Have reports of the Church of England’s imminent death been greatly exaggerated? Sam Hailes investigates the successes of church plants in urban areas
The belief that secularism is growing and Christianity is on the decline is widespread, with recent statistics apparently confirming this view. In May, the results of the British Social Attitudes survey showed that the number of people with no religion now outweighs the number of people who identify as Christians (See news, p11).
In a recent interview on GodPod – a podcast from St Paul’s Theological Centre – the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, recalled how this pessimistic outlook was widespread within the Church when he was consecrated over two decades ago.
‘Things were particularly bad,’ he remembers. ‘Everybody reconciled themselves to the fact we would have to retreat from the high street locations, we would have to economise on our hugely expensive buildings. The mindset was a dignified retrenchment.
‘The first week I was bishop, a very sensible and senior archdeacon came to see me and said Holy Trinity Sloane Street had to be closed – it was in impermeable territory and the vicar was very depressed. But it seemed to me this extraordinary church was in a prime location – if you couldn’t make that work, you might as well pack up! So I said no.’
Horror ensued in the diocese as the bishop was accused of being a ‘romantic who doesn’t seem to be able to take hard management decisions’. But adamant that ‘defeatism ensures defeat’, Bishop Chartres repeatedly refused to close struggling churches. Today there are signs that his faith- fuelled optimism is paying off. Weekly participation in Christian services in London grew by 16% between 2005–12. It’s a statistic that bucks the national trend. While churches in rural areas often struggle, urban centres are seeing more success.
Much has been written about how the explosion of movements such as Hillsong and the rise of London’s black majority churches have contributed to Church growth in London. But the Church of England has a story to tell as well. In November 2015, Ric Thorpe was appointed as the first ever ‘bishop for church plants’ and tasked with establishing 100 new worshipping communities in the capital by 2020. Bishop Ric says he’ll do this through a variety of methods – many of which are now tried, tested and proven to be working. Café churches, network churches, new congregations within existing churches and missional communities will all be deployed as a way of reaching the 91% of Londoners who don’t go to church. He also wants to plant more churches on housing estates. ‘Very few people on housing estates go to an Anglican church. Let’s go to them rather than expecting them to come to us,’ he says.
Reaching people on council estates is something that 37-year-old vicar Cris Rogers is now well experienced at doing. Speaking of the moment that he and his wife, Beki, felt called to move out of their affluent west London suburb, Cris says, ‘Every time we read the Bible it seemed like Jesus was going to the group no one else would go to. I had a meeting with the Bishop of London and I just said, “Bishop, send us to the part of London where you can’t get any young evangelicals to go to and show us a church you’re going to close. We’d love to go and see what we could do.”’
In 2010, the couple moved onto the Lincoln Estate in Tower Hamlets (one of the most deprived areas in London) with the aim of growing a congregation of seven people who were then meeting at All Hallows Bow.
‘When we got here, we found the house was being used by five lads who were renting it from the diocese. They ran a soft-core porn business from the rectory and were growing marijuana in the garden. What is now Beki and my bedroom was their recording suite for many of their porn movies. The church had hit rock bottom.’
Upon arriving at All Hallows, Cris was determined to make changes, but he was also mindful of how those changes would be viewed by the existing congregation.
‘We were very open with them when we arrived. We said, “We’re last-chance saloon. All Hallows is closing. Everyone around here is doing liberal Anglo-Catholic. Can we do something different?”
‘Our posture to them was “We love you and we want to love your church as much as you love your church”. I would now describe the original members as our biggest friends. Change isn’t necessarily a problem if you navigate it well with people.’
Cris says that from an Anglican perspective, the changes weren’t major. There was still liturgy, Communion and organ-led worship. But the ‘bells, smells and robes’ were soon to disappear. And in their place would soon come a cigarette break. ‘For me it was pragmatic,’ Cris explains. ‘If you have a time of worship and notices, then by the time you get halfway through the talk, people walk out and don’t come back in because they’re having a cigarette outside. So we thought, why not put a cigarette break in before the talk? I didn’t think it was particularly interesting until The Times newspaper rang up and said, “We’ve heard you grew your church by putting in a cigarette break!”’
Cris adopts a similar attitude when explaining why the church serves halal food at its summer parties. ‘I didn’t think that was particularly missional. I just felt it was good hospitality. You don’t invite a vegetarian round then force-feed them meat. Just give them food they appreciate!’
Another more intentional distinctive of the church is its focus on community.
‘Every church says “We’re a welcoming church”. But there’s actual depth to our community life that I think is unique. Beki and I and our two kids live in community – there can be up to nine of us living in the house.
