There has to be a better way

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.

16 thoughts on “There has to be a better way

  1. Cathy D June 14, 2011 / 7:53 pm

    Put like that, the case for planting seems pretty overwhelming …. and I don’t underestimate for one minute the extent of the challenge facing those guys who do end up being sent to ‘raise the dead’, having worked for one of them for a while.

    And yet, at the same time, doesn’t it bug you that there are hundreds, thousands even, of people in churches week by week who are doing the best they know how, in response to what they’ve heard, who will one day face Jesus saying ‘Lord! Lord!’ only to discover that mere church going and trying hard wasn’t what He wanted. They will say then “Why didn’t anyone tell me ….?” with – potentially – more wailing and gnashing of teeth that those who knew they were ignoring God all their lives. And they’re the ones who are even less likely to ever go to a planted gospel-teaching church, because they’re already very settled into going where they’re going and don’t know what they’re missing/

    So I think it is a both/and. Not because of compromise and nuance. But for reaching different mission fields. In much the same way as the apostles took the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles in the first generation of the church. Or is that pushing an analogy too far?

    Wishing I was still at Cornhill and could have heard it … (in a not-that-I’m-discontent-with-life-current-life sort of way!)

    • theurbanpastor June 15, 2011 / 5:50 pm

      Yes. It does my head in that thousands of decent people are being miseld in unorthodox churches up and down the country as part of an instiution that produced tha magnificent 39 Articles. But what do we do about it? Get good guys in if we can. Sure. But is that all. And is that the best way? Why bash our heads against the brick wall (the Dioceesan Bishops in this metaphor) trying to get good guys appointed especially if they then face a decade or so of hostile resistance to gospel ministry when we could set up a decent gospel alternative on the front lawn of the unorthodox church? I think you know which way I’d go! It may be just me, but because I’m an institutional man (Public School-ish, Navy, Anglican) I have a tendency to trust institutions and want tp preserve them. But do we propagate the gospel through the institution. I’m not so sure?

  2. Mark June 14, 2011 / 9:55 pm

    In part I’m totally with you on this, if that’s the strategy then we should give up. It’s like invading Russia in the winter. But, I love the CofE, it’s broken, it’s a mess, it does not seem to notice that it has lost Christ and has no inclination to seek Him with it’s whole heart, but it is still my church. I can’t leave it to rot further and to leave it would feel like a betrayal of where god has called me and my wife to be.

    • theurbanpastor June 15, 2011 / 5:44 pm

      Thanks Mark. Good on you for sticking at it. Sorry if my post implied that you shouldn’t be doing gospel ministry where you are. You should. Like you, I love the C of E. It’s knackered. I want it fixed. I just wonder whether the way to fix it is the way we’re going about it. We seem to be losing and slowly bleeding to death.
      And which bits do I love? Is it the buildings? That can’t be right, can it? I love the gospel and the God who is the gospel (as will you, I’m sure). I need to put my efforts into saving that in this country not the institution that may or may not help me in that. Pervesely I may end up preserving the C of E by working for the gospel outside its’ current structures and making sure that we show there’s gospel life outside the constraints of unorthodox Diocesan control. Time will tell. God will determine. Keep on keeping on my friend!

  3. Phil June 15, 2011 / 8:21 am

    The approach of the HTB-style church plants seems to be a happy medium. A new vicar is appointed and a crowd of new congregants come too: the church is revitalised overnight, and the vicar has at least some people on-side. Wouldn’t this approach get around the challenges that you outlined, and keep the benefits of being in a parish church and within the C of E?

    • theurbanpastor June 15, 2011 / 3:26 pm

      It’s an approach that has worked and may work. As I’m sure you realise, it requires a sizeable core group to move across in what’s known as ‘transplanting’, the agreement of the declining church and the approval of the Diocesan Bishop (who may or may not be right behind the enterprise). I’m not saying don’t do it. I think it’ll get harder as reformed theological anglicans become more and more marginalised. And I’m not sure that just going where there’s a vacancy is teh best strategy for reaching the nation for Christ. We haven’t got that many guys coming out of college to cover the ground. We need to be more sensible and selective about where we put people.

  4. Hugh June 15, 2011 / 3:54 pm

    I missed this… due to being in the Youth Stream!

    Existing Anglican churches are strategically placed. That’s one of the purposes of a Parish system. Granted the Parish thing isn’t as effective in a densely populated urban setting. But as a principle it works. Which means revitalising dying churches is a great idea, because it’s strategic and Biblical (Rev 3, Ez 37?). In both situations the ministry is similar… 1) it’s devoted to preaching and prayer 2) It’s hard work!
    I’m sure there are countless stories too of church planters who get burnt… the challenges may be different, but wherever you are, gospel work is tough!

