Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Cowboys for Jesus

Recently my wife and I spent a month in the USA, firstly at a conference in Cambridge Massachusetts, then a few weeks touring Utah and Colorado. We have been to the States many times before and really enjoy the scenery, places and people. Whenever we go we try to find a church where we can worship on a Sunday. This time we tried to keep to churches within walking distance of the places we were staying – quite a challenge.

So we arrived at Colorado Springs, staying in the west part, Old Colorado City. To my surprise we had a choice of at least 12 churches we could walk to, everything from Word of Faith Pentecostal to the Metropolitan Church of Christ, and all shades in between and around. Funnily enough there were no Episcopal or Anglican churches, unless we drove, so they were ruled out.

The choice was bewildering, but one church jumped out as different – the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church. Now I had always wanted to be a “Cowboy for Jesus” ever since I heard the legendary UK children’s worship leader, Ishmael, do a song of that title at a Spring Harvest in the 90s. I wanted to “love the baddies, not want to see them die, but want to see them living for the Lord!” [1]. So a church of that name was a “must visit”.

We did wonder if we would be going to worship, or to a concert, but within minutes of arriving at the church our fears were allayed by listening to the conversations of the people arriving. These were people looking forward to being with Jesus, not a musical experience. Then there were the trappings of a church building, the open Bible, the Lord’s Table, and an amazing sign in front of the drum kit that said we were “talking to the Boss”.

So we did just that – started by talking to Jesus in prayer. Now most of the men were in cowboy clothes, including the hats! Hats in church? What about the Apostle Paul saying we pray with heads uncovered? But at the start of the prayer the hats came off, a lovely mark of respect. Then back on for the opening song.

The songs were all country songs, on gospel themes. We opened with “He Took Our Place”, a song popularised Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, two heroes of mine [3]. The chorus went:

His hands are gently knocking on your door.
Outside He's pleading to come in.
His heart is breaking as He waits for you,
to wash you free from every sin.

This was worship that was back to basics; simple, direct and drawing us to the Saviour. I needed it. I had spent the last week dealing with all the comments on my blogs on Anglican decline [4]. It was time to put the data and theories to one side and enjoy the One for whom church is about.

Meeting Place of the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church

After a few more songs, with fiddle and mandolin solos, it was time for the offering, collected in hats, of course! The song was Hank Williams “I Saw the Light” [5]. Not sure I ever thought I would sing a Hank Williams song in worship – but so glad I did. Again great words:

I was a fool to wander and stray,
Straight is the gate and narrow the way.
Now I have traded the wrong for the right,
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

Perhaps if the Anglican churches in the West traded the wrong for the right they might stop declining!! But the words are aimed at the individual, a reminder to us all to make sure we have “seen the light”.

The worship was led by one of the pastors, Vern Thomson, with his co-pastor, Joe Stephenson, on fiddle. Joe also preached a very helpful sermon on discernment. I learnt many things, but one thing stood out, part of discernment is “horse sense”. That is cowboy speak for common sense, one of those gifts that is, perhaps, in short supply in the Western church at present.

Pastors, Vern Thomson and Joe Stephenson [6]

I guess if people from the UK were trying to classify the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church they would say it is a “fresh expression”, ministering to a niche market of country/cowboy culture. It is true that anyone in this culture would feel really at home in the church. But I think the church’s real success lies in the their simple straightforward spirituality, and their devotion to the Lord. A church with “horse sense”!

After a time of prayer, with requests drawn from the congregation, we were all too soon at the end. A big thank your to Vern, Joe and the congregation for a really blessed time in the Lord’s presence. One of the most inspiring and sincere worship services I have ever been to.

But there was one trick left – the closing song. In the last weeks I have read so many people’s thoughts about church decline, what causes it and what we should do about it. What decisions should we make? What are the choices? If you have been one of those people then the closing song has words that might be especially helpful to you:

In the valley of decision,
tell me friend what will you do
This life has many choices,
eternity has two! [7]

Have you made the right choice?

Joshua 24:15, Matthew 16:15-16, Acts 2:37-38, Acts 16:30-31, Philippians 3:7-11, [8].

