What does church planting achieve?

church_plantingOne 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 that Church Commissioners’ money is distributed to dioceses. Instead of all of it being allocated using a formula determining need, part of it now is distributed as Strategic Development Funding, which is released in response to diocesan applications to fund schemes designed to lead to growth in numbers and discipleship in the Church.

One of the most common schemes being proposes includes planting a city centre resource church, and my diocese (Southwell and Nottingham) is in the process of doing just that. A team has been recruiting, a building purchased, and services will begin at some point in the new year. Alongside this a Young Leadership college has been established to train and equip people in their teens and twenties in Christian leadership in a range of contexts.

These kinds of initiatives are exciting and generate interest and energy—but quite quickly questions are raised about what they are going to achieve, and whether the investment is the best way to use the resources of the Church. Some analysis has been done of church planting in the East End of London by the Centre for Theology and Community, in part exploring questions of church growth, but also addressing some of the potential criticism of church planting—and seeing a positive contribution of the process. Analysis has also been done by the Church’s Strategy and Development Unit (yes, there is such a thing!) and their report (not published but not confidential) makes fascinating reading.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-14-16-48The first and most obvious question is: have these church plants contributed to numerical growth of the church as a whole? The five city-centre plants which are surveyed (in Brighton, Norwich, Lincoln, Bournemouth and Birmingham) were started by a total of 130 people and now have an average attendance of 2,600 between them—so that looks like a ‘yes’. But of course there are further issues to explore around that. 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’ Norwich one more, with two being planned. In fact, these churches are part of a cascade of plants that plant: HTB has planted 15 churches in London, and 8 outside London, and these plants have planted a further 9 congregations, making a total of 32. St Helen’s Bishopsgate has planted 13 churches which have then planted a further 2.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-14-17-04But the crucial question is where are these attenders coming from? Do they represent people coming to faith (or coming back to faith) or is this just an expensive exercise in re-arranging deck chairs? Within these congregations, more than one third are indeed transferred from other congregations, and 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. But 15% are new churchgoers, and another 19% people who have returned to church after a time away—the ‘unchurched’ and ‘dechurched’ (to use church growth terminology) and these are significant groups.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-14-17-17What is perhaps even more significant is the age demographic of such churches. As the analysis highlights:

Nationally, around 6% of churchgoers are in the 18-30 age bracket, making it the least reached age group. The resource churches have a rate over four times this, even exceeding the 17% rate in the population as a whole. The number of children in the congregations is also slightly above the Church of England average, while the number of people of retirement age is much lower.

In other words, these congregations are even more ‘youthful’ than the population as a whole, let alone the Church, and this is a key issue in all discussion about church growth and decline. Putting this together with the previous chart, it 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.

All this is significant enough, but perhaps the most significant insights come from some 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. There are things that were noted in two of the congregations:


It might sound trivial, but the statistic that most struck me in either list was the first one. This compares with a national statistic for the Church of England quoted at the beginning of this year that only 17% of churchgoers felt able to invite a friend to their church. It is an indication that, in these church plants, there is something fundamentally different in the culture and ethos of the church—it is confident and invitational in a way that very many Church of England 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 which 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 interested to join, and seeing what happens. Someone described to me recently the challenge facing the Church as trying to get the plug back in the bath before the water drains out completely. But what these city-centre resources churches appear to be doing is running a new bath next to the old one, and in time refilling the old bath from the new one.

This not only offers a lesson in culture change for the national church, but perhaps offers one for the local church too. Is it easier and more fruitful to persuade life-long churchgoers to change deeply-held habits and outlooks—or to plant a new congregation alongside your existing ones, starting with a clean sheet, and then seeing how this might feed back into your existing congregations?

The analysis offers this emphatic conclusion:

An early evaluation of the evidence shows that resource churches make a substantial contribution to church growth, both in their own congregations and through providing church plants and vocations. They engage with people outside church from when they are first planted and, as they mature, they increasingly reach the non-churched, the de-churched and those moving into the city. They attract far more young people than the Church as a whole.

This is surely a strategy whose time has come.