    If an Anglican church wants to plant they can very easily do it in their own parish, or they can seek a Bishop’s Mission Order, or they can do it with the agreement of the Vicar of the Parish they want to plant in. The answers to the 2nd to may well be no, but I suspect most don’t do the hard work of building relationships with their Bishops and fellow clergy!

    My personal experience of this is my dad, who has taken up post at two non-evangelical churches. One is now a member of Reform, and both are members of Gospel Partnerships and have grown considerably. It’s well worth doing!

    Burford Church is a good example too… the vicar there also came to speak at Cornhill.

    • theurbanpastor June 15, 2011 / 5:38 pm

      Hello Hugh

      Sorry to have missed you at CTC. I’m sure the youth steram was more useful, I may have degenerated into ranting at some point after coffee! But thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Let me respond to your observations in turn

      1. You say that CofE churches are strategically placed. Are they? Aren’t they just placed? Some of them are in pretty odd locations, like my village where I grew up. I know that the parish system means that everywhere has access to a parish church. And that’s great. But we haven’t got enough good guys to go round so we probably don’t want to put some guys into some churches. Radical, I know. But sensible, isn’t it?

      Parish churches just are. In places. Sometimes that’ll be great; like St Mary’s and St John’s in Balham where I am. But at other times they’ll be tucked away and perhaps not the place that you’d want to start a church; for example if you wanted to plant in Streatham you might not want to launch into Christ Church Streatham. Not that I could as an evangelical, however!

      I’ll agree that they can be visible. And I’ll agree that they can work in a community as a draw. But not necessarily and not always. Do you think it’s fair to say that, in general, traditional people will be drawn to a traditional church building and that non-traditional people will look for something else? That might work in some places and not in others. My experience is rural Northamptonshire and semi-suburban south London. I’m not claiming universal expertise!

      They’re cheap (ish) as long as you don’t have to spend 20-30K a year to fund the upkeep. And having spent almost 9 years unpacking church from a box I can see the attraction of having your own building. But it doesn’t work for everyone.

      2. I think I conceded that the picture across the UK is varied. If I didn’t, I’m sorry. I don’t know your father but i’m thrilled to hear that, under God, he’s made the progress that he has. That’s terrific. He’s a better man than me. But you knew that already, yeah?!

      3. On BMO’s – do we only want to plant in our own parishes? Don’t we want to make sure, to start off with, that every city and town has a Bible teaching church in it? After that don’t we want to make sure that every residential area has a decent church in it and so on? BMOs limit our planting. You need the Bishop to be onside for starters. And that’s not something I have a whole load of experience of! And I don’t think it’s because I haven’t built relationships with him. I think it’s because I’m a conviction evangelical not a compromise evangelical. He won’t drive away erroneous doctrine and so I can’t pursue a relationship with him in good conscience. That’ll limit the planting within the system options, I would imagine!

  5. Phil June 15, 2011 / 4:07 pm

    I’m sure the politics present a huge barrier, alas. But why would this method need many more people than a church plant, though? If 20 people can start a brand new plant, I’m not sure why it would actually need more than that to get a parish church going again…unless finances is a part of it.

    “We haven’t got that many guys coming out of college to cover the ground.”

    Is this our fault? Are we too selective about who we put up for ministry? I read a fascinating article a while back that argued that you can’t really tell whether someone will be a good pastor until they’re several years into it – so you should throw anyone with an ounce of competence and willingness (and godliness!) at the idea. From what I hear about selection conferences that seems to be the approach of the C of E, anyway. 🙂

    • theurbanpastor June 15, 2011 / 5:56 pm

      To successfully transplant you usually need a greater number of people with which to plan t. Not always. But usually. Depends on the church and how welcoming they are. Depends on the church situation and context and so on. But geenrally speaking you can plant with fewer.
      As for failing to produce guys for ministry jobs we need to accept our share of the blame. We sometimes haven’t pushed guys to consider it. We’ve perhaps taken our eye off the ball. We’ve perhaps neglected to give them good role models. And they need to take their share of teh blame. They may have been reluctant, worldly, anxious, distracted and so on. But let’s not lower the bar to get more in. The Bibel says we need guys who can teach with ability, model godliness of character and manage the household of God. So we need leaders who are godly and who can teach. If you know of any give them a nudge and we’ll give them an apprenticeship! That’s the context to work out whether they’re capable and whether they have the desire to serve the Lord in this way.
      It’s hard for me to comment on the C of E selection criteria. I did mine years ago. And as I remember godliness, teaching ability and leadership had very little to do with it. Perhaps that’s why I got through!

