was beginning to look like I was channelling Boris Johnson.  So, I bought some clippers and in a dramatic, bold move set them to number one before unleashing them on my head.  I’ve found that in the absence of actual hair styling skills it is probably better just to go with that option. My mum wasn’t so happy with my decision, calling me to tell me that the close cut exposed where my hairline was beginning to recede and my hair was thinning. If I kept my hair and fringe longer, she advised, then it would hide those things a bit longer.

I think that in many respects, the pandemic has been a bit of a number one hair job on the church. We too had grown to love our fringe.  We are experiencing pruning.  Thom Rainer has written soberly about how churches should expect to see around about 20% of their congregations leave during COVID and not return.

The church I was pastoring had grown rapidly.  At one point we had seen over 180 through our weekend services and perhaps pushing 200 regular attendees and had planted a new Spanish speaking church. Those were encouraging times, but in reality, we knew the figures were fragile. Alongside that we had ministries during the week that were well attended. Our Toddlers’ groups drew over 60 families and we had clubs, ESOL classes and a little café that provided for lots of contact. Yet, as I often talked about with our Families worker, those big numbers were not the key thing. The real issue was about the smaller numbers of people who were genuinely engaging with the Gospel.

You see, just as the large numbers of attendees at our services could over flatter us in the same way, it was very easy to get distracted by the numbers coming through the week. We often wrestled with this because quite a few people hoped that this would be the starting point, people would get used to our building by attending the mums and babies group or bringing their kids to clubs and migrate from there to Sunday.  It never happened. We did see people joining us at our services and we saw professions of faith but those tended to come from

  • Straight off the street of their own accord
  • Invited by friends
  • The long-term results of our ESOL teacher’s patient ministry
  • Invited through door to door and street contact

That should be no surprise. I started using the gym a few years back but my regular attendance there to use the running machine did not lead to me migrating to the swimming pool or any of their special fitness classes they offered. I didn’t even make it onto the weights section. I think at times we thought that people were engaging with us when they were just making use of a service.

A friend of mine shared with me recently that his church had realised that their big attendance activities often had the lowest gospel impact. In fact, their lower attendance higher impact activities have been the ones that they’ve been able to continue with since.

Where does this leave us? Well, whilst the more realistic picture may be sobering, I think it can lead to optimism. As much as we fought against pruning, the Bible tells us that God does this in order to lead to greater fruitfulness. Things are fragile now but maybe, just maybe God will use this to encourage greater fruitfulness in the future.

So, before you rush to get your old programmes up and running again after COVID, maybe it would be good to ask the question.

“Did we really need them in the first place?”

And alongside that, look not at the people who drifted away during COVID. Look at the people who are in front of you what will you do to disciple them. Look at the people who have begun to engage during lockdown. Ask the same question about them.

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