Revitalising mission — but at what cost?

22 November 2019

In the second part of a series on SDF funding, Madeleine Davies looks at the impact of resource churches

ST MATTHIAS, PLYMOUTH

A baptism at St Matthias’s, Plymouth

A baptism at St Matthias’s, Plymouth

WHEN Anne Foreman, a lay General Synod representative from Exeter diocese, asked whether the Archbishops’ Council would be commissioning research “across denominations to determine the full cost and impact, in both financial and human terms, of resource churches on local communities”, she received a firm response from John Spence, who chairs the Council’s Finance Committee.

“The question appears to start from a position that resource churches are a cost rather than a benefit to the communities concerned,” he replied. “A proposal which sought growth solely at the expense of other churches — of whatever denomination — would not be supported.”

Resource churches were “intended to be proactive resources for dioceses as a whole — revitalising mission in cities and towns, producing ordinands, starting new congregations, and supporting parishes in other ways”, he continued. “Evidence to date suggests they are fulfilling those aims.”

But, while plans are under way to establish 100 resource churches in city centres by 2028, and millions of pounds are being allocated in the process, questions persist about the wider impact of this model on the Church.

 

ALTHOUGH resource churches are by no means the only focus of the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) programme (Features, 15 November), they do make up a significant strand: about one third of successful bids mention at least one resource or resourcing church.

To date, large sums have been allocated to individual churches in city centres: money is going both to the employment of clergy and staff, and the renovation and reordering of buildings. They include St Werburgh’s, Derby (News, 15 September 2017); Harbour Church, Portsmouth (News, 2 September 2016); St Nicholas’s, Bristol (News, 22 January 2018); Pattern Church, Swindon (News, 21 December 2018); and St Matthew’s, Exeter (News, 9 August 2019). All of these examples are led by priests who have previously served at Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), which, before the SDF programme, had already produced several church-plants (Features, 21 April 2017).

HTB is now home to the Church Revitalisation Trust, incorporated as a charity in 2017 “to further the church-planting activity which was previously undertaken by Holy Trinity, Brompton”, and is chaired by the church’s Vicar, the Revd Nicky Gumbel. Its goal is to plant 100 city-centre resource churches by 2028, “leading to a reversal in the long-term decline of the Church of England”.

There are close ties to the diocese of London and to the SDF programme. Of the £8.69-million SDF grant secured by the diocese of London in 2017, £3.9 million is to be used to train 15 “planting curates”, who, at the invitation of diocesan bishops, will be deployed to 15 “strategic cities, in terms of size and student population”, between 2020 and 2022 (News, 29 March 2018).

Ten of these curates will be trained at HTB, and each of the 15 will be expected to “grow” their congregations to 1000, and plant every three years, producing a total of 30,000 new churchgoers by 2025. In addition, 15 resource churches will be designated or planted in London over the next three to five years. The targets are to create 3000 “new disciples” and for “30 struggling or weaker churches [to] benefit from church-plants”.

DESPITE a central emphasis on resource churches as centres of generosity, fuelling growth beyond their walls, the source of their rapid growth, and whether the worshipping community is growing as a result, or whether they are concentrating numbers, remains a pressing question.

Mr Spence is not convinced that concerns about transfer growth are borne out.

“I can’t understand why a diocese would particularly be in the place of saying ‘We are going to invest lots of money so that people can go to one church instead of another,’” he says. “That is not the criteria we look at. We are always looking at how we can get more people to come to Christ or return to Christ.”

Does he accept, nevertheless, that such movement may be an unintended consequence of the investment?

“None of the evaluations I have seen suggest that all that has happened is a shifting of people. If we learned that, then that would not be good value for money, good value for Christ. If we were to see that particular types of projects were merely meaning a shift of where people worship rather than bringing in new worshippers, then we would have to act accordingly.”

Some studies of city-centre church-plants (not the only form of resource church) are available. In 2016, the Church’s Strategy and Development Unit looked at the congregations of five and found that 15 per cent were new churchgoers, 19 per cent were “returners to church”, 29 per cent had moved into the area, and 38 per cent had transferred from a church near by (Features, 21 April 2017).

