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Church growth and obliquity

Church growth and obliquity

Hannah Rich argues that pursuing other aspects of church life may lead to organic growth.

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The economist John Kay, drawing on the ideas of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, suggests that goals are paradoxically more likely to be realised when they are pursued indirectly. He calls this idea ‘obliquity’; the notion that sometimes, in order to achieve certain aims or targets, it may be more productive to look in the other direction.1 Kay goes on to use this to claim that businesses may be more successful when they don’t make financial success their sole aim.2

Kay’s theory of obliquity does not mean that businesses can abandon altogether any interest in being profitable nor that they shouldn’t celebrate and welcome profitability when it happens. This would clearly not be a sensible business strategy. Rather, the point is that it should not, or need not, be the primary driver of the business. There can still be an underlying desire for profit or financial success, without it being the main motivation.

Churches are not businesses, nor can we imagine them as such. But there might be lessons for us to learn from applying some of Kay’s ideas from the world of business to the issue of church growth. David Goodhew rightly recognises that church growth often results from an intentional effort to grow and is rarely a complete accident.3 In a secular age, he argues, churches have no choice but to be conscious about their growth to some extent. They can’t reject wholesale the ‘growth agenda’ or any deliberate effort to grow their congregation numerically. However, it may be that by pursuing or prioritising other aspects of church life, that growth comes about organically – or obliquely.

The Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, argues that in order to grow and flourish, churches might begin by being themselves and actively seeking to reflect Jesus to their local communities.4 The church as a whole exists to mirror Christ to those around it, just as Christians as individuals are encouraged to do so through their own behaviour. What that looks like might well be different according to the varying needs of individual communities and parishes, but the purpose remains the same. Church–based projects which seek to serve their community should also point implicitly to the faith which is their primary motivation.

Social action is rarely done with the explicit and main intention of growing the church; it is led instead from a desire to serve the community. These activities are worthwhile in their own right, but also for the questions and conversations they can lead to and the relationships which are built in the process. Social action projects and discipleship initiatives are both ways in which churches may seek to reflect Jesus to those around them. The relationships and connections which emerge from these actions may draw people into church, indirectly leading to the growth of the congregation.

We might also understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 – “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added onto you” – as a sort of precursor to John Kay’s idea of obliquity. The previous verse reminds us that “your heavenly Father knows,” and Jesus’ message in this particular chapter is not that we can forget about “these things” altogether, but rather one about kingdom priorities. Seek first the kingdom, and the rest is a gift.

According to Kay, a business which seeks to be a good business, rather than channelling all its energy into being economically successful, is still likely to both profitable and sustainable as a by–product. Likewise, it might well be that as a happy consequence of seeking to be an authentic, Christ–like presence in their communities, churches will experience growth in both strength and size. As Goodhew acknowledges, there is not a binary choice to make between seeking the kingdom or growing the church; both are valuable and indeed necessary in today’s world. It is a question of where the emphasis lies, rather than one about whether or not we need to consider growth at all.


The GRA:CE Project is a three–year research project being conducted by Theos and the Church Urban Fund. It seeks to understand the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship within the Church of England, drawing on the themes of this article together with extensive qualitative and quantitative research with churches across the country.

This article will appear in the forthcoming Spring 2018 edition of The Bible in Transmission magazine published by Bible Society.

1 John Kay (2010), Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly, Profile Books.

2 For more on the implications of the idea of obliquity for social change and community transformation, read David Boyle (2017) The grammar of change: Big Local neighbourhoods in action

3 David Goodhew (2018), The Theological Foundations for Church Growth, in this issue of Transmission.

4 Graham Tomlin (2002), The Provocative Church.


Image from pxhere available in the public domain

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich

Posted 20 February 2018

Church, Future of Churches, GRA:CE Project, Social Action

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