Why plant churches?
I care very deeply about the Church of England because I believe the local church is the hope of the world and there is no better organism to deliver this for this nation than through it. I love the free churches, house churches, NFI, the Vineyard and so many others doing great mission but I still think the old girl C of E has life in her- but only just if recent data is to be believed.
Ruth Gledhill wrote a startling column in Times on Friday that all interested in the bride of Christ should read and reflect on deeply and urgently- particularly those in leadership. It suggested that the Church of England is destined on current trends to become nothing more than, to use her words, 'a small sect'. The title of her article was "Shortage of vicars puts Church at risk of becoming 'little more than a sect'. This ordination and retirement data was corroborated by the Planting Centre @ HTB when I attended their planting day recently :
"Numbers of full-time clergy in the Church of England have slumped to their lowest levels for more than a century, according to the latest figures published yesterday.
The Church of England now has little more than half the number of stipendiary priests that it had fifty years ago and a third of that a century ago.
Some senior clergy believe the entire parish system could be at risk. They have warned that, with as many as four out of ten clergy due to retire within the next decade, the next ten years are crucial in determining whether the Church of England survives as a visible entity or turns into "little more than a sect" run by unpaid volunteers.
Although 515 candidates were accepted to train as future clergy in 2010, with a 45% rise in those aged 20-29, and 563 new clergy were ordained in 2010, only 284 of these were entering the full-time ministry.
The Venerable Gordon Kuhrt, the Churches former director of ministry, said that the figures were down to a "bulge" in ordinations in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as well as the fact that those joining the clergy recently were middle-aged. "Ordinations have remained remarkably bouyant but do not fill the gap caused by these two factors"
If the Church was a commercial organisation (which by the way the C of E can't avoid being) you might at this point rightly be observing that the HR Director should be fired for not attending to the leadership pipeline leading their organisation into utter crisis. If C of E shares were available on the stock exchange and this article appeared in the business pages of the FT, the share price would now be in free fall and the Chief Executive would be calling Bain and Company (who I have worked with in the past and are very good by the way Rowan but they are a tad pricey) for emergency help. As it is, the Chief Executive is rumoured to have secured himself a new job as a Theology Professor however the corporate affairs department at Lambeth Palace if you contact them seems to be saying "We're very happy to tell you it's business as usual".
If I was interviewing the new man for A of C I might at this moment be glad to see three additional letters on his CV other than the obligatory Phd. These would be MBA. (Now I know Eugene Peterson and many others will faint at this suggestion but I am not talking here about pastoring the local church. I am talking about the need for some measure of radical commercial and leadership savvy to stay what is according to Gledhill a fatally wounded sinking ship). When Rowan should have been attending to this he was otherwise occupied writing a book about Dostoyevsky. Now I am real fan, love things Russian having lived there but this might not have been the best time to be writing a book?
For those of us who have had a past life in commerce and management, the method of training in the C of E seems to be all about de-skilling and you spend most of your time writing essays (don't get me wrong here I love both theology and essays). There are now some contextual training options and you can also now be a pioneer. There is also the progressive thinking being unleashed by St Mellitus and the St Paul's Theological Centre. Despite this it still takes far too long to train and equip a leader and the methods we are using are not fit for purpose- namely producing missionaries to a post-Christian land.
As an example, let's look at one essay my friend did at Vicar Factory not that long ago: 'Compare prayers A to H in Common Worship and outline the reasons for the differences". If you are 'the laity' as many of my non-ontologically changed readers are you might in response reply, "What ??" Now I know for some this is a truly fascinating way to spend a few weeks and knowledge of such things is all well and good at some point, but not perhaps when the overreaching problem is (1) There are not enough nor the right sort of people to read out whichever liturgical letter you decide to land on on a Sunday morning (2) In order to have a Communion liturgy (A,B,C,D,E, F, G or indeed H which just while we are on it is my preferred alphabetical preference) one would assume you have to actually have someone who believes in Jesus to actually minister this holy and glorious sacrament to.
Planting churches is the most effective way to reach non-attenders
Now I know I am teaching most of my readers to suck eggs but [wait for it this is profound]- no one new is coming to church (attendance figures according to The Times show a decline of 2% for the years 2008/9). My plan and your plan to rectify this is [wait for it this is also really profound] - preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are a few reasons for the C of E's inability to reach non-attenders aside from not preaching the gospel.
1. Leaders are insecure (I include myself here): Church leaders like to be able to point at their big churches and their achievements. Go to any conference in the evangelical world certainly (it's true of ambitious liberal clerics too) and you will before very long be asked how big yours is. As long as yours is bigger than the person you are speaking to you can walk away with your head held high feeling mildly superior and effective. The evangelical mindset has a tendency towards church being 'my project' with many leaders being able to ignore both their local community and surrounding churches and their leaders as long as there are plenty of bums on seats. Missional Renaissance is a very salutary read on this score. Attendees of big churches are similarly disposed to like big things, safe things and consumable things. We would all rather sing about 'Offering up our life' than actually do it. HTB's secret has always been their courage to constantly give the best of their resources and people away and the Lord has blessed them mightily and this might be a secret for the rest of us. Planting churches is threatening because instead of collecting people into your thing and then being able to point at it, you are doing the reverse and sending people out and are inevitably left with less to point at. It forces us to live out Acts 20:35 and believe that it really is more blessed to give than to receive. The question I much prefer being asked and like to ask of others is, "Has anybody recently experienced the New Birth?" You see I think it is a contemporary myth that where you have large numbers of Christians gathering this is an indication that among them are many new believers. Strangely, without a clear strategy outlined so well in Managing Church Growth the opposite in fact seems to be the case .