The contention that no diocese or bishop would have an interest in transfer growth has also been questioned: a concentration of several hundred people, often much younger than the C of E average, is an attractive proposition that offers a psychological, media-friendly boost, enabling dioceses to celebrate rapid growth amid a narrative of decline. Energy for mission is also concentrated.

Another element of the story which has emerged is that, while a dozen or so people may seem like a small amount of transfer growth to a resource church of several hundred, it might be a significant loss for a neighbouring parish.

 

AMONG the examples of resource churches celebrated in the annual report of the Strategic Investment Board is St Matthias’s, Plymouth, a city-centre resource church in the diocese of Exeter. It received £200,000 of national funding awarded through the Archbishops’ Spending Plans Task Group in 2015: £150,000 to help with reordering the building and staffing costs, and £50,000 that covered the first year’s cost of providing a planting curate. It also received money from HTB, a private donor, members of the congregation of St Matthias’s, and the planting team.

The Revd Olly Ryder was appointed as incumbent in 2016, having worked at HTB before ordination and as a parish priest in London. He estimates that the congregation numbered about 50 when he arrived, and has since grown to 550, ranging from babies to people in their eighties. The church is opposite the Plymouth University main campus, which is home to 35,000 students.

He reports that about two-thirds of the original 50 now worship at a neighbouring parish. There were no “fallouts”, he says, and the main feedback was that services had become “a bit noisy”.

A church survey of the current congregation was carried out in May, and secured 312 responses. It suggested that 14 per cent had transferred from other Anglican parishes, and 28 per cent from other denominations, while 20 per cent were “new Christians” (having come to faith within the past three years), and 43 per cent were either new to church, returning to church, or new to the area.

Those who had transferred listed 28 different churches, including two who mentioned having moved from an Anglican Evangelical parish. A total of 15 per cent described themselves as “split attenders”, who attended more than one church.

Reports from neighbouring churches are mixed. For the Revd Tim Smith, the Priest-in-Charge of St Jude’s, Plymouth, an Evangelical church, the impact has been significant. He reports that, between 2012 and 2016, his congregation had been growing in number by between five and eight per cent a year, and had a worshipping community of about 135 and enough income to employ a full-time youth minister.

He calculates that, in the 18 months after St Matthias’s was relaunched, about 30 per cent of people, 30 per cent of income, 75 per cent of children, and 90 per cent of teenagers were “lost” — some to the plant, and others “as this church didn’t seem to be able to become the church they had hoped, and simply moved away elsewhere.” Many of those who left were “more mobile lower, middle, and higher professionals” who contributed financially. It was no longer possible to fund a youth-minister post.

He is particularly concerned by the lack of consultation. He recalls that, in November 2014, “at very short notice”, he was invited, with other church leaders in the city, to meet the Bishop of Islington (responsible for church-planting), the Rt Revd Ric Thorpe, to learn about how city-based plants worked. No mention was made of a plant into Plymouth, he recalls, but rumours began to circulate at about the end of 2015. He later learned that “advanced plans” were in place as early as January 2015 (and the website of St Matthias refers to discussions beginning in 2014). Mr Smith secured confirmation from Bishop of Plymouth, in January 2016, of the creation of a resource church in partnership with HTB.

DIOCESE OF LEICESTERA Fresh Expression works with families in New Lubbesthorpe, a new town being built in Leicestershire

At this point, St Jude’s was halfway through a fund-raising programme for a £1.6-million reordering, a decade in the making, and Mr Smith recalls “pleading with bishops and HTB to delay, as we were particularly vulnerable”. Already, £200,000 of repair work had been completed.

He reflects: “The model of the new resource church on arrival in a city seems to be massive publicity prior to a launch service, an appeal for folk to come see . . . a huge, exciting, and thriving church on day one, with lots of free food, music, sound, and lighting that no other church in their vicinity could ever match with their budgets. But that initial mass of people have to come from somewhere.

“We know what these plants cost, but we don’t know their collateral cost in terms of churches impacted with numbers and income, of morale crushed by being ignored, of hopes for their churches’ futures being run over — all because no one is asking before pressing the start button.”

