Not just rearranging deckchairs

by
16 December 2016

Church-plants are addressing the Church’s most pressing challenges, says Ian Paul

PHILIP KING

New life: St Luke’s, Gas Street, in Birmingham, was planted in February

New life: St Luke’s, Gas Street, in Birmingham, was planted in February

ONE of the key changes that has been introduced as part of the Re­­newal and Reform programme with­in the Church of England is in the way in which the Church Commis­sioners’ money is distributed to dioceses. Instead of all of its being allocated according to a formula to determine need, part of it now is distributed as Strategic Development Funding, released in response to dio­cesan applications to fund schemes designed to lead to growth in num­bers and discipleship in the Church.

A scheme that is commonly proposed involves planting a city-centre resource church (Comment, 3 July 2015). The diocese where I work, Southwell & Nottingham, is in the process of doing just that. A team has been recruited, a building has been bought, and services will begin at some point in the new year.

A report, Love, Sweat and Tears: Church planting in East London, published this year by the Centre for Theology and Community (News, 8 April), explored questions of church growth, but also addressed some of the potential criticisms of church planting — and saw a positive contribution overall.

Analysis has also been carried out by the Church of England’s Strategy and Development Unit, and its report, which is soon to be published with updated figures, is fascinating reading.

The first and most obvious question is whether these church-plants contribute to the numerical growth of the Church as a whole. The five city-centre plants that are surveyed in the Strategy and Develop­ment Unit report (in Brighton, Norwich, Lincoln, Bournemouth, and Birmingham) were started by a total of 130 people, and now have an average attendance of 2600 between them; so that looks like a “yes”.

But, of course, there are further issues to explore. The key term here is resource church, and the aim has been to plant further congregations from these, which is now happening with the more mature examples: St Peter’s, Brighton, has planted three further congregations; and St Thomas’s, Norwich, one more; two are being planned.

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In fact, these churches are part of a cascade of plants that plant: Holy Trinity, Brompton, has planted 15 churches in London, and eight out­side London, and these plants have planted a further nine congregations, making a total of 32. St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in London, has planted 13 churches, which have then planted a further two. These churches do not have a monopoly on church planting; anyone can do it, with the motivation and commitment.

 

BUT where are those attending these plants coming from? Do they represent people coming to faith (or coming back to faith), or is this just an expensive exercise in rearranging deckchairs?

Within the congrega­tions sur­veyed in the Strategy and Develop­ment Unit report, more than one third are, indeed, transferred from other congregations; nearly an­­other third are people who have moved into the area in the lifetime of these plants, and who therefore might have attended existing local churches instead. Fifteen per cent, however, are new churchgoers, and another 19 per cent are people who have returned to church after a time away (the “unchurched” and “dechurched” to use church-growth terminology). These are signific­ant groups.

What is perhaps even more signifi­cant is the age demographic of such churches. Nationally, about six per cent of churchgoers are in the 18-to-30 age bracket, making it the least-reached age group.

In the resource churches surveyed in the report, 46 per cent of those who attend are in this age group — far exceeding even the 17 per cent that they constitute in the population as a whole.

Read in conjunction with data about origin, this suggests that those moving into the area and attending such plants are at the younger end — and might, in fact, have struggled to find a home in existing churches.

 

PERHAPS the most significant insights come from other factors in the life of these congregations.

The first relates to vocations. These church-plants, and their associ­ated sending churches (and their plants), appear to generate a much higher level of vocations to ordained min­istry, and at a younger age. When church looks like this, people catch a vision for ministry, and hear God call them into this.

But at least as significant is the change in internal church culture. From surveys done in two of the plants, more than three-quarters of those attending have invited some­one else to church — a far higher proportion than is generally found in surveys of Anglican churchgoers.

It is an indication that, in these church-plants, there is something funda­mentally different in the cul­ture and ethos of the church: they are confident and invitational in a way that many C of E churches are not.

In reaching the dechurched and unchurched, attracting young people, and generating (young) vocations to ordained ministry, these church-plants are addressing the main issues that have been identified as the key challenges to the Church.

But they are not doing it by persuading existing church members to change their attitude and behavi­our. Instead, they are making a step-change in culture and outlook, in­­viting those who are interested to join, and seeing what happens.

This not only offers a lesson in culture change for the national Church, but offers one for the local church, too. Rather than expend energy trying to persuade lifelong churchgoers to change deeply held habits and outlooks, it is easier to plant a new congregation alongside existing ones, starting with a clean sheet, and then see how this might feed back into existing congregations.

The Renewal and Reform pro­gramme has often been criticised as not being led by theology. But the notions of invitation and testimony are, in fact, deeply theological ideas. St John’s Gospel is held together by a golden theological thread of invita­tion, from the first disciples being invited to “Come and see” (John 1.39) to the readers’ being invited to see with the eyes of faith (John 20.31). And Revelation’s theo­logical vision of Jesus is of him as the “faithful witness” (Revelation 1.5).

The changes we are seeing are not simply managerial, but profoundly theological and ecclesial, and could make all the difference.

 

The Revd Dr Ian Paul is Associate Minister at St Nicholas’s, Nottingham, Hon. Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, and a member of the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council.

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