Thursday, 3 November 2011

Is Church Planting a One-Sided Game?

In the natural world of nature, beasts grow by dropping seeds or sprogs, or by sending roots through the dark earth. I am not sure that I believe in magical storks or pink pudgy babies falling from stars, so I am left with this clumsy biological fact. And it works. Just look out of the window - life everywhere, all born of an older life elsewhere. 

Now that I have earned a PhD in the natural sciences, I can make a pronouncement or two about the life of the church.

I live in the heartlands of what is affectionately known as Aitchteebee - a super-church in the City that gave birth to that rarely seen thing, the Alpha Course. You speak to Christians around here, you fast discover that a great number of churches in this part of the world are Aitchteebee Plants. Frankly, they are almost without exception successful, growing and thriving places - and good for them. Someone has to be. 

Sometimes, I lose heart. I lose heart because as a catholic kind of Christian, it feels (even if it only a feeling) that our 'end' of things is well into terminal decline, with half our people leaving to be what they would now term as 'proper Catholics'. This means that there are precisely eight Anglo-Catholic priests in the whole of Britain, and so I lose heart when I see my brothers and sisters of the evangelical wing having it away with new churches, world-famous nurture courses and growth beyond all measure. 

In trying to work out why this is, I have to ask what might be going on. Is evangelicalism the only expression of faith supported by God? Nope. Is it about money? Possibly. Is the whole world evangelical except for the eight of us who like to faun over thuribles for a living? Nope. So what is it then?

It has to be a heart to church plant. Like every organic being in the whole of God's creation (and we could argue that a perfect model exists for us right there), big things emit little baby things that grow into the next big things. Yet we Anglo-Catholics just don't seem to want to bother. The sad thing is, we are easy transplants - all we need is a Mass Set, and a Bible and we are a liturgical body. I do not believe that my friends in the evangelical wing of the church have the only successful plant-model - they simply have the only plant-model (and cash, which helps, of course). 

I know that there are successful catholic communities that could plant a church (and if any of us simply waited for enough cash then we would get nowhere fast). I am not advocating a fight-back on the part of the catholics, because I believe that the world needs all of us. But it needs us by balance. For this to happen, people like me could learn a lesson from those who seem to know better, to look beyond the stylistic issues (or even celebrate the differences) and get on and grow as nature intended. 


  1. David

    I think you are absolutely right. The evidence around us is that church planting is the way to go, to revive failing churches or start altogether new congregations. There are continually new opportunities to church plant-Catholics must gird up their loins!

  2. Interesting thoughts - which I am sure I will continue to ponder - that is - after I get over how slow I am in working out where 'Aitchteebee' is!! 'Aitchteebee ... Alpha Course? Really? I thought it came from HT ... oh!'

  3. It does look that way from what I've seen and what you write, David, but it really shouldn't be so. When we look back to the days of the Oxford Movement and the Catholic revival in the 19th century, with the great slum priests in London and other big cities, we see plenty of churches which were very successfully planted in the most unpromising of soil. The hard part is working out how to do the same thing in our very different world. Don't lose heart. The Anglican Church really needs its Catholics.

  4. Jonathan Hawkins3 November 2011 at 17:43

    As you well know, I am not of a Catholic persuasion, but I value what you/they bring to the party as this adds to the rich tapestry of our church. I can only agree with Perpetua that the Anglican Church really needs its Catholics and that you should not lose heart.

    With people like you around there is still hope for the future. Just keep stepping out in faith!

  5. I wonder if getting together a different congregation for a particular service, which becomes a fixture, counts as a Church Plant?

    Within our benefice, we have different congregations for different services, some who like the BCP services, others like CW and others are quite happy with a Family Service and a Eucharist once a month or so. Even when we have a full benefice service, we are unlikely to seem many of the individual congregations, who stick to what they know, and attend as regularly as others, who spread themselves around the whole span of services (including myself).

    Our youth group again, which takes people from across the 5 villages, and further afield, is again, a separate congregation, who have their own services (on occasion) and participate with their own liturgy.

    I know an Evangelical Church, that considers each of its congregations as Church Plants, because while they share facilities, rarely if ever meet together. But each one is a valid expression of church.

    I don't see why an Anglo-Catholic church plant can't exist on the same basis as these. Unless there is something unique that needs all to be united, all of the time.

    And we don't do the Alpha Course, we run preparation within our system either with Sunday School, individual preparation or small groups, monitored by the Vicar and Curate.

    An ongoing and hopeful development is the number of new Christians coming through marriages, or baptism's and engagement with them through marriage or baptism preparation.

  6. Part of the issue is that Catholic Anglicans tend to major on incarnation rather than proclamation & to believe in loving service more than evangelism. My own theology, which I believe is fairly typical of Catholic Anglicans, is based on the premise that an all-loving God will never allow any of his children to be lost - so the need to convert is much less pressing than the need to get on with loving people.This makes for lots of positive community relationships, even some signs of transformation - but doesn't immediately encourage people to flock to church...And you do have to have a few spare seeds before you can start planting.

  7. Kathryn, that ties in very much with what I said about the great slum priests who spent a lot of time and effort loving people into the Kingdom, caring for their bodies at least as much as for their souls.

  8. I know two anglo-catholic priests up this who may not be included in your number because they are expat americans here to finish PhDs.

  9. In a very pragmatic sense, I think that charismatic evangelical churches are planting because:
    a. They are growing.
    b. John Wimber suggested it.

    But on a tangent, I would like to point out that just because someone is in an HTB-type congregations, it doesn't mean that they always will want to be. I have spent much of my life in charismatic churches (and have a lot of time for them) but it is now normal for me to find much/most of what 'brings me to life' in contemplativity, structured prayers, liturgy and other activities usually labelled 'catholic'.

    I would not be remotely surprised if the anglo-catholic church receives many many others like me who are bored with the shallow consumerism inherent in so many funky modern streams of church.

    But I do pray that any revival in the High Church would be a genuine one - the Spirit bringing life to traditional forms - and not just another Christian fad.

  10. What worries me is the amount of church planting of the 'independent/free church' variety, especially seen in South London, without proper governance structures. What they preach is beyond the pale.

  11. I quite agree with what you have written, David. I wonder if any of our brothers and sisters at the more outwardly "successful" and well-known Anglo-Catholic Churches are reading this (St Mary Magdalen, Oxford, and All Saints, Margaret Street, spring to mind)?

    Perhaps part of the problem is that catholic-minded Anglicans lack the same degree of coherent organisation that many evangelicals have, e.g. through the New Wine Network. Yes, there's Aff Cath and SCP, but to my mind neither of these groups have the same reach among their "target" group. It may well be the worry about the impact on catholicity that memberships of quasi-partisan organisations might have. But I do think that a greater degree of co-ordination among like-minded groups and individuals might help in this regard.

    I'm not sure that this contributes anything that hasn't already been said - but entirely agree that we need, as people who still find the expression of catholic Christianity relevant and valuable, to share this insight into our faith with others.



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