While holding no animosity towards St Matthias’s, he believes strongly that the C of E must commission independent research into the effect of resource churches, and that a moratorium should be placed on expansion until more is known.

 

“We seem to be simply recording the growth and claiming successes,” he says. “There is a very great danger of confirmation bias by just using our own in-house figures: we want to grow, we put money in, we grow, and, lo and behold! we find what we look for. We need well-formulated independent research across denominations, especially as we are still contemplating investing millions more.”

Other accounts are more sanguine. The Team Rector of St Andrew’s, Plymouth, and St Paul’s, Stonehouse, the Revd Joe Dent, reports that, as a more conservative Evangelical church, “we haven’t experienced much drift.” His perspective is that “we’re on the same team — as it is, there aren’t enough churches to reach the people of Plymouth with the gospel.”

The two churches have worked together to plant three more churches in more deprived areas of the city, and he points out that St Matthias’s hosts a St Mellitus college hub, one of whose ordinands has been placed with them.

A statement from Plymouth Methodist Central Hall acknowledged that a “very few” people had moved to St Matthias’s, “but they do an amazing work at that church, and we’re glad to have their lively and relevant ministry within the city centre, recognising that they reach people we maybe don’t reach, and vice versa, too.”

The minister at Salisbury Road Baptist Church, the Revd Paul Carter, says that the leadership agree that it would have been “helpful to have had some conversations about what was taking place at St Matthias’s”, but that only one family decided to move churches.

“The impact now is that we direct younger people to one of the bigger churches in the city, including St Matthias’s, as we are a smaller church with limited resources,” he says.

But Philip Mitchell, a churchwarden at St John the Evangelist, which, with St Mary’s and St Simon’s, makes up the Sacred Heart group under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Revd Jonathan Goodall, is unhappy about how the pattern of local ministry has developed. He feels that St Simon’s was “promised” to Mr Ryder’s parish before his arrival and that Sacred Heart is now being “pressured to release” the church. “We have been refused a priest to minister to our congregation and, in deed, to carry out any mission work at all,” he reports.

A statement from the diocese says that a working group has been looking at the area as a whole, and formulating recommendations “about how best to reach the thousands of people who live and work in that area of Plymouth who have no current connection to any of its churches”. St Simon’s has “no Sunday congregation and is in a poor state of repair”, it says, and an “extensive” consultation is underway about a proposal to “link the building to St Matthias”. It highlights that while the Sacred Heart’s population is 13,000, the “combined participation figures” for all three churches is 28 and that, for the past two years, a retired priest has been providing pastoral and sacramental ministry and encouraging mission.

The diocese is keen to emphasise that St Matthias’s is a “good news story for Plymouth”, and is about “reinvigorating the life of this parish”. It says that churches near by are also undertaking work to be celebrated. The Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Revd Nick McKinnel, “kept people in the loop”, it says.

Bishop McKinnel notes that the city has a population of about 270,000. “One per cent go to Church of England churches, and probably a similar proportion to other denominations,” he says. “That leaves plenty of people to be reached with the gospel; so, if anything, we could do with lots more churches of every type to tell them about Jesus.”

Asked about how St Matthias’s is resourcing the wider Church, Mr Ryder lists the hosting of the St Mellitus South-West theological-college hub; new vocations to the priesthood; the pioneering of a training-school for worship-music leaders; and the leading of Love South West, an ecumenical weekend of worship, prayer, service, and invitation as part of the Thy Kingdom Come initiative, which was attended by 1300 people.

Social-action initiatives are also under way; and a curate, the Revd Rob Fowler, has planted a church at St Chad’s, Whitleigh, part of the benefice of Ernesettle, Whitleigh, and Honicknowle, which receives ministry from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. He will serve as Minister-in-Charge, under a Bishop’s Mission Order (News, 10 August 2018).

“In any church, you will get some transference growth when a new vicar comes in,” Mr Ryder says. “If we’re a resounding success in terms of numbers, then it’s actually not much of a success, because still only one per cent of people attend church. . .

“Whether it is smells and bells or guitars and haze, style isn’t important to me. Integrity is. I’m just a parish priest like everyone else.”

