ON A bright morning in July, I packed up my friend’s Mini and left the south coast for a week-long road-trip visiting resource churches around the Midlands and north of England.
I visited four churches, each supported by money from the Strategic Development Fund (SDF): Top Church, Dudley: a new resource church in the diocese of Worcester, charged with renewing ministry and mission in Dudley town and beyond; Transform Widnes (part of Transform North-West in Liverpool diocese), which is seeking to accelerate evangelism and church growth in Widnes, based out of St Paul’s and St John’s churches; St Philip’s, Chapel Street, Salford: a resource church for Greater Manchester planted three years ago as a partnership between Manchester diocese and New Wine; and St Margaret’s, Aspley: the hub for a church revitalisation project in five parishes in Nottingham’s north-west estates, a partnership between the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham and Holy Trinity, Brompton.
I chose these particular projects for two reasons. First, they show a variety of what a resource church can be: some were new plants, others were existing congregations. Second, many of the clergy involved are good friends, and it was hugely encouraging to see God at work in their communities. This made finding a bed easier, too.
SOME of the resource churches that I visited were planting into places where the existing congregation had dwindled to almost nothing. Both Top Church and St Philip’s had small Sunday congregations, in spite of being iconic buildings. That level of decline meant that revitalising those churches was impossible: a new start was required.
Increasingly, this will be the case. One diocese I visited could list 80 parishes with congregations of fewer than 30 members, all of whom were more than 60 years old. Younger people and families will not join those churches; so a strong replanting initiative is necessary, alongside revitalisation efforts.
In Widnes, SDF money has been put into existing congregations. The parish church has a good history of mission and ministry in an area where resources are scarce. The Transform project gives them the chance to grow more quickly. When I visited, they had more than 90 people attending three Alpha courses. A children’s group ran alongside the Tuesday-night Alpha that I attended, allowing single parents (and grandparents) to attend. Everyone I spoke to had joined the church in the past three years.
This kind of innovative, missional thinking was already present locally. The idea that a bit of SDF money for a youth worker will turn around the fortunes of a traditional parish is a fantasy. Without the culture change necessary to modernise congregations and make mission central, the money will not make any difference. Yet when parishes, deaneries, and dioceses are prepared to be innovative and missional, it is enormously encouraging that there is now the possibility of significant central funding to back it up.
And turnaround and growth can happen quickly, especially when supported by visionary thinking at diocesan level. In Nottingham, a new clergy team is being deployed across five parishes, backed up by team members paid for with seed money from the SDF. Providentially, the parishes all became vacant at about the same time, but it took the prayerful vision of the diocesan bishop to create the new project.
Sadly, diocesan structures are not always this flexible or forward-thinking. Often, the new projects are the brainchild of a pioneering bishop or archdeacon, but are not understood more widely. Away from the projects that I visited, I heard stories of an area dean actively resisting the success of the resource church, a diocesan secretary unwilling to make the necessary resources available for the team to succeed, or of other diocesan staff who simply didn’t “get it”. When these projects succeed, it’s a win for everyone. Sadly, that is not always the case.
WHAT is it like to be clergy in these contexts? The SDF money allows for recruitment of the team members that are so vital to ministry. But there are a unique set of challenges, too.
Some have to manage the expectations of existing congregations, providing appropriate worship and care while not being distracted from their core purpose of reaching unchurched people and growing new churches. Sometimes, these congregations are positive about the new plant; often, they are not.
A failing church usually means a failing building, owing to the lack of human and financial resources needed to maintain it. At Top Church, Dudley, the planting team are responsible not only for planting and growing a resource church, but also for a r heritage project to renew the iconic building.
A common criticism is that new resource churches grow only through “transfer growth”: drawing churchgoers from existing congregations. Anything new and exciting might attract existing Christians. But that is never the planting team’s intention, which is to reach unchurched people.
For some dioceses, these resource churches are a last chance to turn around decades of decline. The C of E is now a missionary church, tasked with re- evangelising our post-Christendom communities. The resource churches that I visited show what that can look like.
The Revd Richard England is Vicar of Crofton, in Portsmouth diocese.
Read more on resource churches in our special feature and on our letters page