2. Christians love Christian things: Christian just love Christian groups, Christian words, Christian songs, Christian courses, Christian programmes, Christian clubs, Christian books and Christian lunches and we will consume them endlessly with ease. We love them more when they are efficiently provided with a bit a glitz and efficiency. The problem is non-attenders are rather different animals requiring a broader, more conversational and long-term strategy. I have recently been reading about the conversion of William Wilberforce and it's 'process' and it has given me much food for thought on this subject. All credit to Rowan as his Fresh Expressions is on to this but the mainstream church is contrast in spectacularly not
3. Small is beautiful: Gary Jenkins in Multiplying Churches has been helpful to me in thinking about birthing new communities of faith. Church planting simply takes this principle and instead of sending people within parishes it hatches a plan to do the same thing between parishes. This comes with a whole host of hooplaa's but they can and they must be overcome. A pal sat on his sun-lounger in the summer reading Neil Cole's Organic church and has been working out what it means for his church plant and his leadership model ever since. I think it was Dallas Willard or perhaps someone else who said 'churches should be known for their sending capacity rather than their seating capacity'.
4. No one likes prunes: If we for a moment imagine that I have been made A of C (you can stop laughing now) and have brought Bain and Co in what might they recommend? Well, if they had read the manual and all the data on the client, as any good consultant does, they would have read that the organisational founder said in John 15 that pruning is the way to fruitfulness. In that moment, any management consultant worth his salt (good word) would realise he was on to something. Pruning is to consultancy what communion is to the C of E. It's what we do. So pruning in Bain-land means cost-cutting, amalgamation and lots of redundancies. We have to get the right people on the bus. They also might ask why we seem in the C of E to duplicate so many things and if you were Jack Welch you'd have a knife to this issue quicker than you could say the words Thomas Cranmer. Every Diocese has to have lawyers, accountants, websites, property people, theological colleges and all the rest of the institutionally religious paraphanalia. Bottom line that anyone commercial knows is all that central cost is very expensive and doesn't sell much product. Consultants also like axing ineffectual meetings and management layers in organisations- so the deanery synod's days may be numbered? Surely though, fewer clergy means inevitably fewer dioceses or am I missing something? (I do know General Synod is getting slowly onto this one)
5. Catch a vision for training as sending: To enact the grand planting plan you need two more things. A mission statement. Something like 'Love Jesus and tell other people about him' (I just made that up but I will get Bain onto something more sophisticated). Also, we need to see Curacies as apostolic endeavours. You are not being trained to become the Vicar of St Bottocks instead you are being selected and trained in order to be sent to St Bottocks with people you have yourself seen gathered, converted and discipled. It's what missionaries are supposed to do- as Andrew Walls will tell you in The Missionary Movement in Christian History. How much better to arrive in your Curacy already knowing on day one that you will be planting a church, where you will plant it and have to gather people around the reality of that vision and challenge. If we pushed the faith and challenge envelope even further for 'New Curates' imagine if we had no guaranteed job for life unless you actually created the job, people and community you plan to pastor? The job implicitly becomes missional which is what it should have been all along. We have plenty of nearly empty buildings usually in key locations and housing stock both of which are gold dust to the planter. If you are not capable of doing mission in your Curacy why do we think that when you become Rev Bob a Job at St Bottocks this is all suddenly going to start happening? A Curate instead of being an occasional office dog's body should be an apostolic wing man honing his skills under training and oversight for inevitable missional risk. Training simply isn't working and the Gledhill stats seem to bear that out. What we need to do is train planters for which you will need to start recruit evangelists or apostle's (Ephesians 4). Someone will need to phone HR and tell the BAP's to put a cap on pastors for about a decade. Even the picture on the C of E website says to me come and run the existing ship and we'll give you the funny costume for you up dress up in, not let's build, launch and equip new ships that people who aren't yet sailing might want to sail in. They are different things and the sooner we awaken to this the better. YWAM and their DTS's, NFI, The Vineyard, ACTS 29 and Deitrich Bonnhoeffer have much to teach us in this score.
Here's a final thought, maybe I could turn all these thoughts into a Phd and then they might make me Archbishop of Canterbury-
That's a joke by the way:)
So start to think radically and urgently about planting
Two quotes from Keller landed with me a few years ago and birthed a desire to see churches planted in the Church of England and to encourage leaders to start thinking "Maybe we could plant a church". Here is what you might like to do:
2. Ask the question "Is it possible that our church community could raise some people and some resources and train up a leader to bring life to a church near us that would be blessed by us and therefore might not otherwise close?" Write a paper for your PCC or standing committee exploring planting and dream some dreams and 'what if's'.
3. Do you know which churches might be open to such a possibility?
4. Have you asked your Bishop or Archdeacon if they would be open to church planting and if they have any strategy for it?
5. Listen to this called Why plant churches?
In simple terms, I think that if we can pull this off as a church that is by no means large in the Diocese of Southwark, then I would urge any church community to think, dream, pray and ask if you might be able to do the same. All be it that I haven't actually done it yet. As Jesus says in the book- anything, in fact, immeasurably more is possible.
"The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for the 1) numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city, and the 2) continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else - not crusades, outreach programs, para- church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes - will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow raising statement. But to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial."
“The average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshipping body, while churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations. This means that the average new congregation will bring 6-8 times more new people into the life of the Body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size.”