 

THE launch of a resource church might entail the arrival of a new tradition, and, as well as concerns about transfer growth, anxiety has been expressed about the extent to which incumbents from an Evangelical background are able to inhabit, or willing to explore, a more sacramental ministry.

This concern has also emerged in relation to church-planting, another significant strand of the SDF programme. Earlier this year, the Church Times was contacted by a parishioner of a coastal town parish, who described how the PCC had announced that an Evangelical church had approached them with a proposal to “share our ministry” with a promise that the existing form of worship would be preserved in one of the Sunday services.

The sung eucharist was moved from 10.30 a.m. to 9.30 a.m., despite the fact that the small and mainly elderly congregation had explained that they would be unable to attend at this time, he reported. After a few years, it was withdrawn altogether, and replaced by an informal service. An eight-o’clock said communion service was introduced instead.

He contended that the planting church should not have assumed that the sung eucharist was “stuck in the past. They should have taken time to learn about its tradition, theology, and its place in the life of the church. The priest should have have encouraged his Evangelical congregation to visit our service and communicated to them its value.”

His account also illustrated the hurt that can be caused by the reordering of a church, and by different attitudes to a space regarded as sacred by the existing congregation. He described his upset at children kicking footballs in the nave, and the removal of pews to accommodate the worship band’s stage.

The Revd James Harris, a Team Vicar of the Alyn Mission Area, Wrexham, found that news of a decision to plant a new Christian centre in a former Burton store in the town, boosted by a £1.9-million grant from the Church in Wales’s Evangelism Fund, and run in partnership with the Church Revitalisation Trust (News, 19 July), prompted concerns about the future of the Church’s “beautiful old buildings”.

Some will consider his concerns “very secondary, compared with the commission to evangelise”, he says. “My argument is simply that, unless there is sufficient growth, very soon in traditional church life, alongside the anticipated growth from church- plants like Hope Street, Wrexham, then a big conversation needs to take place between the Church and wider society about the fate of church buildings, some of which, rightly or wrongly, are beginning to be seen as peripheral to mission, if not a downright hindrance to it.”

 

IN HIS Grove booklet, Reimagining Resourcing Churches: A minster model, the Rector of Ulverston, Canon Alan Bing, notes that, when it comes to resource churches, “a stereotypical view has developed that this is a purely Evangelical initiative which takes away resources from other churches locally, and several of the earlier and best-known examples seem to bear this out.”

But, he argues, resource churches are, in fact, “a recent development of the minster church idea”, in which minsters served as a base from which clergy were sent out to evangelise, baptise, and disciple, and that a “much more varied and nuanced picture” of resource churches is emerging, including a presence in market towns and “rural beacon churches”.

Among his recommendations is the need for “the right attitude on the part of both church and diocese, whereby the church is committed to sharing its resources and the diocese is committed to supporting the church in that role”, and “a reciprocal relationship between the Resourcing Church and the churches it resources. This involves an acceptance that the Resourcing Church needs to thrive in order that the other churches may also thrive.”

In the diocese of Lincoln, £2.67 million has been granted to develop three resource churches in three churches: St Swithin’s, Lincoln, an HTB plant; St George’s, Stamford; and Lincoln Cathedral, where a centre for formation in Catholic mission will be established (News, 25 January). Last year, the Rector of St George’s, Canon Martyn Taylor, whose church has a congregation of more than 500 people each Sunday, described a “dynamic and organic relationship between market towns and villages” (Features, 29 March 2018).

While the city-centre resource churches that have emanated from HTB tend to be led by men — it is unclear how many of the planting curates are women — the “Potting Shed”, in the diocese of Leicester, is a rural resource church led by the Revd Alison Jones (News, 3 February 2017); and, in the diocese of Leeds, which received SDF funding to plant five resource churches by 2019, the Revd Lizzy Woolf is the Rector of St George’s, Leeds.

This year, it was announced that £1.5 million would be invested in Preston, to “reinvigorate” both Preston Minster and St George the Martyr, creating a “resourcing parish” dedicated to “serving people from across church traditions” (News, 23 January 2019).

