Last weeks Diocesan church growth strategies conference mixed input on particular streams & topics (leadership, research, Fresh Expressions of church) with case studies and presentations from particular Dioceses. 3 case studies going up today, London first, Birmingham and Coventry later.
For a long time London has been the exception to the rule of Church of England decline, owing a great deal to the leadership of David Hope, and Richard Chartres (worth noting that neither of these could be described as an evangelical, church growth is not the property of 1 section of the church only)
The Diocese is about to launch Capital Vision 2020. Ric Thorp, the Bishop of Londons' church planting advisor (how many Bishops have one of those?) talked us through their vision of planting 100 churches across the diocese. Having a bishop who is pro- church planting, not just allowing it "is a game changer".
There are currently 30 church plants in the diocese from the Holy Trinity Brompton family alone, mostly grafting new people into an existing, but struggling, congregation "we have managed to keep nearly 100% of the existing congregation in the parish on board... they are seeing something happen that they have only ever dreamt about", and we heard several stories of small churches growing from 10-20 members to over 100 in a very short space of time. Some of this may be made easier by the large turnover of population - Ric spoke of areas where 30-40% of the population changes each year. On one level, that means simply to stand still you have to replace 1/3 of the congregation, but it may also make it easier to do outreach than in a more stable and fixed community.
The Diocese is pretty well resourced for this, with St. Mellitus college offering training, a church planting advisor, the track record and resources of HTB and its various plants, and over £2m set aside over the period. They also have a very clear but distinctive Anglican church planting policy. There are 4 main areas targeted: regeneration areas (e.g. Olympic Park, where the developers are building a new church), parishes needing a new start, new communities within parishes (e.g. a new congregation within an existing church "the fastest and easiest way to grow your church") and mission communities (e.g. in networks, schools, among certain social groups). There's some creative thinking about funding going on too, including a lending scheme to enable the diocese to buy housing for pioneer ministers in strategic places.
There are targets for each type of plant, and each year, which seemed a bit over-planned, but "if we don't plan it at all, it won't happen". The result of talking through the plans in details is that people now think it's manageable, in fact, 100 is seen as a conservative estimate of what's possible.
The diocese is deliberately looking at partnership working - e.g. with Scripture Union to plant into schools, with Vineyard and Eden in neighbourhoods. It makes a lot of sense, and cuts across the standard 'go it alone' mentality which often means that Anglicans end up doing nothing, because it's beyond our capacity.
Identifying where to plant is done within Deaneries, and there's a diocesan team headed up by a deputy bishop keeping a steer on the whole thing. One interesting development is that they've started asking grant making bodies to fund several projects, rather than 1, which actually excites more interest because it's seen as something more significant. Aiming high is releasing more resources.
Planted churches are themselves expected to plant, Ric talked about planting 'pregnant' churches. Churches are also being asked to put 2% of their income into a church planting fund to back future growth. That makes a lot of sense - I'd much rather invest in a growing concern than prop up a declining one, and there's a good theology of giving underlying that too.
There's also work going on with a group of Anglo-Catholic clergy "who are all fantastic at growing churches" to explore what Anglo-Catholic church planting looks like.
Finally, the diocese is using 'learning communities' to share expertise, a facilitated group with teams from several planting churches. With key decision makers (usually 3-5) from each church, those teams can make plans during the session, and are then accountable to the other groups for following them through, as well as being able to learn from the other groups in the process. That sounded fascinating, and again is something made possible by aiming high. My experience is generally of parishes being left to get on with it, with little central co-ordination, encouragement or resourcing.
a couple of quotes
"church planting is not dependent on resources, it's dependent on leader-readiness...if you want to plant a church, if you see an opportunity of need, then you can do it."
"we've got to focus as parish priests on raising up leaders for mission."
It was breathtaking stuff, though at times a bit overwhelming. One or two thoughts:
- Consistent diocesan leadership in the same direction is key: Richard Chartres has continued what David Hope started, not dismantled it and started again.
- The model is much more clearly planned, costed and strategised than just about anything else I've seen in the CofE. That may be because we've become too used to amateurism - whilst our schools have rigorous school improvement plans, inspection mechanisms, targets and clear leadership, somehow we think that mission, worship and discipleship will just happen if we keep the building open and the liturgy handle cranked up. We are in an incense-induced stupor when it comes to good practice.
- There are only a few places in Bath and Wells where we could think of something similar on a small scale, with an urban area where struggling churches and growing churches exist side by side. But it's worth remembering that the resources and expertise built up in London are part of a 20 year journey, church growth is long term and hard work, and it doesn't look the same everywhere.
For other posts from the conference (7 so far, more to come) go here.
a couple of London policy papers, which give a bit more background: