Church at a crossroads

6 lessons from the United Reformed Church

The United Reformed Church (URC) approached Theos to conduct research into the life, identity, and flourishing of the URC. The key objective of the proposed research was to provide a snapshot of the URC today, exploring its identity rooted in practice, what flourishing looks like, what resources exist or need to be sought, and what barriers there are to flourishing in the future.

After a year of in depth research, what lessons can be learned from the URC?

1. The church is not always about numbers

The 2021 census data on religion is sobering. The number of people ‘checking out’ from religion is on the rise.

This is a truth, but it is not the whole truth. Indeed, the picture of faith in the UK is more nuanced; the landscape more complex than polling numbers and headlines suggest. While the URC is undeniably experiencing decline and contributes to the sobering national statistics, the lived reality is that very frequently small congregations have a disproportionate impact within their local communities.

In towns, villages and cities across the three nations the URC exists within it is in partnership with many others at local level, meeting community needs and serving Christ, as it serves those beyond its walls. Our research found that for 71% of United Reformed churches, community service is their first priority – a concern that trumps even pastoral care of their own members. So, while the figures and headlines paint a picture of doom and decline, small, even struggling congregations continue to do what they do best: quietly love their neighbours in practical ways and nurture community.

This is not only true of the URC: Church Urban Fund data in 2017 showed that 93% of Church of England churches at that time were involved in some way in the provision of food banks, and other more recent Theos reports have highlighted the impressive impact of local churches on social cohesion and practical care for the most vulnerable in their communities.

2. Historical theological commitments continue to affect modern church politics 

The URC is the result of the merger of the Congregational Church in England and Wales with the Presbyterian Church in England in 1972, with later unions with the Churches of Christ and the Congregational Church of Scotland. The distinctive congregationalist and reformed theologies which underpin the uniting churches continue to influence it in important ways. For example, the congregational ethos can be seen in the way normally individual local members, rather than central leadership, make the decision to start or close a local congregation. Indeed, while the broader structures of the denomination are clearly indebtedness to the reformed tradition, the congregational spirit of equality and inclusive participation in decision–making pervades the denomination.

This highlights the fact that churches are not merely secular organisations, but are driven by their unique faith commitments in all that they do. It is perhaps more accurate to view the church’s social witness as “social liturgy” than “social action”, reflecting its “deliberately God–focused” motivation in service to others.

More broadly, the popular image of Christianity in the UK draws on a highly idealised view of the traditional Anglican parish: a single priest of a single church, overseeing a clearly defined geographical area and directly accountable to a hierarchical structure above it. But not all churches operate a parochial system, and the URC is just one example of the various ways different Christian communities organise themselves.

3. Disagreeing well is a strength 

The URC at its core finds ways to live into significant diversity whilst remaining united. Its approach to same–sex marriage is an example of this. Whilst not without difficulty or frustration at times, people with different perspectives on issues of human sexuality live side by side as siblings. In a societal context where such issues are often framed as a ‘culture war’, the URC offers a profoundly counter–cultural reality in holding together difference. Concretely, the approach taken was to trust and allow local churches to make their own decision on same–sex marriage, rather than impose a church–wide position from the ‘centre’.

4. Church structures developed when the church was larger need reassessing 

One of the key findings of our research was that the structures and processes of the URC need simplifying and streamlining. Conceived when the denomination was significantly larger, structures that were once fit for purpose now risk stifling rather than enabling congregational life and mission. As many historic denominations with elaborate governance and administrative structures experience decline, the need to reform structures discerningly, to be more agile and fit for mission in changing times, is critical.

The URC is not alone in considering how its structures can best serve the needs of the church and community in the twenty–first century. The Church of England has particularly attracted mainstream media attention as it considers the balance between central structures and the parish level. The Quakers are engaged in a “Simpler Meetings” scheme to reduce the burden of structures and roles on the worshipping community. More positively, this reassessment is not always motivated by decline, as in the case of Pope Francis’s declaration that “synodality [is what] God expects of the Church of the third millennium”, calling the international Catholic Church to an inclusive process of discernment regarding how its culture, structures, and decision–making can be more open to the leadings of the Holy Spirit. These movements are not intended to bring about complete transformation of church structures, but rather seek to be agile and imaginative in the face of modern challenges.

5. Ministers and paid time make a real difference

There is a shortage of ministers in the URC. Ministers are stretched untenably between several congregations and localities. The minister–to–church ratio varies from synod to synod, but in one of the synods we studied, the ratio was approximately 20 ministers to 100 churches. Our research shows that the absence of a full–time minister has a negative effect on the congregational life and ministry of local congregations, limiting particularly their ability to meet the needs of their local communities through outreach activities. On the flipside, all of the churches we studied that thrived had a minister.

In a context of church decline, however, there is a need to innovate both at the level of theological training, improving quality and access, and building lay capacity for a more agile, participatory form of local leadership.

Other Theos research has also emphasised the critical importance of investing in leadership – not only for the flourishing of the church, but for the good of the whole community. Churches are wellsprings of formal and informal community leadership, forming (and paying) community champions who take initiative and empower their neighbourhoods, building up ‘dignity’ and a sense of ‘purpose’ in individuals and groups.

6. The church will flourish at the local level or not at all 

Flourishing churches we came across in the research had a clear understanding of why they existed in their localities as churches. They could articulate their mission in both spiritual and social terms. They were outward oriented, and maintained active relationship with their local communities.

As older, historic denominations reckon with the reality of decline, the promise of flourishing rests with a renewed sense of missional identity and purpose expressed locally, and the courage to drastically reform or jettison altogether wider denominational structures and processes that hinder rather than enable congregational life and mission.

Read the full report, The United Reformed Church: A Paradoxical Church at a Crossroads.