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13 thoughts on “What does church planting achieve?”

  1. This makes interesting reading, thanks Ian.

    I think it’s not just ‘resource churches’ which the CofE needs to be looking into – I think it’s church planting in general. I was taught at college, ‘church planting churches are growing churches’.

    I think part of the reason for that is that a church which is looking to plant is actively looking beyond its walls – actively looking for how to bring new people in, etc. A church which has just been planted carries on the momentum – for a while at least.

    So I think it’s great that the church is looking to plant new churches. I was very pleased when I last met up with a group of my friends from college – we’ve all got to the stage where we’re thinking about the future. A lot of us are thinking about church planting – or church revitalisation. Maybe there’s life in the old dog yet (the CofE, that is)!

  2. I’d like to see some thought about how planting might work in rural settings. Rural churches seem to have a lot to teach the rest of the Church too in terms o flexibility and creativity – though those outside the rural sphere often think otherwise!

    I’m also intrigued as to calling this resource churches city centre churches. St Thomas Norwich is not – it is further out of the city than me! (I live just outside its northern parish boundary).

    • I’d like to see planting within rural churches. I don’t think it would work to plant a new church in a village, but a transplant of several couples willing to get involved in both church and village might make a big difference. It would need to be several couples to create a friendship group which people could be drawn in to join. If they came from a local city plant, then their existing relationships would also make it comparatively easy for the rural church to have access to the expertise and resources in the city plant. I appreciate that there could be a danger of causing resentment, and it might be difficult for some congregations, but if people came prepared to serve in the menial tasks as well as the more upfront things, then this would help to win people over. I assume that the vicar would need to want them though!

      • I think it would be great for big thriving churches to encourage their congregation members to prayerfully consider whether God is calling them to this. A couple joined our parish (where my husband is team vicar) this year as they moved here because they could afford to buy a house rather than rent a flat in the city they had been living in. They have enthusiastically got involved with the local church despite there being churches more like the one they have come from within driving distance. I have been amazed at the impact they have had in less than a year and it has been a huge encouragement to us.

  3. The Coventry one is about to get going. I’m pretty excited to see how it develops. This is a very promising initiative and it’s encouraging to see the Commissioners getting behind it.

  4. All this sounds encouraging and exactly the sort of direction we need to moving in. On a note of caution however…I know someone ministering in one of the big cities where a resource church has recently been set up. This person is ministering in a large, ‘successful’ church which has seen a number of their young committed members leave to attend the city centre resource church.

    The problem is that having been committed in their previous church, they’ve moved to being uncommitted church consumers at the resource church. They’ve described it as being “good just to go and worship on a Sunday” rather than getting involved in homegroups, serving teams etc.

    The perennial danger of all large churches is producing spectators and consumers rather than active disciples.

  5. Given that, at this moment in time, we in the CofE have inherited a pretty complete distribution of parish churches (except for new areas of housing where no provision has yet been made), it must follow that the need for church planting represents failure of at least some of our existing churches.

    If we don’t know why these churches have failed it would seem important to sort out the reasons for a particular church’s failure before committing resources to a newly planted church which we hope will be successful. On the other hand if we know why that church failed, why was it not sorted out and ‘renewed’ before it was allowed to fail?

    In other words, is the built-in inertia of some churches (which must at least have something to do with the incumbent?) just too hard to fix, and if so why? And how much time and money is the CofE squandering on parish situations that are heading nowhere? I’m sure a lot of us could (without much effort) list some pretty basic reasons why churches are failing and yet the CofE just carries on year after year allowing things to continue as before. (Please let us not imagine that the current sexuality thing could ever be a contributor to sorting out this fundamental issue of inertia – lack of energy and vision.)

    However, given where we are, the energy and focus on mission which drives church plants is certainly a lot better than doing nothing but, for me, it poses a big question about the medium and longer term shape of the Church of England – perhaps particularly how it is going to be possible for all ages and all types of people to worship and work together in and from the one building. It would be so sad, for example, if older folk were cast adrift along with their closed churches; many such people may be faithful Christians who have kept the Christian witness alive in towns and villages through thick and thin.