References and Notes 

[1] The website of the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus describes their history and ministry. http://www.coloradocowboysforjesus.com/default.html

[2] “I Want to be Cowboy for Jesus”, Ishamel (aka Ian Smale), words and music at:

[3]  He Took your Place. Flatt and Scruggs.
Learning Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs guitar and banjo licks are a must for any budding electric guitar player.

[4] Anglican Decline in the West:

[5] “I Saw the Light”. Hank Williams Snr.

[6] For more publicity photos see the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Facebook Page:

[7] Eternity has Two. Dee Gaskin and John Swain. Performed by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver

[8] The central thesis of the limited enthusiasm model, on which the church growth models are based, is that church growth comes through the production of enthusiasts – the Christian believers who not only makes new converts, but turn them into enthusiasts. They also renew existing believers into enthusiasts. Enthusiasts become self-reproducing, a reinforcing feedback loop that drives exponential growth. Every God-sent revival tells this story. Conversely decline comes from the inability to reproduce enthusiasts.
Thus if you want to generate more enthusiasts you need to be one! To be one, you need to make the right choice. “Set our hearts on fire with a passion for your Son,
oh but Lord, start with me.” (Bryn Haworth)

Monday, 3 August 2015

Anglican Church Decline in the West – Possible Reasons

In the previous blog, I looked at attendance and membership data of four Anglican churches: Church of England (C of E), the Church in Wales (C in W), the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), and the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA).

It was clear that all four denominations were declining, but that in Wales, Scotland and the USA the Anglican churches were declining much faster than the Church of England. Both the C in W and the SEC had potential extinction dates about 2040, with ECUSA possibly lasting 10-15 years longer. Indeed, although the Church of England is declining, it is only on the margins of extinction if the current pattern remains, thus unlikely to face extinction this century.

Potential Causes of Decline

Rather than just repeat the standard reasons given for church decline, in the light of the contrasts in decline patterns, I would rather look at a different question: What does the Church of England have, that the other three denominations do not, that may have helped reduce the effects of numerical decline?

Here are some suggestions, not exhaustive, and some may be a bit controversial:

(a)     Establishment by law. The Church of England is established by law and is thus seen as the nation’s church. It has more connections with the “Establishment”, has inroads into parliament, appears at state functions and has the monarch as its head. It is so established it was once nicknamed the Conservative Party at prayer! Although in Wales the C in W does have a more limited form of establishment when it comes to marriages and schools, both it, SEC and ECUSA, have no real benefits of the state. They are merely one of many denominations, with some others being larger [7].
(b)    Uniformity. ECUSA, SEC and C in W, are all Episcopal by conviction. It is having bishops and prayer books that set them apart from the other denominations. By contrast the C of E is the national church, which just happens to be Episcopal. It is defined more by being national, and less by being Episcopal, as it is the national and established element that really sets it apart from other denominations. Thus the C of E has more variety between congregations than the other three.  To give an example from Wales, one Church in Wales clergyman described his denomination to me as like a Henry Ford car, “any colour you like as long as it’s black”! Generally speaking I have found in Wales, Scotland and the USA a fairly rigid uniformity when visiting different parishes, more so than I have seen in England. Thus the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are narrower, and thus almost sectarian in their relationship with non-Anglicans, compared with the C of E.
(c)     Establishment by state attachment. All four churches are established in the sense that they reflect national life and trends. By that I mean that they do not want to be sectarian in their relationship with the government, the media or national institutions. Rather, they wish to be seen to be such institutions themselves, perhaps no longer the Conservative Party at prayer, but still the “Establishment at prayer”. However, due to their relative narrowness, the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are also able to change more rapidly in response to changes in society and in the Establishment. All three have changed fast since the 1950s, and very fast in the last 10 years, being more open about their modernism. As such the C in W, SEC and ECUSA have been able to respond more to societal liberalisation, keeping themselves in line with the heartbeat of the land: perhaps being the “liberal progressives at prayer”. Not surprisingly they are much further ahead with adopting same-sex marriage, and gay-affirming beliefs, than the Church of England, where there is more resistance to change [8].
(d)    Theology. All four denominations have a variety of churchmanships, however The C of E, in contrast to the others, has a stronger evangelical wing, making it generally more conservative. Due to theological liberalism many conservatives have left ECUSA, leaving it a predominately liberal denomination. In the Church in Wales evangelicalism was always thin on the ground, especially in the industrial south east, which tends to be “liberal high”. In the Scottish Episcopal church there are a small number of evangelical churches, mainly confined to the big cities. Though some have high attendance, the bulk of parishes in the SEC are not evangelical [9].
(e)     Revival. Of the four denominations the C of E has been influenced more by Charismatic Renewal than the others, despite the “Renewal” starting with a US clergyman [10]. Additionally The C of E’s expression of charismatic renewal has also  been more evangelical, including a revival in expository preaching. Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others.
(f)     Rural. Both Wales and Scotland are more rural than England, and many of their congregations are in areas of low population. The Church in Wales especially has a difficult job maintaining a parish system over the whole land. In addition rural congregations often have an older age profile. However the USA has many big cities, which should have given ECUSA an advantage over its British cousins. So this reason is less convincing.