      • Phil June 15, 2011 / 9:50 pm

        Ok. I get the impression that declining churches can have very few people indeed, but I don’t really know.

        On the ministry thing, I wonder if our constituency is too picky. We focus overwhelmingly on preaching, but could someone be not great at preaching and still fulfil the Biblical criteria for leadership? Honest question.

        As for the question of hostile bishops – I wonder if the church hierarchy/bishops are as hostile as we like to think. In our diocese they have been, but are we letting our experience here colour our impression of the situation across the whole church? I am wholly ignorant of the situation – I would just rather be an optimist than a pessimist in my ignorance.

  6. Sarah H June 16, 2011 / 4:44 pm

    hmm…interesting debate…all i can say is that its great to know our Great God will build His Church, despite our strategy not because of it. As you pointed out Perks in a different post i think, our job is to preach the word and God will grow it. Sometimes through church planting sometimes through the good ole c of e. From experience i know that faithful preaching of the gospel does build churches which were seamingly dead, and we as members of churches should seek to not be consumers but as partners in the harvest field. No plant or graft or “good guy but dead church” will work if we go as consumers and fail to pray, or get to know those living around us because we have seen how precious Jesus is. Whoever goes into ministry needs to be expecting it to be hard labour but with great joys, and if a plant or resucitation doesnt take off, that may not be because we have failed but because God in His soveringty does not want it too and is using it to preach judgement to the people there and may be bring them to repentance, I’m sure that the OT sites examples of that. All that said, lets rejoice that its not about us or our strategy but about Him and the amazing thing that He allows us to be part of His plans of bringing salvation to our fallen hurting world so that they may hear and be saved.

    • theurbanpastor June 16, 2011 / 5:37 pm

      Sarah, thank you for your helpful reminder of God’s sovereignty in bringing people to faith in Christ and in growing churches. You’re absolutely right. And I stand with you in that. But I’m cautious about wholeheartedly subscribing to your ‘despite our strategy not because of it’ point of view. You could well be right but it seems to me to be too dismissive of the instrumentality of human decision making in the way God providentially overrules his creation. Is that fair? In other words, generally speaking, God does things through things! We, as prayers and planters, are the means that God uses to bring the gospel to people. Our confidence must never be in our strategy but in God. But we must be strategic and do what’s sensible. My point is simply God may well turn round a church through a man’s ministry. Brilliant! But is that the best use of a man’s ministry and the kind thing to do to a family. I’m not sure. I’d far rather give him 20 fresh faced keen beans in a new area and give them a keen slate. It’ll be hard, of course. The gifts that he’ll need to be a planter rather than a reformer are different. And I guesss, therefore that we need to find horses for courses and put our reforming men into churches that need reforming. But do we have that many? And will they get emplyed by the C of E. They might get in under the radar I suppose but I’m not holding my breath!

  7. Sarah H June 18, 2011 / 8:23 pm

    Yep I agree that we need to pray and plan and pray some more, but we too need to be careful not to depend to heavily on our stratagey and promoting certian ways as better after all His ways are higher than are ways. And while yes what a delight it would be to minister a church with 20 keen and excited likeminded members. Kind is not always best, (the current debate on assisted suicided is an example of that) You again earlier mentioned the depth of relationships that can be had amongst smaller churches and that is something not to be forgotten. And the ultimate kindness we can be shown is surely to grow in knowledge,faithfulness and love of our Saviour and Lord….through easy and hard situations, i think the bible would tend toward harder situations being the situations in which perseverance and hope are grown and developed. Anyway…i love discussing things with you Perks its sharpening! Looking forward to more discussions in 4 weeks and 6 days! Oh Help!

  8. Lauri Moyle June 20, 2011 / 11:25 am

    This is an interesting thread to read and I have not read it all, so forgive me if this is out of order. One thing that first struck me about your post Perks is that you seem to be talking about the necessity of categories of conflict, or rather streangth to push through reform. So you use the imagery of the prop forward and rhino. I think this might be one way of approuching reform, but I think its not the only way. I would say stamina and patience, just as kindness, goodness and self control are perhaps what a reformer need within the context of a gray CofE. I would also point out how much pop-sociology runs through the tread and while thats not a bad thing I am wandering what history and theology (and the bible) can teach us about this? I mean the OT was mentioned… which is an excelent start. What can looking at the reformers teach us? How does power relate to the question of authority? Who would you follow in the Diocese of London, and why might you not follow them and what does that say about how you model authority to those who are supposed to follow you? Honest questions.

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