Church Planting: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose?

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Tim Thorlby, Development Director at the Centre for Theology & Community and author of 'Love, Sweat and Tears: Church planting in east London', addresses the impact of church planting on neighbouring parishes

One of the most common responses to an announcement about a new church plant is anxiety amongst other church leaders in that area. In particular, there is often a fear that the new church plant will have a negative impact on existing congregations nearby. Church leaders may be left wondering if, after many years of hard graft, their hard-won flocks are going to be tempted away to the exciting new venture around the corner.

Such fears of ‘losing out’ to church plants can lead to indifference, or even animosity, towards the incoming church leaders. The fear is often grounded in the assumption that if a new church is doing well, then others must be losing out – that there is a zero-sum game being played where every winner implies a loser somewhere else.

So, as church planting gathers momentum in London, what evidence is there about the impact of church plants on neighbouring congregations?

Some new pieces of research shed light on this.

The Church Commissioners and Archbishops’ Council have recently analysed church attendance data across the Diocese of London to explore this very question.[1] They studied all known church plants in the Diocese of London between 2004 and 2011, identifying 27 in all. For each plant, they analysed church attendance data for the church plant, for all of the surrounding parishes and for the Diocese as a whole, as a benchmark. They compared ‘before and after’ attendance figures in all cases.

The research showed two things very clearly:

  • The 27 church plants demonstrated significant numerical growth
  • There was no discernible negative impact from the new church plants on the parishes surrounding them in the years immediately following the plant

In-depth research conducted by the Centre for Theology & Community in 2015 on five church plants in east London came to the same conclusion,[2] this time by actually interviewing a selection of clergy from neighbouring parishes and also by surveying the congregations of each new plant and asking members where they came from. Our research drew the same conclusion – there was no significant transfer of church members from neighbouring parishes to the new plants.

 

 

 

 

[1] Resource Strategy & Development Unit (2016) Church Planting in London: An initial survey of data, Church Commissioners and Archbishops’ Council

[2] Tim Thorlby (2016) Love, Sweat and Tears: church planting in east London, Centre for Theology & Community [Available online at: http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ChurchPlanting_Final_online.pdf]

This rather begs the question of who are all of the people attending the new church plants actually are?  There are three answers:

  • Sending churches – we know that many church plants do indeed begin life by bringing in a team of Christians from other churches. The crucial difference here is that these Christians transfer with the blessing and consent of the ‘sending’ church. They are sent, not ‘stolen’.
  • New arrivals – most church congregations in London are in perpetual motion with people coming and going, moving house, changing circumstances, etc. Some of the larger church plants also do well in attracting Christians who move to, or across, London each year. In these cases, evidence suggests that they are more likely to be competing with the larger city-centre churches, not local ones.
  • Conversions – it is a mistake to assume that church planting is a zero sum game; it is not. Across London people are returning to church after several years away or attending for the first time as the result of outreach. Our research in east London identified church plants with up to 25% of their congregations being previously from no other church at all – the most common reason for attending being that ‘someone invited me’. Forthcoming research on a recent growing church plant in Tottenham Hale shows a ‘new member’ rate of nearly 50%.

So, for clergy concerned about the size of their congregations, church plants should not be a significant worry.

A much more influential factor on the size of a congregation is the approach which the church itself takes to growth. Our newest research report highlights an unsurprising correlation between the growth of churches and the intentionality of their leaders.[3] Putting it simply – ‘growth is an attitude’.

So a much more important question for every church to be asking is really whether it is adding new Christians to its number each year. This is a core question for every church, whether a new plant or an established parish church. Adding new members is the only long-term strategy for church growth which will work and is something all churches are called to do.

And what makes churches grow?

“Someone invited me.”

 

[3] Green, B, Ritchie, A, & Thorlby T (2016) Church Growth in east London: a grassroots view, Centre for Theology & Community [Available online at: http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Church-Growth-digital.pdf]