Are church plants simply attracting transfers from other churches? Or is the Church reaching beyond its borders? Tom Conway, Strategy Analyst for the National Church Institutions, spoke to us about the recent data from our Church Planting Conference 2018, which suggests nearly half of church plants are made up of unchurched or dechurched people.
At the Centre for Church Planting and Growth’s 2018 Church Planting Conference, we asked each church planter to complete a survey on their experience of leading a church planting. Tom Conway, Strategy Analyst for the National Church Institutions, helped to analyse the data. To see the results of the Church Planting Conference 2018 survey in full, click here.
What was the motivation behind surveying church planters at the conference?
There is anecdotal evidence that church plants are better at attracting unchurched (those who do not attend church regularly) or dechurched people (those who used to attend church but have since stopped) than established churches. The Church Planting Conference gave us a great opportunity to explore this, so we asked those attending to complete a survey on different aspects of their ministry and experience as church planters. Gathering data on size, demographic, style of churchmanship and spiritual formation of congregations, the survey allowed us to learn more about current church planting trends.
What trends could you spot from this data?
One of the key statistics from the conference is that church plant leaders say 47% of chairs in their represented church plants are filled by people who weren’t in a church before. This is a hugely encouraging statistic. It helps to debunk the myth that church planting is merely about shuffling existing Christians around different churches, which can be a worry for local churches when a new worshipping community emerges in their area. Around 1500 unchurched or dechurched people are now attending church as a result of these 28 church plants. Growth in church planting is not just transference from other churches – these new worshipping communities are reaching new people.
Is this statistic a realistic reflection of what is happening in church plants across the country?
As with all statistics, this data comes with certain caveats. It represents the experiences of 28 church plants, which is a small number compared to the amount of church plants in England. The church leaders and teams who attended this conference are probably those excited by church planting, and perhaps other church plants have had a different experience. The data also represents the leaders’ opinions of what is happening in their churches and the question of whether someone is unchurched or dechurched is not always straightforward – different traditions might measure faith in different ways, and the experience of becoming a Christian is a deeply personal and unique journey. At some level, we are trying to measure the unmeasurable.
However, our finding from the conference agrees with other data gathered. In November 2016, the Church Army published a report called ‘The Day of Small Things’, which analysed four years of data on fresh expressions of Church (including church plants) in the Church of England.
Drawing from church leaders’ evidence, the report suggested that fresh expressions of Church are made up of 40% Christians, 27% dechurched and 33% unchurched people. When church attendees were directly asked about their background, the numbers dropped to 20% dechurched and 21% unchurched, yet the report still concluded that “significant numbers of de-churched and non-churched people have started attending a fresh expression of Church.”
Our data from the leaders at the Church Planting Conference shows that their 28 church plants are made up of 22% unchurched and 25% dechurched people (47% in total), which is in keeping with the Church Army’s research. These trends are hugely interesting and we are seeking to continue our research to gain more evidence on the impact of church planting. It is possible that these figures are an overestimate, but the data still suggests that there is a significant proportion of unchurched or dechurched people in church plants, reflecting the key role that new worshipping communities play in mission. Church planting is often hard work, and we need to be honest about this, but it does make a difference.
What other trends did you notice from the data?
It is encouraging to see the variety of church plants represented at the conference and their different demographics. These plants are reaching a huge range of society, from areas of high deprivation to more affluent parts of the country, and represent a diversity of churchmanship, from traditional and liberal catholic churches to charismatic and reformed evangelical plants. It was also exciting to see that small churches have sent church plants, showing that you don’t need to become a large church before you think about planting. The average sending church size was 180, and one church had only 15 members before it planted. If a church of 15 can send a plant, then you can think about sending a plant too!
Why is data important for churches?
Data is a great way of understanding your context, helping to uncover the needs of your local area and how these might match with the passions of your church. It aims to be more neutral, meaning that you can get a wider perspective on what’s happening in your church or area, compared to simply talking to people. It reveals things that people aren’t happy to discuss face to face, or includes people that don’t fall naturally into our networks. Data is also helpful as a confirmation or corrective on the direction that your church is taking – it can show areas to focus on or whether you’re on track with your vision. A simple question like “Would you invite a friend to this church?” is an easy way to evaluate the engagement of your congregation.
It’s interesting to think whether data can be predictive – is there a way of working out if a member on your congregation is likely to stop attending church? It’s important that data isn’t elevated above experience – statistics shouldn’t be given a special status simply because they have a number attached! However, data analysis is a key way to improve our understanding, reflect on the present and enhance our decision making for the future.
Interview by Philippa Guy