Following positive and negative personal experiences of church plants Julian Mann investigates this controversial issue, and finds that the criticisms levelled at church planters contain lessons for all of us
Into the calm convoy of our apparent conservative evangelical consensus on church planting has come the Benton broadside. Dr John Benton, editor of Evangelicals Now, published his ‘Against Church Plants’ editorial in November 2007:
‘New groups come to an area where there already exists a gospel church in decline. Often no attempt is made to get alongside that struggling church and help that witness. The new group simply ignores them, with the rationale that it is easier to start something fresh and new than to try to restore, repair and rebuild what is old and perhaps set in its ways’
He acknowledged that small churches can be resistant to change: ‘But there is a case to be made that reviving small churches ought to be our priority and that church planting in such circumstances ought to be a last resort.’
Later on came his most devastating Exocet: ‘When we church plant while ignoring an existing small church, the message being given is not that Christ is the answer, but that our particular brand of church is the answer. This smacks more of our own empire-building than God’s kingdom’
(see the full editorial at www.e-n.org.uk4014-The-Commen-tary.htm).
As the vicar of a small parish church in South Yorkshire, my own experience of church plants has been both positive and negative.
We have benefited from the ministry of Christ Church Durham, a fresh expression of church, meeting in a community college (see www.christchurchdurham.org). A young woman, whose parents live in our village, came to Christian faith at Durham University and has been nurtured by Christ Church. She joined us one Sunday during a university vacation and has provided real encouragement, helping with children’s parties during the holidays and faithfully praying for us. By God’s grace, she is a credit to Christ Church Durham.
Our experience of a church plant locally has not been so positive. I invited its minister in 2005 to bring a team to a parish mission. Following this, they started meeting with a lady from our parish working in the city (who had initially contacted them wanting to get in touch with the diocesan missioner). They invited her to a baptism service at their church. Mercifully, she did not transfer, but it was a near miss.
I wanted to explore some of the issues raised by John Benton and my own experience with a church planter out in the field. The Revd Mike Cain is minister of Emmanuel Bristol (see www.emmanuelbristol.org.uk), a church plant from Christ Church Clifton in March 2007. Under its evangelical bishop, Mike Hill, a culture has developed in Bristol Diocese that wants to encourage fresh expressions (see its Church Planting Policy at www.bristol.anglican.org/resources).
Mike Cain is licensed as curate of Christ Church Clifton with special responsibility for the Emmanuel mission initiative, which meets in a school in the parish of Holy Trinity, Wesfbury-on-Trym. His licence has just been renewed.
A planter’s response
Holy Trinity is supportive of Emmanuel, which it sees as having a special brief to reach the unchurched. Vicar Andre Hart says: ‘They are a fresh expression in existence under the auspices of the PCC here at Holy Trinity. We have regular reports from them. I meet regularly with Mike Cain to look at prayer needs. It’s on a one-year experiment and the PCC will appraise it as to how it’s working for the kingdom of God.’
What does Mr Cain think of John Ben-ton’s view that reviving small churches should be the priority and church planting a last resort? ‘The question we should be all asking ourselves is how we can grow the kingdom of God. In certain circumstances that means getting alongside an existing church and providing it with the resources that will help it to grow. But in other circumstances, particularly in cities such as Bristol, it means planting new churches.
‘Established churches that have got small do need to ask themselves the question: ‘Why are we small?’ Is it just that they are under-resourced or is there something toxic deep-rooted in the culture? The fact is that even if every established church building in Bristol were bursting at the seams there would still be many people to reach for Christ, so new churches are needed.’
Dangers to be avoided
During the Mission-Shaped Church debate at General Synod in 2004, the Archdeacon of Sheffield, Richard Blackburn, warned of unaccountable, even bullying, leadership in some church plants. Mike Cain: ‘That is a danger for all of us who are in leadership. We can be shaped by the world’s view of leadership as a power thing. Unaccountable, bullying leadership exists in church plants and it exists in established churches. What I would say to the ecclesiastical establishment is that if you get a leader with a vision for doing something new and you thwart him, then that can exacerbate the problem of his hot-headedness. So why not back him and make sure you build in structures of accountability?’
What about the charge of empire-building by church planters? Mike Cain: ‘It is a danger to which we are all prone. Those who plant are susceptible to it as well as those in established churches who say, ‘Not in my backyard.’ One of the great things about being in a new church is that it is easier to change things when we get it wrong. For example, we started off having discussions around tables in our meetings. But we soon realized that was intimidating to newcomers, so we stopped doing it. It was seen as acceptable to make the change for the sake of growing the kingdom of God. Being part of a new church thus helps to keep you flexible and reviewing the way you do things, so that you keep your focus on building the kingdom of God, rather than enlarging your own empire and its culture and customs.’
Godly servant-hearted church planters like Mike Cain are a great credit to Christ’s mission. But my exploratory journey into church planting has left me with a sense that empire-building is a more common sin in ministry than I had previously thought. Parish plodder though I am, I would be unwise to think I am immune.