DEBATES about the Church of England’s Renewal and Reform programme have once again spilled over into the secular media (Press, 19 August). One aspect of this — the support for church-planting — has attracted particular interest. The conversation is currently generating more heat than light. And yet, because there is relatively little robust research on the impact of such planting, much of the debate is based on prejudice rather than solid evidence.
The Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) has, however, produced two pieces of research this year: a detailed analysis of church-planting in east London — published at Easter as Love, Sweat and Tears; and now Church Growth in East London. The first focused on St Paul’s, Shadwell, planted in 2005 from Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), and the four churches that it has subsequently planted.
It rebuts many of the common myths. The growth in numbers cannot be dismissed as “sheep-stealing”. Across the five congregations, there was an average Sunday attendance of 100 before the planting process. The later growth included a further 100 worshippers who did not previously attend any church at all. The trajectory of growth (or decline) in neighbouring churches had been largely unaffected.
In these five churches, there has been an explosion in social action, as numerical growth has added the capacity for a range of activities, from foodbanks and debt advice to community organising, alongside mosques and schools.
Moreover, those church-plants that engaged in the most social action also attracted the highest proportion of new Christians. Having received no additional funding from the diocese, the five churches are contributing a total of £300,000 extra to the Common Fund, which enables ministry to be sustained in other contexts and traditions.
THERE is, however, still much hostility to church-planting. This is partly a product of fear. Church-planting today has emerged from a particular tradition — one strand of Evangelicalism — and is associated with one style of worship, and so other parts of the Church are afraid that they will be overwhelmed. The second report, Church Growth in East London, however, offers a more hopeful perspective. It suggests that attitude rather than theological tradition is the key determinant of growth.
There is no one-size-fits-all pattern to such growth. It can happen in churches with very different theologies and liturgies. It can also be promoted by very different means, using models appropriate to those different traditions and contexts. It does, however, need to be pursued intentionally, surrounded by prayer, and informed by experience.
As the report observes, “the degree of intentionality behind growth is related to the likelihood of growth. Those [congregations] that have seen significant growth, it seems, have made structural changes in terms of leadership or ‘models’ of church.”
The churches that are growing most in east London, across a range of traditions, have a “clear vision of their goals”, and are engaged in “conscious self-reflection” on what it means to be both faithful and effective in their local context.
One example of such growth is the sharp increase in attendance at St John-at-Hackney since 2007. Three key ingredients in this have been: a deeper common life of worship and prayer; an enterprising use of assets (including property) for mission; and a commitment to action for the common good with people beyond the walls of the church.
In a similar way to the church-plants from HTB, the experience at St John’s suggests that the relationship between action with others for the common good, and numerical growth, is “both/and”, not “either/or”.
Inspired by these examples, CTC has entered into a partnership with our host church (which, like St John’s, is in the modern Catholic tradition). We are testing out the conviction that these same three factors can lead to significant numerical growth in our context as well.
This has involved developing a new “sanctuary course”, which introduces the Christian faith through practices of prayer and meditation; housing a lay community in flats around the church; and holding a community-organising assembly in church — which, in turn, is leading to action with other churches, mosques, and schools in the area, on issues such as affordable housing and street safety.
THE research in Church Growth in East London identifies two distinctive factors that have helped the church to grow in the capital: church-planting, and immigration. Planting and missional communities have so far proved easier to develop in an urban context, and the pattern of immigration from overseas into our city has also swelled attendances.
The success of missional initiatives in London is, in part, because it is an environment particularly hospitable to growth. The evidence suggests, however, that, within each context, attitude also matters a great deal.
In more challenging contexts, imaginative outreach may not lead to any headline growth in numbers. New disciples will be made, but there might be fewer of them than the number of existing disciples who die. The age profile of the Church of England suggests that this is likely to be true of our overall headline numbers for some time.
If anything, such outreach is even more important in these contexts. Slowing the rate of decline may not be as glamorous as planting new churches, but, in many places, it can make the difference that secures a sustainable Christian presence.
WHATEVER our context, a focus on making new disciples — so often dismissed as “bums on pews” — is vital. Indeed, such dismissive language is theologically indefensible. Each of these pews contains a human being, whose life is being transformed by the Spirit through participating in worship and the community of the church.
Moreover, an empty church cannot embark on any of the activities we rightly value: worshipping God, growing together, showing hospitality, and acting for social justice.
My concern is not just that the critique made of HTB and its church-plants is unfair. Most of its leaders are remarkably gracious and phlegmatic about this. The real damage is done not to them, but to those of us in other traditions. If the rest of us buy into a narrative of victimhood —”being overwhelmed by a rising tide of Evangelicalism” — we could spend our time carping on the sidelines, instead of developing our own models of imaginative outreach.
If, however, we are willing to learn from others, and are confident in God’s capacity to renew the whole Church in all its richness, a very different future is possible.
This article first appeared on the Church Times website and is reproduced here with permission.
Both reports on church growth are available at www.theology-centre.org.