It came to me in a moment. Some might call it prophetic insight. I don’t. Not this time. My blood sugar was low. It was the middle of the afternoon and I was tired. And things needed spicing up.
I was speaking at Cornhill. It’s the Proclamation Trust’s training course in Bible handling skills. And it’s terrific. They wanted Coekin but he palmed it off to me. I was asked to talk about church planting. I know just enough to fill a couple of hours.
As I stood there describing the typical growth pattern for social organisations over a 25-40 year period, it suddenly dawned on me. No doubt my lively Free Church friends have been aware of this for years. I think it’s going to get me in trouble. At least, the un-nuanced way I’m about to express it will!
But if I’ve understood it correctly, then the dominant strategy in conservative evangelical Anglicanism, in order to win the nation for Christ, is to try to get good guys appointed in declining change resistant churches hoping that no one on the interview panel will spot their reforming zeal. We then trust that the Bishop, even if he is a revisionist false teaching liberal, will be a ‘thoroughly good chap’, ‘the right sort’ and perhaps from the ‘right school’! With any luck/providential supervision he won’t go against the stated wishes of the Parish and oppose the appointment, even though in many Dioceses one would assume that he can’t stand the theology of the new vicar. And then we throw a good guy, his great wife and his young family into a situation in which everything he stands for may well be opposed. They’re potentially looking down the barrel of some ugly fights stretching put over a number of years. You’re kidding me, right? It’s bold. I’ll give it that. There has to be a better way. But it helped me answer the question why I thought church planting was the way to go!
I’m overstating it, of course. But is this ‘strategic’ approach really the best use of our resources? After all, strategy is just being sensible. Is it sensible to use a man’s ministry in this way? Is it fair to him and his family? What will it do to them? I’ve heard too many stories of guys burnt by this experience. I’m hugely impressed by those that choose to do it. It’s just I couldn’t. I’m not man enough. I think it’s way harder to change a church than to plant a church. You need a personality like a prop forward and the sensitivity of a rhinoceros. Mike McKinley’s book ‘Church Planting is for Wimps’ has got it right. I could never turn round a change resistant congregation. It’d do my head in and theirs as well. What is it the Aussies say? ‘It’s easier to bring to life than raise the dead’. They’re right. When you church plant you can take a team of highly motivated, gospel focussed individuals and from the off, you’re running on gas. But if you’re trying to reverse the slow decline of a well established church then you’ve got to gear up for a fight. The odds are; there’s going to be blood on the carpet. Unless of course the congregation are on their knees, they know it and they want a change of direction. But by that point the Diocese has already amalgamated them with someone else in order to ‘manage’ the decline.
It’s probably a case for both/and rather than either/or. But I wasn’t in the mood for compromise and nuance. I’m probably not right, but it certainly revived a flagging session at Cornhill.