ACCOUNTS of clergy couples moving from big cities to plant new churches in the south-west of England are like buses. You wait for ages, then suddenly two come along at once.
At first glance, these two books have a great deal in common. Both tell the stories of couples with small children moving from large Charismatic churches (Holy Trinity, Brompton, and St John’s, Harborne). Both are about planting new churches in unpromising settings in the south-west (areas of Bournemouth and Exeter where earlier churches had struggled). Both have similar reference points in regard to faith, including the Soul Survivor festival. Both tell the inside story of a church-plant, warts and all. Both recount obstacles and discouragements along the way. Both are ultimately encouraging.
The most obvious difference between the two is that Liz Grier writes in the form of a personal diary with entries of varying lengths, all with dates, and some very short. Tim Matthews uses longer, themed chapters. Below the surface are differences in approach and tone too.
Matthews spends a good quarter of his book recounting his 12 previous attempts to take plants from HTB, only to be thwarted on each occasion. He does not name the parishes, but his pen-portraits leave some of them easily recognisable. This is a little indiscreet, since in most cases it was never public knowledge that an HTB plant was under consideration. The eventual move to St Swithun’s, Bournemouth, is accompanied by break-ins, arson, and money problems, and the couple’s marriage finds itself under pressure. The ministry requires more of a focus on drug addiction and homelessness than Matthews expected. He is honest about the pain and setbacks on the way of the church’s growth to its current membership of 600.
Where the author is less reflective is about the model of church-planting practised by HTB, which he simply assumes to be a good thing for all concerned. Similarly, when he recalls his earlier, thwarted plans for church-plants, the villain of the piece is churches and bishops who insist on a standard “open” application process. The implication is that this equates to lack of vision on their part. This, too, raises huge questions that Matthews leaves unexplored.
Liz Grier writes in a crisp and lyrical style with an eye for paradox and irony: “Another year. Another Fun Day. But it has not been fun.” The diary format means the reader’s attention is drawn less to external events surrounding the setting up of the new Exeter youth church Unlimited than the author’s own inner journey. She wrestles with issues of faith and calling, as well as loneliness and others’ expectations of her and the family. She even finds herself questioning what Christianity itself means in the new setting.
This is a thoughtful, vulnerable, and hope-filled account that should appeal well beyond the world of church-planting and Fresh Expressions. In Liz Grier’s hands, a simple phrase such as “I am going to Emma’s house today” ends up conveying a weight of raw human emotion.
The Revd Mike Starkey is a tutor for the Church Army and author of the animated Why on Earth…? apologetics resource for home groups.
Love Church: Join the adventure of hope
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
Beginning Unlimited: The diary of a church plant
Instant Apostle £8.99