‘We talk all the time about being family. Wherever we can use the word “family” rather than “church”, we will.’ The congregation has grown from seven to 160 people and All Hallows is no longer a church plant but a church that plants (plans are underway to establish another church in Canning Town).
What should be made of the fact that so many thriving Anglican church plants in London are, like All Hallows Bow, evangelical in their focus? Cris is reluctant to answer, perhaps not wanting to be seen as criticising the many other theological outlooks contained within Anglicanism. But he does admit that what he calls the ‘evangelical desire for conversion’ is spearheading a lot of planting. ‘And the truth is, when you follow back the dynamite that’s behind all of this church planting, you’ll find yourself back at HTB.’
The HTB effect
Holy Trinity Brompton is well known as being the home of the Alpha course. In recent years the church’s vicar, Nicky Gumbel, has worked in partnership with the Diocese of London to reopen closed churches and help fund new plants.
Speaking of HTB’s involvement, Cris explains, ‘HTB planted St Paul’s Shadwell 12 years ago. St Paul’s Shadwell partnered with us to plant by supporting us financially. So we’re essentially a granddaughter church of HTB, even though I’ve never been to HTB. We love Nicky and those guys but as a church we look nothing like HTB.’
Cris’ congregation is in a neighbourhood that’s 65% Bengali Muslim. It’s a world away from Kensington and Chelsea where HTB is based, but Nicky Gumbel has long maintained his vision is not to franchise. HTB don’t want to spread their style or expression of church. ‘It’s very much a partnership,’ Nicky told Premier Christianity last year. ‘If we can work together in unity, there is such a potential to see the evangelisation of the nation.’
Our agenda is to see kingdom transformation across London
Earlier this year, a report by the Centre for Theology and Community looked at All Hallows Bow and four other congregations in Tower Hamlets that have all been supported by the HTB network over the past five years. The results, published in Love, Sweat & Tears: Church Planting in east London, showed that all of the church plants had been successful and overall Sunday attendance had grown tenfold over a decade.
A common criticism of church plants is that they can become an exercise in rearranging the deckchairs, with Christians leaving their existing congregations and moving to a new church plant. The report suggested that around 80% of congregants in the five east London churches had moved from other churches. However, this was seen in a positive light because Christians had stopped commuting from east London to big city-centre churches and instead had chosen to serve the church plants in their local community. Given that 20% of congregants in the east London churches were recent converts to Christianity or had come back to faith, it’s clear that church planting can and does lead to people accepting Christ for the first time.
There’s no doubt that, in the words of Ric Thorpe, HTB has had ‘huge influence and impact’ on London. But in recent years they’ve also helped revitalise churches in other urban centres, most notably in Brighton, Bournemouth and Birmingham.
‘Empty church buildings are like an empty palace of a long-forgotten king – people walk past and think that the king is dead’ is an oft-repeated phrase among HTB leaders.
By sending new teams to reopen old churches, they want to announce to local communities that the King is alive. As Bishop Ric comments, ‘It would be silly not to redevelop existing church buildings – they’re an iconic feature on the landscape.’ He also points out that property in urban areas comes at a premium, so it’s often more cost-effective to redevelop existing buildings rather than create new ones.
In 2009, a team of 30 from HTB moved to Brighton and reopened the previously redundant Grade II* listed St Peter’s Church (unofficially termed ‘Brighton’s cathedral’ due to its size and city-centre location). Seven years ago, there were no services and no congregants. Today 1,000 people attend across four services.
Similarly good news has come from a Birmingham church plant, led by Tim and Rachel Hughes, which was launched in April 2015. The couple needed to raise £1.2m to renovate an old warehouse that the Diocese of Birmingham had purchased on Gas Street. It was a daunting prospect for Tim, who admits he’s far more comfortable leading worship than he is fundraising.
‘There was one particular moment when I was in the kitchen with Rach and I was saying, “This is too much. I don’t think we’re up to this.” As I’m grumbling and moaning, my phone goes and it’s this guy saying, “Tim, we want to give you £25,000 towards the building.” That was unbelievable! Obviously the money was fantastic, but more than anything, it was the timing. It was God saying, “I’ve got this. Trust me.”’
Our biggest problem is that Church is seen as something for posh people
The target was reached and the first phase of the renovation completed. Four hundred and fifty people went to St Luke’s Gas Street’s opening night in February this year.
Speaking about his past year as a church planter, Tim says, ‘You’re constantly on the edge in terms of levels of faith, feeling out of your depth and at the limit of your capacity. We’ve had to learn new levels of trusting in God.’
Tim and Rachel aren’t the only members of the Hughes family who are planting churches. In 2010, his younger brother, Pete, took a team of 40 to start KXC in King’s Cross, London. Today there are two services which regularly attract around 500 people. But Pete’s focus isn’t on the numbers.