    Along with the vision for new churches there must surely be a vision (and practical action) so that they will be able to meet the needs of everyone – a bit of love and respect, meaning ‘give and take’, across the many unfortunate boundaries with which we now exist. This should be a fruit of the Spirit which we all rejoice in bearing!

  6. It’s really nice to read something positive about church attendance and commitment trends for once. I, too, was particularly impressed by the percentages of people who had invited others to church and the proportion of 18-30s attending. I pray we can reproduce this spirit more widely.

  7. Interesting stuff which is clearly worth listening to carefully, especially if these churches are attracting and retaining larger numbers of those under 40. The loss of people in this age group is alarming.
    However, I would echo Charles Read’s point re the rural church: it has a great deal to teach the urban church but it is somehow always assumed that it is the other way around. But, as Jeremy Martineau at the Arthur Rank Centre never tired of saying, the small rural church is not a failed large urban church, but a different kind of animal. I suspect this blind spot is partly because almost all senior figures in the church have come through the university/large church route and think that is the norm or the model to adopt and try to introduce it everywhere. They get misled by the number in a congregation, without asking more searching questions. It is easy to criticise the parish ‘system’ as a ‘one size fits all’ straight-jacket but then do the same using Alpha or church plants.
    Rural churches are also thought to be old fashioned because they don’t have all the structures, courses, bands, staff teams, of a large urban congregation and their clergy persist in behaving as parish priests seeking to offer ministry within an area, rather than be chaplains of gathered congregations of a specific theological tradition. Church plants might do well to learn from rural parishes as well as copy the urban ones.This is a very challenging task today, and it might be easier to gather a group of those who are like us rather than seek to work with the parish community.

    Which is not to say that church plants are not effective, but only to say we should not be too quick to extol them uncritically. Learn from them, and also recognise their limitations.
    For the Church of England there is also an issue of identity: if a Resource Church is virtually indistinguishable from any other charismatic congregation in music, ‘liturgy’, organisation, style of ministry, theological outlook, how are people (especially those new to the church) to discover what it means to be part of the Church of England? This is a very significant challenge for their priests and I would be interested to know how they are responding to it and what support their dioceses give them in this.

  8. According to “Talking Jesus” statistical evidence if these 5 plants have 2,600 folk going to them between 5,400 and 7,800 people have been put of Christianity and have no wish to hear any more. Is this acceptable? Or proof of double-predestination?
    This understanding of the statistics was acknowledge by those who presented the the report to the Synod in November 2015. They were clearly embarrassed by this part of the report and told us they “needed to do more work on this”.

  9. I agree that these Resource churches are being fruitful and multiplying. We need to pour New Wine into New Wine skins as you rightly imply Ian.

    I don’t believe this is just limited to one denomination my view is all denominations need to be developing these churches.

    Working in a challenging housing estate we need what I would call community resource churches in all these types of areas as well as the other areas of cities. Word and deed serving is needed alongside Evangelism and Discipleship.

    Come on Resource churches help us out we have grown by 150% in 10 months. The fields are white unto harvest but the labours are so few.

  10. I minister to two church plants. One planted 50 years ago and the other 60. Both are struggling, the younger one more than the older in everything except money.

    Is the lesson (from this tiny and wholly unrepresentative sample) that a policy of continuous planting (with people from existing congregations and new people) also requires a parallel programme of closing churches after their initial enthusiasm/growth has settled into routine?

    Perhaps such a policy might be called ‘Plant and Reap’, or ‘New Growth and Neglect’?

    Either way it seems to me that enthusiasm for the new is often accompanied by a neglect of, even disdain for, those whose faith and faithful witness has continued over decades.

    • I think I’d agree with you in part. We are reluctant to confront the reality of things that are no longer sustainable. But I don’t think that enthusiasm for the new *need* be accompanied for ‘disdain of the older’ nor should it.

      I am reminded of the titles of Brueggemann’s two-part commentary on Jeremiah. ‘To pluck up and to tear down’ and ‘To plant and to build’


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