- Disciple-Makers: The Keys to Growth is a project that was born out of a desire to reverse the tide of declining Christian faith in Wales, and churches growing again.
- Wales is the most secular nation in the United Kingdom with 78% of the population either un-churched or de-churched.
- Although there are a number of traditional churches in the town, members feel ill-equipped to reach the local community. As a result, at least half of these remaining churches are on the brink of closure.
- As for those who live locally, most have never heard the gospel of Christ and church simply conjures up ideas of old-fashioned religion that’s irrelevant and ineffective. Unfortunately, this is a common picture throughout much of Wales. Most months a newly-closed church building arrives on the market for sale. With building developers buying up closed church buildings and turning them into gyms, restaurants or homes, churches in Wales are indeed facing a huge challenge for survival.
According to the Office of National Statistics, there has been a sharp increase of those professing “no religion”, from 14.8 to 25.1%, a striking move away from Christianity towards unbelief. That’s one quarter of the English and Welsh population who claim to have no religion, with the highest proportion in Wales.
Two pertinent questions we need to ask are:
- How are church leaders to disciple and foster spiritual growth in South Wales?
- How is it possible to grow individuals from unchurched and / or challenging backgrounds into the fullness of their humanity?
Correlation between economic and religious health
As we think about answering these important questions, one area cannot be ignored: the context and environment our churches are often located in. According to Professor Paul Chambers, an important relationship exists between economic and religious health and well-being. He explains how in this past century, Christian religion expanded into the newly industrialized regions and consolidated itself as an important part of Welsh identity, reaching a high point during the 1904-05 Welsh Religious Revival. However, subsequent economic decline in the twentieth century was paralleled by ensuing religious decline. He writes,
The year 1980 saw Britain move into economic recession and in Wales that year saw the laying off of almost 6,000 workers (half the workforce) at the British Steel Corporation plant in Port Talbot. Not only did this rip the economic heart out of the town, it significantly disrupted traditional social networks and identities, ultimately undermining customary notions of community and local institutions (including churches and chapels) that were predicted upon solidarity-based industrial communities.
This damage to traditional notions of community is not simply the result of postmodern values, but appear to have also arisen from economic troubles. Sandfields Estate, a local housing estate within Port Talbot, significantly declined when the Local Authority re-housed many ‘problem families’ into the area. What had once been an area of respectable working class families eventually became known as ‘Little Beirut.’ Economic deprivation rent the heart of this community, and churches were not strong or capable enough to heal the breach. Unfortunately, Sandfields has not lost this reputation and now also carries an association of drug addiction and suicide among young adults.
For Chambers, congregational growth and decline cannot be separated from local socio-environmental factors. In conversations with Christian faith group leaders, Chambers has found that many of these leaders now see areas of South Wales as mission fields.
The collapse of local church and chapel affiliation has less to do with a turning away of local populations from religion per se and more with the preoccupation of people trying to cope with poverty, crime (especially that linked to heroin, alcohol and other drugs) and general social exclusion.
For Chambers, social and economic factors then are very much at work when it comes to reviving church growth in these areas, and asks: are Christian congregations able to step up to the mark? David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, posed a similar challenge to Evangelical Christians in 2014, stating that Christians should be more evangelical about their faith and get out there and make a difference to people’s lives. For Cameron, in an increasingly secular age Christians need to be even more confident and ambitious. He remarked how he had personally felt the healing power of the Church of England’s pastoral care and highlighted its role in improving our society and the education of our children. He further added how he would like to see politics infused with Christian ideals and values such as responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”
Churches then have a huge task before them. Pockets of British, including Welsh communities, are straining under the weight of social deprivation, and the government believes that Evangelical churches need to do something about it. It’s not just an issue of growing churches for the sake of benefitting its members. Welsh communities need Christian churches to step into the arena and make a positive difference to those in need, doing what they can to bring healing to their local communities.
Although the active involvement of churches delivering services within local communities does not at all guarantee church growth, Chambers believes that at the very least, it nevertheless can establish and nurture the social networks that are a necessity for church growth. From the perspective of local communities, churches should focus more on what they do than on what they preach. He writes,
The point being made here is that, quite often, non-churchgoers have a set of expectations based around ‘good works’ rather than theological niceties and around social capital rather than spiritual capital.
This desire to see churches more actively involved in the needs of society is further supported by Gweini, The Council of the Christian Voluntary Sector in Wales, which encourages local churches to work towards becoming a transforming influence within their local communities. They also report that engaging in social work can be an important component in the spiritual revival of communities. Chambers further adds,
In my previous studies of church growth and decline in South West Wales, engagement or disengagement from local communities was largely dependent on the nature of social networks. Declining congregations tended to have weak or non-existent links to their local communities or these links mainly encompassed the elderly population. Without robust links, recruitment becomes unlikely and long-term increasingly insular. Where significant congregational growth is achieved it tends to be through the presence of robust, outward-looking networks. Mission is also dependent on actions, the careful auditing of needs among local populations, the setting of appropriate goals and a level of internal congregational resource capable of realizing these goals.
Evidence is emerging of this relationship between serving the needs of the local population and the spiritual recovery of churches. Despite the overall decline of institutional religion in Wales, there is increasing evidence of a leaner, fitter Church that is more attuned to emerging community needs. David Ollerton, founder of the Waleswide think-tank, agrees. Ollerton has spent the last three years researching churches in Wales that are experiencing pockets of overall growth. Through his research, he has discovered that such churches have the following two realities in common:
- Growing churches are connecting and serving their local communities through projects such as Foodbank, Christians Against Poverty projects, meeting the needs of the elderly, the homeless, the provision of parenting classes, mum’s and toddler groups, and so on.
- There exist within such churches members with a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ and who wish to share that.
In other words, those churches that are outward-looking, focusing on meeting social and economic needs, whilst sharing their faith, are seeing numerical growth also take place. This is encouraging in the face of declining churches and Christianity in Wales. May God give move again in this land of Wales.
 C. Harris, Redundancy and Recession (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987) in David Goodhew, Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2012), 224.
 Goodhew, 224.
 Goodhew, 224.
 Goodhew, 226.
 The Telegraph, 16 April 2014, accessed 12 June 2014.
 Paul Chambers, “Economic Factors in Church Growth and Decline in South and South West Wales,” in Church Growth in Britain, Goodhew, 228.
 Goodhew, 228.
 Goodhew, 227.
 Goodhew, 223.
 As stated in Where On Earth Is Wales? Workshop 9 November 2015, Rhiwbina Baptist Church, Cardiff, South Wales.
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