CHURCH-PLANTING is about the most fun that you can have with your clothes on. But it is difficult. My experience from 12 church-planting projects that failed, and now two that have worked, is that few of the myths around church-planting are true.
Some think that a great deal of money is needed — but it isn’t. When we planted St Swithun’s, Bournemouth, in 2014, we got going with some generous support from Winchester diocese, which covered my costs as minister, and some seed capital from our sending church, Holy Trinity, Brompton. But, for weeks, we had no bank account; so we could not accept the money that people wanted to give us. We laid a free recycled carpet, and we borrowed old spare chairs. We didn’t have a C of E building; so we first rented, and then purchased, our own site.
In time, we received more significant help. But, even so, from relatively small start-up costs, the returns have been high, although headcount-based growth statistics should be viewed with extreme caution when used as a measure of “success”. We began with 11 adults, three children, and a cat. Four years later, we run five Sunday services across two sites, regularly welcoming 600-plus people of all ages, nationalities, social, and racial backgrounds.
WHAT about transfer growth — don’t plants steal worshippers from elsewhere? The Church Army’s extensive research, over time, on Fresh Expressions found that 25 per cent of the people who join such plants were already Christians, 35 per cent were de-churched, and 40 per cent unchurched. Researchers remarked that, “nothing else, as a whole, in the Church of England has this level of mission impact.”
Our own 2018 annual church survey found that only 13 per cent of respondents regularly attended another C of E church in town before joining us, whereas 14 per cent of our respondents previously had no regular church attendance anywhere. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents did not consider themselves a Christian before joining us; 86 per cent do so now. We’ve run Alpha every term since we started, and that has been the central engine of our growth, shaping our culture and training our leaders.
We are focused on reaching younger, unchurched generations, but Christians of all ages have a part to play in this urgent missionary task. Soon after we had started, one grandmother brought her young niece along. The girl loved it so much that she returned home and nagged her parents to return with her the following Sunday. Her father had not been in church for 20 years, but caved in and begrudgingly agreed to take her. He has come every Sunday since, rediscovering his faith through Alpha. His wife also came to faith through Alpha, and was baptised here, as was their son. Many others have been reached and helped by this one family.
Church-plants can be caricatured as shiny and shallow, gimmicking the faith with smoothie bars and smoke machines. True, church-plants do tend to put a high premium on hospitality, communication, and worship. But, in my experience, it is driven by their theology and missiology rather than the iconoclasm that they are sometimes accused of.
Most people in the UK today have a negative preconception of what Church might be, and, by extension, of who God might be. They vote with their feet, and don’t come back when their experience of attending a church is at odds with the character of God being espoused. A friendly culture of loving acceptance, immediately expressed in visible and tangible ways, breaks those negative preconceptions. In our culture, first impressions matter. A good welcome won’t save anyone, but a bad one can put them off for years.
Another myth is that church-plants put on a good show but remain disengaged from their community’s needs, putting more effort into social media than social action.
I disagree. In our first year, we opened a homeless shelter, and began addiction-recovery, family relationships, and children’s, youth, and student pastoral ministries. We have just opened a debt-counselling centre with Christians Against Poverty. Lives really are being totally transformed in the name of Jesus. Plenty of church-plants — besides existing parish churches — are doing much more.
TWO years after starting St Swithun’s, our Bishop asked us to plant in partnership with an Anglo-Catholic church near by, in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the south-west. The small, faith-filled congregation longed to relaunch its crumbling Grade I site for local mission and better support its two schools, but it lacked the resources to do so.
Together, we are seeing that site come back to life, blessing the community in many different ways. Yes, on a Sunday morning there’s a new, informal, contemporary-worship family service that starts with a café. But there are more older people coming to more eucharistic services each week, as well.
Church-planting is not the preserve of young, middle-class, Charismatic Evangelicals. We’ve ditched those boxes. Everyone has a part to play in enabling church-planting as a central and vital part of the future mission of the Church of England.
The Revd Tim Matthews is Priest-in-Charge of St Clement’s with St Swithun’s, Bournemouth. His book Love Church: Join the adventure of hope is published by Hodder at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).