How the mighty fall, and why some churches never give in (Will Sudworth)

Will SudworthWill Sudworth reflects on how the mighty fall – and why some churches never give in.

'Decline can be avoided, detected and reversed.' So begins Jim Collins' latest book How the Mighty Fall, based on four years of research into companies which found that decline is 'largely self-inflicted'.

Below is a re-wording of the main findings, using 'church language' to see if it helps our exploration of inherited church and fresh expressions.

The five stages of decline that proceed in sequence

Stage 1: Churches become insular

Church members believe their church is 'entitled' to exist, losing sight of the true factors that originally established it.

When people are saying 'We're established because we do these specific things' instead of the insightful 'We're established because we understand why we do these things and under what conditions they would no longer work', decline will very likely follow.

Stage 2: Undisciplined growth

When a church grows beyond its ability to fill key leadership roles with the right people, it has set itself up for a fall.

Stage 3: Denial of risk and peril

Internal warning signs mount, yet membership and attendance remain strong enough to 'explain away' disturbing data or to suggest that the difficulties are 'temporary' or 'cyclic'.

Church leaders start to blame external factors such as culture rather than accept responsibility.

The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterises healthy churches disappears altogether.

Stage 4: Solution grasping

Church leaders respond by grasping for quick solutions – eg, introducing a new charismatic visionary leader, instigating a dramatic cultural revolution, or merging established churches.

Initial results may appear positive, but the results do not last.

Stage 5: Irrelevance or closure

Repeatedly grasping for quick solutions erodes financial strength and individual spirit to such an extent that all hope of building a great future is abandoned.

In some cases, the church leaders just sell out; in other cases the church atrophies into insignificance; and in the most extreme cases, the church simply closes.

Specific findings relevant to fresh expressions of church

With a map of decline in hand, churches heading downhill might be able to reverse course

It's not as simple as 'they failed because they didn't change'. Churches that change constantly but without any consistent rationale also collapse. There's nothing wrong with keeping specific practices, but only if you understand the 'why' behind those practices, and thereby see when to keep them and when to change them.

To disrespect the potential remaining in the inherited church – or worse, to neglect it while focusing on fresh expressions in the belief that the inherited church will continue almost automatically – leads to decline. Even if you face the impending demise of the inherited church, that's still no excuse to let it just run on autopilot. Exit definitively or renew obsessively, but do not ever neglect it.


With a map of decline in hand, churches heading downhill might be able to reverse course.

The signature of the truly great is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back stronger than before from even cataclysmic catastrophes.

Café Sundae

Café Sundae - logoCafé Sundae, based at Timperley Methodist Church, opened in May 2006. Will Sudworth gives an update on the place that describes itself as 'church like you’ve never seen it before'

We're a bit like the Muppets…

Café Sundae wasn't planned at all. We hadn't heard of Fresh Expressions, but we simply felt we weren’t engaging with our teenagers. Yet now we have been running for over three-and-a-half years, have at least six churches in the UK using our material, and been responsible for leading alternative worship at a national youth event.

We started off with what was basically a youth group meeting every Sunday night but the members would never come to family services or any other service, it just didn't work.

Café Sundae - mobilesWe listened to the teenagers and they were pretty frank about it all, 'Sunday morning is a bad time, we're doing sports and anyway, church is dull.' So we transformed all-age worship into café multimedia worship on Sunday evenings. We thought we'd nailed it. In truth we had a half-hearted shot at changing it as a compromise but it didn’t come anywhere near hitting the spot.

It was time to do something radical so we brought together a team with multimedia and many other skills, and decided to do it properly on the second Sunday of the month from 6.30pm for about an hour-and-a-half. We cleared the church and all the chairs, put up a lighting rig, introduced café style tables, and got the young people involved. The teenagers came up with the name Café Sundae, and we were on our way.

Our vision included some key components. They were:

  • Asking people what topics are relevant to their lives and then exploring what God has got to say about that topic;
  • No communal singing;
  • Café Sundae - Vlie reportGoing out on the streets to interview and film people about the topic. We then edit the voxpops together and show the results on screen. As well as speaking to members of the public, we have also created our own presenters, like Jeremy 'Vile' and Miss Polly Titian, to help explore a particular subject;
  • Introducing role-play and tabletop games to help us really consider an issue;
  • Involving teenagers in setting up the event and helping us to run it;
  • Giving opportunities to respond to the message of that week;
  • Carrying on the conversation afterwards in a blog.

We immediately welcomed people our church had not reached before. Numbers started at around 90, dropped to about 30 and ended 2009 at about the 70-80 mark, which is roughly the same size of our traditional church congregation. Today about half of the Café Sundae regulars are teenagers, with a good mix of male and female; and about 50% are adults aged 18-40. We make it clear that some of the issues covered are not suitable for younger children so our members need to be of secondary school age and older.

During the first summer we hosted a service for Churches Together. The feedback included the comment 'sacrilege' and the phrase 'I didn't feel as if I'd been to church'. We took the phrase as a compliment, even though it wasn't intended that way. When you're trying to make church for people who don't like church, could you get a better recommendation?

As to sustainability, we've seen our original minister move on, our team change, and new minister Revd Andrew Bradley getting to grips with it. Andrew runs a youth club on a Sunday afternoon and he brings them straight on to Café Sundae. Other youth clubs from churches of various denominations around and about have done the same.

MAYC asked us to lead Café Sundae at its Breakout event for young people. It may just have been the offer of free chocolate but we were packed to overflowing. We'll be back there this year with a full weekend of activities.

Café Sundae - crayonsWe also believe in sharing what we've done and learned so we package up our material and give it away for free on our resources website. We don't have a magic formula, and our ideas may not work everywhere. All we've really done is shape church around what our teenagers respond to. Why does it appeal to adults as well as younger people? We think it's because it's a bit like the Muppets in that it works on two levels so that everyone can enjoy it.

Even though we're still meeting in a church building it doesn't feel like church and it certainly doesn't look like what you'd find in your average service. We use multi-media green screen technology, which means that we have a video camera and a blue screen behind our teenage actors – they act out a scene and we can put any image behind them. It's much easier than getting a whole youth club to practice for weeks and hope they get it right when performing the thing!

Discipleship is an area we're looking at very closely as time goes on. Our plan is to follow the model of the cell churches – namely to have a big event once a month before members go their separate ways with the adults going to house groups and youngsters in youth groups.

Our first group of teenagers has now gone off to university; our big challenge over the next five years is to draw them back in after their studies to become part of the Café Sundae leadership. To be fair, some of the young people are already doing that; one is on the computer, another runs the lighting desk, and several of them go out on the streets to do interviewing, acting, and videoing.

Café Sundae - heartSome people ask, 'Is it a fresh expression of church if it's still in the church building and doesn't meet all the fresh expressions criteria?', 'Should it be heavier on the Bible content?'

At the moment, we plan to stay in the church. We transform the interior, and our teenagers – and adults – are very happy to come into that building. As a result they change the atmosphere and it is very much a fresh expression of church, but we keep on grappling with all these things, and all we can hope is that we will continue to listen and explore these questions and others for many years to come.