Putting the above together I would suggest that the reason for the decline being slower in the Church of England, compared with Anglicans in Wales, Scotland and the USA [11], is primarily due to internal factors, not external ones in society. I would go further and say, it is beliefs, not actions, that are the source of the problem. When congregations ask for my advice on why they decline I first ask them what they believe, not what they do. Actions follow from beliefs. Perhaps the Church of England has, on average, stronger beliefs than the other three; beliefs that encourage growth.

All these churches want to grow to survive, to have healthy congregations and have a positive impact on society. However the C of E perhaps has a proportionally larger group of people, who believe in evangelism because they want to rescue people, save them from their sins for their own sake. This belief in reaching people, regardless of organisational needs, would lead to greater recruitment activity and a stronger sense of purpose that helps retain and motivate members. Church growth comes from a strong identity rooted in a mission that is bigger than the church itself.

It could be that the Anglican churches are all examples of the institutional lifecycle I have talked about previously [12], and that most of the pre-1900 denominations are coming to an end because they have put too many resources into themselves at the expense of mission. The way forward is not to work out how to save the organisation, but let it fade and try saving the lost. Something new will then emerge. Perhaps the Church of England, with its greater diversity, is much further down the road of that reinvention.

Such reinvention, one that restores the fundamental beliefs and spiritual vitality of the church, does not come by organisational management or cultural accommodation. These are spiritual issues and the solution comes through spiritual means. Not by putting motions through synods, but by seeking the face of God. If the above analysis is true, the Anglican Churches of Wales, Scotland and the USA do not have much time left to seek to “humble themselves, and pray, and …..” 2 Chronicles 7:14.


Reference numbering continues from previous blog.

[7] The Church in Wales now is the largest church in Wales as non-conformity has declined much faster than Anglicanism. There is still a general perception that Wales is non-conformist and chapel, even if it is no longer true

[8] ECUSA voted to introduce same sex marriage at its recent convention July 1st 2015-07-02 http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/07/01/why-the-episcopal-church-is-still-debating-gay-marriage/

The Scottish Episcopal Church voted in its synod, June 12 2015, to modify its laws to be “silent on marriage”, thus enabling their ministers to conduct same-sex weddings, probably not until 2017.

The Church in Wales governing body is due to vote on the introduction of same-sex marriage in the middle of September 2015. So far of the 6 dioceses, St David’s has voted firmly against, Llandaff firmly for, Monmouth narrowly against, and St Aspah narrowly for. There are two more dioceses whose results I have not found yet. Normally with 2 dioceses against a proposal, change would not go ahead, however the governing body has the final say.

[9] There are two large Scottish Episcopal Churches in Edinburgh that have 10% of the attendance of the whole denomination of 277 parishes. The two have nearly 30% of the attendance of the 50 parishes in the Edinburgh diocese. It gives some idea how under represented Episcopal Evangelicals are in terms of the number of parishes. It also shows the skewed nature of congregational attendance.

[10] The charismatic movement is often deemed to have started with Episcopal clergyman Dennis Bennett in Van Nuys California in 1960. The reality was a little more complex than that. Hocken, P. Streams of Renewal: Origins and Early Development of the Charismatic Movement in Great Britain, Paternoster Press, 1997.

[11] There are other Anglican churches in the USA, outside of ECUSA, such as the Anglican Church in North America, and the Anglican Church in America. These were excluded from the study. There are at present few Anglican churches outside the “official” ones in the UK, and I think they are all in England, but that may well change in the future.

[12] Institutionalism and Church Decline