‘We have a very strong vision that we don’t have a church growth agenda,’ he says. ‘Our agenda is to see kingdom transformation across London. One of the things we talk a lot about is being agents of renewal within our different spheres of industry. What does it look like to be a Christian who is trying to reimagine what politics looks like and how to govern diligently? What about education and banking? We’re trying to help people think about how they can bring the city to life and be agents of renewal to the culture.’
A different class?
One of the most striking findings in the Love, Sweat & Tears report was that church growth and social action are not only compatible but ‘may reinforce each other’. Churches in urban areas have ample opportunity to reach out through homeless shelters and foodbanks. It’s something that churches of all denominations have been investing in, but Mez McConnell, senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland and author of Church in Hard Places (Crossway Books, 2016) has questions about the results of such ministries.
‘Social justice and mercy ministries are big on the evangelical landscape. Lots of it is well intentioned. But where are the indigenous leaders? They’re nowhere.
‘You show me leadership that’s culturally across the board in most UK evangelical churches. You don’t find too many guys who got saved in the local soup kitchen, have been discipled and are now elders, pastors or leaders. There’s a massive discipleship gap that they seem to slip through. 40% of our country lives in council estates. I bet there’s not a couple of hundred Christian leaders [from that background]. ’
Mez is also concerned that the vast majority of church planting is happening in more middle-class areas. ‘In the UK, evangelical Christianity has shrunk in a cultural milieu of middle class tertiary-educated people. Therefore most material being publicised and most efforts being realised are within that subgroup.’
Mez’s comments are directed to the Church as a whole – he isn’t singling out Anglicanism for criticism. He’s also keen to state he’s not against social action: ‘I want mercy ministry to occur in our churches. I just want it to be better’. Nevertheless, his point – that the evangelical Church is dominated by the middle classes – will resonate with many.
Church planting in Bournemouth
Tim and Debi Matthews left HTB to plant into St Swithuns Bournemouth in September 2014. Debi shares her story
HTB is known as a church involved in church planting, so we went there with the understanding that we’d be willing to look to church plant if something came up. We learned a lot from Nicky Gumbel – he’s so positive about working with other churches, both inside the Church of England and outside. He always tries to look at what we have in common rather than what divides us, and then builds on that.
When our team of 11 adults, three children and one baby arrived at St Swithuns, the church building was completely empty. Today, we get around 500 through the door on a Sunday across three services.
The first thing people see when they walk into our church is the word ‘love’ spelt out in big lights (see photo on p33). That’s what we want people to experience as they walk through the doors. We can’t make people see God, but we want them to experience being loved and welcomed for who they are, and we pray they meet Jesus where they’re at.
It hasn’t been particularly easy. There are various challenges, but we believe this is what God wants us to do. The spirit is moving, people’s lives are being transformed. We’ve seen healings and people being released from addictions. Yes, there are hard things in the logistics of running a church, but when you see those lives changed, you forget the hard bits!
St Swithun’s was once an empty building and now it’s not. We pray for that to happen in many more places.
Mez himself spent six years living on the streets. He’s passionate about reaching not only the working class, but the ‘benefit class’ and ‘under class’. He says that if churches want to plant in so-called ‘hard places’, they’ll also need to change the way they think about apologetics. ‘The media and Christianity is culturally almost exclusively middle class educated. Their worldview would be extremely unsympathetic to spiritual things and they’d be more atheistic. But in council estates we are more likely to have a supernaturalistic worldview. So our apologetic here isn’t answering the question, “Does God exist?” That apologetic approach to Christianity is almost irrelevant here. Our biggest problem is that the Church is viewed as something for posh people.’
Signs of life
Despite the criticisms, there’s widespread agreement that when it comes to church planting in urban areas, the Church of England is experiencing considerable growth. As Bishop Ric comments, ‘Whenever a church is planted, almost every single one of them grows…it’s a new move of the spirit of God, there’s a lot of new life.’ Nicky Gumbel was so upbeat that in an interview with Premier Christianity last year he even spoke of ‘a hidden revival’.
Executive director of the Centre for Theology and Community, Angus Ritchie, comments, ‘There are signs of hope, but I don’t think anyone would deny there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot to think about in terms of how the Church engages across the diversities of race and class in a city like London. The real question the Church of England will have to think about over the next few years is, what can we learn from this in a rural context?’
No one denies that the overall trend is still downward and many churches across the country are closing. But as Ecclesiastes 3:2 indicates, there is both ‘a time to uproot’ and ‘a time to plant’. If the experiences of today’s church planters is anything to go by, there’s every reason to believe that when it comes to urban areas, a long period of uprooting is slowly but surely giving way to life. If that’s true, then now is indeed the time to plant.