One 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.
The 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.
But 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.
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.
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