Is church planting normal for Anglicans? Is it worth the trouble? And how can we make a decent fist of it for the sake of churchplanters, their teams and the cause of the gospel? Andrew Katay gives answers.
Andrew Katay is CEO of City to City Australia and Rector of Christ Church Inner West Anglican Community in Sydney. He presented this paper at the 2015 Anglican Futures Conference in Melbourne.
When you hear the words ‘church planting’, I wonder if your gut response varies somewhere between skinny jeans and chai lattes on the one hand, or penicillin and a cure for cancer on the other. Is church planting just a phase that we’re going through, like the other phases that come and go periodically in church life? Or is it the answer to everything, the solution to all problems and the only gateway to a glorious future?
Actually it's neither. It’s not a mere trend or fad, for the obvious reason that ‘one-another life’, and therefore church, is central to the purposes of God for his people. And every church that exists had a beginning, which if you like agricultural metaphors, you could call church planting. At the same time, church planting comes in many forms, from independent churches to congregation plants and everything in between, green fields as well as brown fields, and has many specific risks as well as advantages, and is only a part of what God is doing in and through his people.
I want to unpack the challenge of church planting in an Anglican context under three headings - its normality, its net results and how to nurture it.
The normality of Anglican church planting
The first thing is to normalize it. Church planting is built into the fabric of Anglican missiology. The geographic nature of our understanding of mission —also known as the parish system–commits us to church planting. It comes out of a Biblical conviction that because all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, so he sends us to all nations, all peoples, in the hard to reach areas as well as the easy ones, in the Bible boot-sole suburbs, as well as the Bible Belt-buckle suburbs, in poor or migrant majority suburbs as well as lily white Anglo suburbs, and to make disciples of all of them.
So we divide the world up into dioceses, and appoint a mission director for all of those dioceses, also called a bishop, an overseer of the mission in that diocese, and then those bishops get some help, and start carving up their dioceses into parishes and appointing vicars or rectors. And they get about the business of making disciples, baptizing converts and gathering them to be taught everything by Jesus, and that means planting churches. And if you know your diocesan histories well you’ll know that many of the great episcopal leaders have been ferocious church planters. For example, in Melbourne, Charles Perry oversaw the building of 162 churches in 20 years between 1850 and 1870, on average 8 per year!
Sometimes the notion of church planting evokes in us fear and turf protection, and the parish system is seen as the enemy of church planting. It's actually the opposite, and planting is part of our DNA. Missionally, we are a church planting denomination, we've been doing it for centuries, and there's no reason to think that because we have 1 church for every 10-20,000 people, we've somehow reached a terminus. Which leads to a second point - what is the net result of the recent church planting movement?
The net results of church planting
The anecdotes are mixed. Some report that church plants are simply sheep swapping, or worse, sheep stealing, mostly illegitimate transfer growth.
However, while the anecdotes are mixed, the research is in. The 2011 NCLS results compared church plants with existing churches, and whether they differed in terms of health and vitality. And the unequivocal answer is yes. On every core quality used in the NCLS, church plants were statistically significantly ahead of existing churches, and especially on what NCLS Director Ruth Powell calls the heavy hitters - in shared vision, empowering leadership and faith sharing, which drive the other qualities - church plants were way ahead of existing churches. And so perhaps unsurprisingly, church plants have twice as many of their members (17% as compared with 8%) who were previously either unchurched or dechurched for at least 5 years. In other words, if reaching new people with the gospel of Jesus Christ is your interest, and seeing them report much growth in faith, then you’ll be in to church planting.
But the anecdotes also reflect real experience, and so it leads to a third point, how do we nurture fruitful church planting rather than just sheep stealing church planting?
How to nurture church planting
Perhaps it was good enough for the British Empire to send young men to an Oxbridge education, give them a couple of years in the public service, and then pack them off to run the Empire, but that’s a disaster for church planting. To nurture fruitful church planting requires a well designed and executed church planting pipeline and context. Such a pipeline includes proper assessment, task specific training, ministry coaching, and adequate funding. This is absolutely worth Diocesan investment. In fact it may do more harm than good to go off half baked.
The reason is that the people who are most damaged by failed church plants are not typically the planters. They bounce back, move onto the next ministry opportunity, and carry on. No, the people who feel it most are the lay people who prayed their hearts out, invested massively in time, energy and money, dared to hope and dream and are often enough left confused and bereft, and even drift away disillusioned. In other words, it’s worth it to make sure that church plants have the very best opportunity to take root, thrive and bear much fruit for the Lord’s glory.
Let me suggest three points of application for an Anglican church planting future. First, embrace the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats. Welcome church plants in your area, whether they are new independent churches, or another denomination, or even slightly rogue Anglican. Or at least, if you don't welcome, search your heart and make sure that it’s not just turf protection. One of the things that first attracted me to the ministry of Tim Keller, was hearing first hand about Redeemer Presbyterian church pouring tens of thousands of dollars in to an episcopal church plant. Why? He recognised that you need more than one church, and one kind of church, to reach an area.
Second, there are substantial things to learn from the church planting movement. In particular, the need for Biblically rich, missiologically insightful contextualisation. Church plants typically take very seriously the whole range of decisions they make about service style, power sharing in the congregation, community connectedness, and especially the way they speak the gospel to people, not what their itching ears want to hear, but rather, as Tim Keller defines it, "the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and thought forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them”. It's no accident that twice as many of their number are previously unchurched or dechurched people—exactly who we were sent to reach.
Third, embrace the possibility of church planting in a classic Anglican form, mother-daughter and congregational planting. I believe this kind of church planting has some real advantages, in terms of sustainability, a support scaffold, and missional flexibility. And it’s here that episcopal governance can be a real advantage to help ensure that it happens in a co-ordinated rather than a chaotic fashion. If even only a quarter of Anglican churches took up the challenge of congregational planting, with genuine kingdom minded backing, and within a thought through and resourced planting pipeline, we could see God do powerful things.