It's not just the money: Five long-term threats to church as we know It
Last week it became public knowledge that my diocese was facing a significant financial challenge. We have to own that some of the reasons for dioceses (Leeds is not alone) facing these sudden challenges is that people failed to see some quite obvious problems coming down the line. It's not only the church that has had to deal with huge pension deficits, for example, but often we have been slow to respond so find ourselves chasing the issues rather than being ahead of them. So, for what it is worth, here are five more issues that I think we may have to get to grips with during the next few years.
1. The end of early retirement
The average local church runs on the time and goodwill of volunteers. The best volunteers are often early retired people. They have time, energy, skills and wisdom. In a world where people retire at 55 we have become used to enjoying all they bring. In 20 years time that level of early retirement will be over for all but the most wealthy. Pair that with today's statistics about a slowdown in life expectancy and our pool of volunteers is going to dry up.
Linked to this is the reality that more and more retired people are devoting time to bringing up their grandchildren. They do that so that their children have a fighting chance at attaining the lifestyle they have enjoyed themselves. It often means that grandparents relocate at retirement. At its best it means willing retired people may be looking for a church near you, but it is a threat to levels of volunteering and for the reasons outlined below, it may pull grandparents out of church altogether.
Childolatry is my shorthand for two things I see happening in middle-class parenting. The first is the idea that children should have exactly what they want, when they want it. I'm not commenting on it as a parenting style but it simply doesn't work for a Sunday morning gathering which has to be based on everyone giving a little bit so that we can all just get along. I know of parents, non-parents, young and old leaving churches because this phenomenon is not being navigated well.
The second part is the pressure that I see parents operate under to enable their children to 'compete'. Young people are under more pressure than ever to achieve in school, but also to have a well rounded life outside school in order to go to a university that they need to also need to have had a job to be able to afford. I don't know where church fits in to that. I certainly see that church that only exists on a Sunday morning will struggle to hold its own. We have to rethink what we have to say to this culture, but we also have to acknowledge the impact it has on the whole family. Parents and grandparents get drawn into the rounds of transporting and facilitating and are pulled out of regular church life.
4. Shifts and gigs
There have always been shift workers and the middle class church has largely ignored the exclusivity of our focus on Sunday mornings. However, night shift work has risen and as more and more people are employed on zero-hour contracts with less reliable schedules we will have to diversify our patterns of worship if we are actually going to be churches for all people. Sunday mornings are less and less accessible for more and more people. This is particularly true if we wish to see our churches diversify. We can no longer expect people to sign up for rotas six months in advance.
5. The death of practical skills
Every year we hear that our ability to wire a plug is diminishing. Churches that have property have long relied on the goodwill and skills of volunteers who can do basic repairs in our buildings. I confess that I look at my Catholic brothers and sisters with envy as they retain skilled tradespeople within their worshipping communities. Less so many of us with middle class churches, where with less giving we will be forced to rely more on paid professionals.
Is there hope?
I tend to be a solutions focused person. Our ordinary local churches face huge challenges. The easy answer is to only have a few large churches that subcontract many of the issues. But I can't help but feel that some of that misses the point. If we grasp the issues now we could become lived-out prophetic challenges to some of the worst extremes of our culture.
Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar