Dr Christian Selvaratnam is Dean at St Hild College in Yorkshire and founder of the Centre for Church Planting. He has just written a Grove booklet on Why Plant Churches? and I was able to ask him about some of the remarkable impact of church planting.
IP: I was amazed to read how important church planting has already become for the Church in England—new church plants are, in size, ‘the equivalent of a small Church of England diocese’. Why has church planting already become so significant, and why do most people not realise this?
CS: One reason is that the abundance of terminology surrounding church planting can overwhelming. The landscape is constantly evolving, with concepts like ‘mixed economy’ now becoming ‘mixed ecology’, alongside terms like ‘fresh expressions’, ‘church revitalisation’, ‘new Christian communities’ and ‘resource churches’. In my church planting teaching, I cover 20 different categories and terms, and these are just the primary ones. While this diversity of terminology reflects the dynamic nature and growing understanding of church planting within dioceses, it’s understandable that this continual shift in language and concepts can be perplexing for some people.
In the last two decades, views on church planting within the church have seen a considerable shift. For most dioceses, church planting has moved from being a somewhat optional aspect on the edges to a central role in their overall strategy. This change, particularly noticeable in the last five years, signifies a major and rapid shift in attitude and awareness. Church planting is no longer just an add-on at the fringes; it’s become a vital part of how most dioceses and an increasing number of parishes operate.
One clear illustration of this shift is the increasing participation of church planters in significant church structures like the General Synod, where at least 25 church planters are current members. Trends like this highlight how church planting is moving quite quickly from the background to playing a major role in evangelisation, church growth and church revitalisation in the thinking of the Church of England.
I feel that all ‘planters’, myself included, should aim to step up and engage more deeply with the Church of England’s wider activities wherever they can, avoiding the comfort of just staying within their own circles. This is crucial, not only for their own growth but also to showcase to others the remarkable work God is doing in this area of the church. Perhaps a symbolic milestone might be when church planters are visibly present and actively involved in every deanery synod!
IP: You cite the ministries of Jesus, Peter and Paul as offering examples for us to follow ‘which hold together missiology and ecclesiology.’ Some would object, and note that these come from a unique period of early growth of Christian faith. Why should they continue to apply today, in our post-Christendom era?
CS: Noting that Jesus, Peter and Paul, in different ways, either promote or model an implicit connection between mission and the extension of the church is, of course, an important place to start. In an era of inaugural evangelism, the New Testament as a historic account (particularly the book of Acts) exemplifies this connection. This pattern is also repeated in all accounts of the first evangelisation of nations, where evangelistic mission is nurtured and sustained through the establishment of growing networks of new churches. So, the logic of church planting as a component and consequence of evangelistic mission in a pre-Christian context is clear.
As you say, some might contend that since the Western church today already has many churches our aim in mission should be just to add people to the existing churches. However, I think there are several reasons why we should also be planting missional churches in the post-Christendom West. The current situation, where UK church attendance has dropped to its lowest since the World Wars, should prompt us to be open to consider fresh tactics. It’s essential that we approach any mission strategy with humility and a willingness to embrace new ideas, especially those that draw inspiration from the foundational era of the church.
As I argue in the booklet, often church planting proves to be a more effective way of connecting with new people groups and un-evangelised existing sections of society. Look around during your Sunday church service and you are unlikely to see all the social and ethnic groups in your community represented properly. Sometimes starting a new church is a better way to reach new and unreached people; or it might be the case that a newly evangelised group of people might be more naturally discipled in a new Christian community. (In either case, we should be attentive to the theological and practical problems associated with homogenous Christian communities.) One thing I have certainly noticed is that new churches have the potential to remind the existing church of our apostolic heritage as a ‘sent people’ and of our commission to fresh mission in every generation.
I wonder if we have presumed too much that the ecclesial landscape is static. Like all complex, living organisms—which are always active, frequently growing (though sometimes declining) and continually adapting to surroundings—surely the living church should be growing and changing as evidence that it is alive. What might a living diocese look like in this respect?
Today, the Church of England’s predominant method of church planting is the revitalisation of existing parishes. This is a specific practice that exemplifies a ‘both-and’ philosophy, embracing and valuing both new and old churches—in this case, ‘re-newed’ churches. Importantly, it’s aimed at strengthening the parish system, not undermining it, something that I find deeply encouraging.
IP: You note the prevalence of horticultural and organic images in the New Testament. How does that help us shape our thinking about church planting?
CS: A late friend, Theo, a black South African, opened my eyes to how naturally Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic Gospels can inform the practice of starting new churches. Theo shared a dream he had 16 years previously in which Jesus asked him to start village churches across Africa. Remarkably, int he intervening years, he planted 86,000 churches, a fact verified by the American university where he studied.
When I asked Theo how he trained his church planters—hoping to note any learning transferable to Western thinking—I was surprised to hear that he just teaches the parables of Jesus. It seems subsistence farmers found it natural and easy to interpret and apply Jesus’ teaching to church planting. Interestingly, Theo said that when he taught in North America, he found training church planters much harder because people couldn’t directedly relate to parables about farming.
Although botanical imagery is prevalent in Jesus’ kingdom teachings, it might surprise you to know that I think adoption of the term ‘planting’ might be accidental; I also think it is over-realised as a concept. George Lings, in various writings about fresh expressions of church, is also cautious about the use of horticultural terminology, in his case because he feels it implies approaches that inherently lack creativity. The actual term ‘church planting’ is probably only about a hundred years old, perhaps first used by Roland Allen.
The New Testament’s sparse direct references to the founding of new Christian communities suggest church planting thinking might benefit from exploring the broader range of imagery in Jesus’ kingdom teachings and the New Testament as a whole. Take, for instance, Matthew 16.18, where Jesus speaks of ‘building’ the church, and example that uses construction imagery. Awareness of historical terminology can also be helpful. For example, the Victorian term ‘church extension’ resonates more closely with the much longer-standing historic phrase ‘plantatio Ecclesiae’, which carries a more Catholic ecclesiology.
Overall, I wonder if it might be more straightforward to simply refer to ‘new churches’ (or ‘new Christian communities’ for activities that have yet to mature into a recognisable church) and provide additional descriptions as needed to outline the methodology, process or stage of their development.
The most recent term ‘mixed ecology of church’, now promoted as the norm for the Church of England, certainly requires careful exploration. Although it builds upon the well-considered idea of a ‘mixed economy’, there appears to be a lack of theological reflection regarding an ecclesiology where the church is conceptualised as an ecological system. This raises several pertinent questions: what are the possible components of this ecology? How might the various elements within this ecclesial ecology interact? Is there a need for an ‘ecology manager’—a kind of gardener who oversees and nurtures this diverse environment?
IP: You offer a whole range of practical reasons why church planting often leads to growth. What is the evidence of the personal of engagement in church planting, in terms of both discipleship and mission?
CS: My evidence for this is mostly anecdotal. Some longitudinal studies about discipleship impact in church planting are about to be published; however, there is not nearly enough research on topics like this for an activity that is now central to the mission and ministry of the Church of England.
Church planting does seem to stimulate a return-to-basics impact on discipleship, encouraging people to engage more deeply in prayer, Bible reading and active witnessing. It also seems to inspire more people to assume leadership roles and to enhance their ministry skills. However, there’s a darker aspect to consider. Church planting (and pioneering ministry in general) seem also to be associated with higher instances of burnout, dropout, moral failure, substance abuse and even apostasy. While the underlying reasons require more in-depth research to be fully understood, my intuition suggests that church planting may amplify pre-existing traits. If so, this emphasises the importance of careful selection and preparation, and robust support for those involved. This area—resilience—is one that I’m currently researching.
The impact of church planting on vocations is an area of discipleship that is more easily measured. In my experience, multiplying churches—those that are new or involved in sending out church plants—tend to report higher numbers of candidates for ordained vocations, sometimes significantly higher numbers. For instance, a small church plant I was involved with generated vocations at approximately 25 times the diocesan average (adjusted for congregation size); another church I’m familiar with accounts for a significant proportion of the vocations in its entire diocese. Even when considering other factors that might influence these numbers, such limited yet compelling evidence suggests a strong and important link between church planting and the increase in vocations within the church.
IP: You also highlight the institutional impact of church planting. Why do you think this is so important for the Church of England?
CS: In my doctoral studies on church planting, I saw an intriguing parallel with Richard Sennett’s concept of craftwork in The Craftsman (2009). Sennett’s notion that true mastery in craftsmanship is achieved when one can both repair and create tools is a fascinating lens through which to view Christian ministry in the Church of England. Adopting this perspective, the role of a Christian minister could be seen as akin to that of a craftworker, an idea I explore in my book The Craft of Church Planting (2022). Following this line of thought, could ministers best learn how to revitalise a parish by mastering the skills to both establish a new church and effectively rejuvenate a struggling one?
Establishing new churches is a critical part of the strategy to rejuvenate the Church of England. It may even symbolise the essential skills needed for general effectiveness in Christian ministry our current times. Which raises the question: should key leaders in the church demonstrate their leadership through proven abilities in both repairing existing churches and establishing new ones?
In the global church, particularly in the Global South where growth is most rapid, it’s common for ordination candidates to have experience in church planting (often through house churches) as a testament to their calling and emerging skills in mission and church growth. In these regions, lay roles like ‘evangelist’ often involve starting new churches, and catechists typically lead new congregations. I have even heard of an Anglican theological college in Africa where students must plant a new church and train a successor before they can graduate.
In light of this, should it become increasingly normal for clergy, bishops and other leaders in the Church of England to have experience in starting new Christian communities? Such experience might be crucial for the revitalisation skills needed in all areas of Christian ministry today. Provocatively, should the next Archbishop of Canterbury be someone with a background in church planting?
IP: There have been a good number of objections to engaging in church planting from within the Church. What are the most important of these? Are they easy to answer?
CS: Good question! Let’s look at two.
First, the notion that starting new churches conflicts with supporting existing ones is a common concern. Someone important once shared with me: “I’m against church planting, because I believe in the parish.” This perspective seems to presume a dichotomy where one must choose between the two. However, history demonstrates that the church often rejuvenates through periods of innovation and fresh mission. These phases of growth and renewal eventually integrate with and strengthen the existing infrastructure. We might be in the midst of such a transformative phase right now. I don’t believe that church planting opposes the parish system; rather, I see it as a vital component in revitalising the whole church for mission.
Secondly, the wider debate over church planting often centres on the distribution of financial resources, with some arguing that the focus should be on investing in existing churches, especially those facing challenges, rather than in creating new ones. Whilst there’s a need for thorough research on the ‘return on investment’ in church planting, I already know we might find the quality and volume of mission and discipleship generated by some churches started on small budgets to be quite impressive.
In fact, this is something I’ve experienced first-hand—I’ve started missionally-effective churches with modest investments, one with just a few hundred pounds and another for about a thousand pounds. Nevertheless, it’s important to consider the long-term perspective. Ultimately, the sustainability of the church is secured by attracting new generations of people who commit to following Jesus, and by healthy local churches. This is where our investment should truly be directed.
IP: What do you hope people will take away from your booklet?
CS: I aim to normalise church planting in our understanding of the church. After all, since every church was once started, we are all part of a church planting legacy. Thus, church planting isn’t a novel concept but a revival of an ancient ministry, highly relevant to today’s church needs. I view church planting as a reawakening of the church’s apostolic mission, and I hope readers of this booklet will see this.
Often, the rationale for establishing new churches is narrowly seen as just evangelisation. While evangelism is undoubtedly a fundamental motive, there are additional reasons and wide-ranging benefits for the entire church, which I discuss in the second part of the booklet. As we think about church planting strategically, I think it is important to consider all these aspects.
Lastly, I say in the booklet:
… given the pressing urgency of the church’s present decline, one might reasonably conclude it is now essential that every church leader (or leader in training) should be able either to plant a church, send out or supervise a church plant, or train or work with a church planter—or indeed all of these.
In my opinion, there is an urgent need for church leadership to be well-versed in church planting. This involves skills in initiating and overseeing church planting and collaborating with church planters. As someone training the next generation of church leaders, my goal is to equip them for this critical aspect of church ministry. I trust the ideas in this booklet will contribute in a small way to their preparation.