Exploring new ways of doing church will help us reach the unreached with the unchanging message of the Gospel
When a church is growing and starting to spread the Gospel further in its surrounding communities and networks, one thing is quickly apparent: some people will never come to your church. They cannot relate to the building and they cannot relate to what happens within it. It’s just not their thing. The question must follow: “what is their thing?”
One reason that people might not come to you is simply a matter of geography. Your church might be too far away. An Anglican parish might have a thriving church of 200- 300 people at one end of the parish, which is still only 1% of the population of a typical parish of 20,000. Another reason people might not be coming to you is because of their particular demographic, or network. While many younger people love to connect with older people, there is often a vast difference in taste between age groups.
Church planting comes out of the recognition that you are not going to reach all people with what you are doing. In order to reach new people, you need to do new things in new places.
Over the years in the London Diocese, we have seen church planting happen in a number of ways. To communicate this growing variety of expressions, we have begun to talk about church planting models. These models have a common feature, which is that they seek to reach new people, in new places, in new ways.
‘Planting new churches’ is not confined to new church buildings, although this is one way of doing it (particularly in areas around the country that are undergoing enormous redevelopment). Planting is re-opening churches that have been closed in the past, restarting or refocussing the life of worship in that place.
Where churches are on the brink of being closed because of dwindling numbers, a church plant might take the form of a graft, where a team from a larger church family joins the existing worshipping community to reinvigorate the worship and ministry there.
A church plant might mean starting a new congregation, designed to reach a particular group of people, at another time in the week, in an area where a church already exists. Perhaps this is a weekday service for city workers, a service specifically for students, or a foreign language-speaking congregation.
These four types of plants exist within the parish system. In cities like London, where commuters have looser geographical ties, there are growing numbers of network churches (so called because of their location near busy transport links) like Holy Trinity Brompton, King’s Cross Church (KXC), and St Helen’s Bishopsgate.
People are planting churches in increasingly creative ways: into schools, onto estates, into cafes and bars and other third spaces (if church buildings are ‘first spaces’ and homes are ‘second spaces’, then ‘third spaces’ are other places where people might gather).
Missional Communities are smaller groups dedicated to reaching a place or people group, often through incarnational living (on estates, for example). Rather than attractional growth, these communities will grow relationally, one by one, gathering around common interests or locations rather than events.
Though we may seek to define these terms to understand the way things are, it’s important to keep our eyes fixed on the Kingdom that is in the process of coming. Models, at their best, are malleable structures that respond to the Holy Spirit’s leading, as the Kingdom expands outwards to reach the unreached with the Gospel.