Over the years, I have been responsible for working with congregations in serious decline or facing closure. Sometimes I have exercised that role as a consultant and sometimes as someone with denominational responsibilities. In either case, two themes were always present.
First, for the congregation the cry was often, “we have tried everything to generate growth, but nothing has worked” and from the consultant, “you have left it rather late to ask for help”.
In nearly every case an intervention had been possible at an earlier stage, but no-one noticed that something was going wrong until it was (almost) too late.
I have yet to find a congregation where an intervention would not produce some fruit.
That intervention is always about resource – people and finance – and of course the two are usually connected. Mission is often about a partnership between those who come from outside of the situation and those who are on the inside. We could say, sensitive foreigners partnering with intelligent natives. However, the longer the problem has not been faced the tougher it can be to put a congregation back on track.
As denominations continue to put church planting, re-planting and revitalisation back on their agendas (in all of their various forms), Engage West Midlands caught up with Dr John Turner - Director of New Christian Communities ‘Church of England’ Birmingham.
As they strategise across the six Deaneries in the Birmingham area, they are looking to draw on successful ‘interventions’ from across the country.
John highlighted several threads that appear to help the planting to thrive.
Some of the best results come from a leader with a small team tasked with bringing renewal… often both being sourced or identified by a sending church.
Related to the above, the new team having the freedom to express ministry as they feel appropriate – this can be tense sometimes if there is a remnant congregation and it’s something of a merger. It often works best when the venues they renew are simply ‘handed over’.
I know this isn’t possible for every case, but a budget to bring capacity is helpful – capacity in terms of staffing being the most important aspect, often the church plants are budgeted to include stipend for a leader, salary for an ops manager and also for a children’s/family worker (often these other roles are part time).
We try not to focus money on building repair too much, but that is sometimes necessary, but some effort and funding is perhaps directed toward the development of a community hub – so for example, putting into projects like a coffee shop of some sort with a children’s soft play tend to work well.
Not all projects are run by ordained clergy due to sustainability costs – some of the projects are now lay leader led but incorporate similar principles of a small team being tasked with starting something new.
Good preparation is key – often this involves researching the areas and doing ecumenical investigation to find out the best places to plant. For the CofE we use population statistics and look at population density to number of CofE attendance per capita. But other stats work well, such as deprivation indices. We want to focus on reaching particular areas that seem to have sparse Christian presence, although we tend to stick away from majority other faith areas as that is more specialist… often we have historic assets in place already (e.g. old church buildings from the parish system that can be reutilised rather than being sold).
Another help has been when larger churches have offered support to the project – e.g. a leader has often attended the sending church for a season and given exposure over time to help build up a small sending team – often these starting as small groups. The sending church gives an offering etc.
The following interventions have seen significant increases in numbers returning to church.
Woven Church - https://wearewoven.church/
Seven churches that have banded together to reach difficult areas around Nottingham.
Antioch Network - https://www.antiochnetwork.org.uk/
CofE missional initiative around Manchester area focusing on estates.
St Peter’s Brighton - https://stpetersbrighton.org/
CofE HTB Plant which has gone on to plant various other churches around the South Coast.
Preston Minster - https://www.prestonminster.org/
Interesting city centre revitalisation – but this has a twist. It was in the Anglo Catholic tradition – comprising two churches in a parish. However, the main church got revitalised HTB charismatic style - but they still work in partnership with the other church which maintains its Anglo Catholic tradition.
Gas Street, Birmingham - https://gasstreet.church/
Has increased Deanery attendance by 10% since its foundation a few years ago – it has also revitalised the local parish centre of St Luke’s as well as developing a campus model of mission going forward – there are plans for Gas Street South (a new worshipping community in the Shirley area), plus they have started four or five other church plants including… St Mark’s Coventry, Anchor Church (Birmingham), a Church in the Netherlands and are currently revitalising Christchurch Somerfield and they have revitalised St Mary’s Pype-Hayes.
Harbour Church, Portsmouth – https://harbourchurchuk.org/
They have now planted multiple times in Portsmouth.
St Werburgh, Derby - https://stwderby.org/
Planted once in Derby, another curate will be planting elsewhere in Derby in later this year.
Trinity Church, Nottingham - https://trinitychurchnottingham.org/
No plants yet, but the church itself has grown massively.
St John’s, Crawley - https://stjohnscrawley.com/
They have a very comprehensive planting strategy in a reasonably small urban area (100k?) – this will be a complete turnaround of CofE attendance in Crawley if they pull it off (and they are on track to do so).