IF RESOURCE churches make up a significant strand of the SDF programme, Fresh Expressions have also received significant investment. While some have set bold numerical targets for growth — the diocese of Leicester envisaged 180 Fresh Expressions, with 7000 members, by 2019 (News, 4 October) — others have been cautious about setting large, short-term goals.

In 2017, the diocese of Bath & Wells secured £1.6 million towards a £3.1-million plan to see at least ten new “sustainable and growing” Fresh Expressions by 2025, with a total of at least 500 worshippers. Nine new full-time pioneer posts would be established, with a total of 100 lay and ordained pioneers across the diocese, including ten acting as coaches. A year and a half in, five pioneer posts have been filled. It was decided early on that the ten would go to areas of urban deprivation and new housing areas, and work with young people.

When it came to developing these metrics, the diocese’s evangelism and pioneer team leader, the Revd Tina Hodgett, drew on her experience as a secondary-school deputy head, familiar with change management and exam targets. The targets set were “quite soft”, she says.

“For me, the key thing was that pioneering could be a kind of way of initiating culture change,” she says. “What we need to do is release creativity and imagination, and then let God pick us up and carry us on the currents of the Holy Spirit. That does not lend itself to targets.”

She agrees that SDF bids “have to be done in a managerial way to a certain degree”. Those involved in the project are asked to report on progress in relation to an agreed timeline, and, she observes, there is a “huge psychological boost” in meeting some of the indicators, such as the numbers gaining the CMS Certificate in Pioneering Mission.

DIOCESE OF LLANDAFFThe former Burton store that will house Hope Street, in Wrexham

But the question “Has it worked?” needs to be carefully defined, she says. “If you mean ‘Has the Church learned how to effectively share the gospel afresh?’ then I would say £50 million is worth it, as we have then invested in the future, and, in a very selfless way, given away our money so that people in 50 or 100 years can hear about Jesus, or that the world can be transformed.

“But if the point is that in five years you will get a return on your money, like in the parable of the Talents, by people coming to faith and then tithing to the church budget, then that is a much easier thing to measure, but it is actually quite an ambitious target. It also feels quite hard-edge. Is that really what the gospel is all about?”

She questions the wisdom of short timescales. What is needed, she suggests, is “long-term listening, deep-rooted paying attention to your local community. . . I would love to see the Church thinking, ‘With all that we currently know and can discern, what do we need to be doing for 25 years’ time?’”

The gospel is not “all about inputs and outputs”, she says. “Sometimes, it is about selflessly giving yourself away. . . Then, sometimes, miraculous things happen, like people come back from the dead and new life emerges. The death-and-resurrection story: where does that come into SDF funding?”

 

THERE are signs that the SDF programme, set to run until 2026, is being recalibrated both at diocesan and national level. In the diocese of Leicester, an interim report led to a redefinition of what might qualify as a “pioneering missional activity”, after many of the Fresh Expressions that developed did not meet strict criteria. It described how “inherited churches” had begun “waking up to the ticking clock of their own death knell” (News, 4 October 2019). At the General Synod this year, Mr Spence announced that a new fund was being launched “for smaller applications which still have strategic impact”.

While most dioceses have not published evaluations, interim or final, those that have reveal some candid observations that may shed light on morale in some parts of the Church of England. A study of the Serving Christ work that is under way in Coventry, which is engaging churches in the Natural Church Development process, noted the danger of parishes being “overwhelmed” by demands on time and energy, but also concluded that some incumbents had “imbibed the negative traits of their surrounding culture almost uncritically, and, subconsciously and unknowingly, begun to perpetuate them within their churches”. It identified low aspirations, a sense of hopelessness, resistance to change, and a sense of abandonment.

The statement in the NCD survey completed by churches that had the most significant impact on growth was “I know of people with bitterness in the church” — the report observes that, “if a church has people within it who are bitter and there is unresolved conflict, it is likely to be in decline”.

It’s a timely reminder of the many moving human parts that make up the Church and of the individual stories that lie behind the large-scale statistics used to tell the story of growth and decline. While it remains uncertain whether injections of money will deliver the numerical turn-around envisaged by the Archbishops’ Council, it appears that new life is, as much as anything, a matter of the heart.

Listen to more about this story on the Church Times Podcast. Also available on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and most other podcast platforms.

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