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Book review: The Craft of Church Planting: Exploring the lost wisdom of apprenticeship by Christian Selvaratnam

13 October 2023

John Inge considers reflections that could be of wider value

THIS book, by a seasoned church-planter, was one that I expected to be interesting. In fact, it was truly fascinating. The author uses his enormous experience and the fruit of doctoral studies to argue that the best way to train church-planters is using the model of apprenticeship.

He cites wisdom from scripture and theology, tradition and practice. Most crucially, though, he uses a large body of very illuminating research on apprenticeships in medieval guilds, whose methods and culture, he observes, shaped almost all training in England for 700 years. The resulting argument that he makes is a very persuasive one for a craft approach to training church-planters, inspired by the apprenticeship model of medieval guilds, which can “foster deep and creative learning today”.

Many of us have long been acquainted with the concept of formation as applied to training for ministry. Indeed, the relationship between a training incumbent and an assistant curate, properly understood, is a kind of apprenticeship, “on-the-job learning”. Such training involves the acquisition of what the philosopher Michal Polanji referred to as tacit knowledge, “information that is difficult to pass on to another person using writing or verbal communication”. The philosophy and theology behind this approach — one that should, in my view, be applied to many things besides training church-planters — is wonderfully explored and articulated in this book.

We in the Church have fallen headlong into the trap of the rest of our society in treating most knowledge as “propositional”, the sort that can be easily imparted in a classroom or lecture theatre. We, of all people, should realise the pre-eminent value of tacit knowledge, “which is located within the relationships between people”. And, we might add, between the God in whom we believe, who is Love, and humanity.

As well as research into guilds, the author interviewed many church-planters, and the fruit of this is instructive. It highlights the importance of creativity, which, the author suggests, needs to be released in two stages. First, through investment in basic skill and abilities, and then by “imaginative engagement in challenges, accompanied by a playful and youthful approach”. The latter stage is crucial, because “play can stimulate imaginative and fluid approaches to meeting challenges.”

Another way of phrasing this might be in the manner of Iain McGilchrist in his magisterial work The Master and His Emissary: that the left and right hemispheres of the brain need to be stimulated to work together, to enable creativity. Our society privileges the province of the left brain: the analytical, rational, and reductionist. We are all poorer as a result.

The craft of church-planting is as old as the Christian faith. It is a cause of great thanksgiving that it is being reinvigorated in our own age by the author of this book and many others. As I have intimated above, I feel that the theology and techniques promoted here could benefit our Church and society in so many other areas, too. I commend it very highly.

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.


The Craft of Church Planting: Exploring the lost wisdom of apprenticeship
Christian Selvaratnam
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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