by Aaron Klinefelter
In part 1 of this series we explored the cultural and institutional barriers to church planting in the Episcopal Church.
In part 2 we delved into why churches undertake church planting in the first place and how these might or might not fit into the ethos of the Episcopal Church.
In part 3, we looked at the theology of mission and the importance of context
In this fourth installment we look at the diocese of London, in the Church of England to understand their astounding growth and discern what might the lessons be that could be transferred to our contexts here.
PART 4 Learning from London
What might this renewed engagement with neighbors and neighborhoods in the context of a post-Christian culture look like for a church? It may look a bit like the renewal happening in the Diocese of London. We would do well to pay attention to the changes afoot in England and in London especially. John Wolffe and Bob Jackson note, “between 1990 and 2010, the number of members of Anglican churches in London rose by over 70%.” The Diocese of London is growing, a reality that is not true of most dioceses in the Episcopal Church, and their growth is not accidental or because they are the established church.
Michael Moynagh, Fresh Expressions Director of Network Development, reporting on George Lings’ research about ten Church of England dioceses, notes that Fresh Expressions, comprise as many as 15 per cent of the dioceses’ churches and 10 per cent of their average weekly attendance. According to their leaders, roughly 25 per cent of those who come are Christians, 35 per cent are once-churched (people who had stopped going), and an amazing 40 per cent are never-churched. The numbers involved add the equivalent of one further average-sized diocese.
What accounts for this growth? How might the Episcopal Church learn from what the Spirit of God is doing in London? I had an opportunity to study and visit churches and church plants across the Diocese of London with the Rev. Dr. Jason Fout through a course hosted by Bexley Seabury Seminary. Through the reading and conversations with lay and clergy leaders, three factors emerged that shed light on the growth of the church in London.
Infrastructure and strategy
First, the growth in London was not accidental or random. The Spirit of God blows where it will (John 3:8) but that does not mean that the church should be haphazard or arbitrary about its approach to mission. The Diocese of London has been forthright and intentional about articulating a vision and then supporting it with structure and strategy to carry it out. They state, “We share a vision of a Church for London that is Christ-centered and outward looking. We seek to be more confident in speaking and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, more compassionate in serving communities with the love of God the Father and more creative in reaching new people and places in the power of the Spirit”.
From this vision they have ten specific areas where they intend to be “purposeful and imaginative.” One of those areas is church planting, “to reach more of the existing population, but also those arriving and moving into many of the new areas being built.” In 2013, the diocese tasked the Rt. Rev. Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington, a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of London, and The Centre for Church Planting and Growth to accomplish the goal of planting or renewing 100 worshiping communities by 2020. As of April 2018, “St Barnabas Kensington launched the 50th new worshipping community with French Connect. This is a weekly service in French to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of French-speaking people living in West London.” Their intention is to, “identify church planting opportunities and to develop these ideas through training, coaching and resourcing financially. [They] offer individual consultations with those wanting to plant new churches and take steps to see them grow.” Their Church Planting Pipeline gives visual language to this process:
This is the work of one diocese in the Church of England. The staff at The Centre for Church Planting confirmed that they work with other dioceses as well, but their clear focus was London. Bishops in the Episcopal Church would do well to follow the Diocese of London’s lead and designate the funding, strategy, and infrastructure changes necessary to support the work of innovation and church planting in their dioceses.
The strategy for church planting and growth in the Diocese of London was not just a top-down, organizational one, though. Moynagh notes there are two different mentalities regarding strategy. “There is what I would call the pioneering mindset, which is based on what you’ve got. It is experimental, step-by-step, and pragmatic. By contrast, the organizational mindset is driven by goals, it seeks plans to achieve those goals, it is systematic (it will do market research, for example), and it is less experimental. It knows where it is going and has a strategy for getting there. One mindset is not better than another.” Both of these mindsets are needed for the church to flourish and try new things.
Diocesan leaders can create structures and funding for organizational change. They can strategize and allocate resources for the sake of mission, flowing from our common baptismal covenant. Leaders on the ground in neighborhoods and parishes can work with what they have at hand and strategize from a pioneering mindset. Both of these strategic mindsets were evident in London and both can be employed to great effect in the Episcopal Church.
Second, and flowing naturally from strategy, is the importance of leadership for innovation and the launching of new Christian communities. Moynagh points out that in the Church of England,
“Permission giving and some proactive leadership from the top have encouraged innovation at the grass roots, mainly by lay people – not insignificant given the clericalism associated with the mainline church. In the United States, by contrast, these new forms of church have tended to emerge outside the denominations.”
This proactive leadership was evident in the churches we visited in London. Leadership was clearly shared among lay and clergy alike. I had expected much higher degree of clericalism, but that was not apparent among the churches and leaders with whom we spent time.
Robert Warren’s task in The Healthy Churches’ Handbook is to provide a practical and accessible guide for churches to grow in health and vitality. He defines health as, “biblical concept of salvation, namely wholeness, balance and harmony with God and all creation.” His seven marks of healthy churches were discerned through years of research across several dioceses in the Church of England. The seven marks are as follows:
- Energized by faith
- Outward-looking focus
- Seeks to find out what God wants
- Faces the cost of change and growth
- Operates as a community
- Makes room for all
- Does a few things and does them well
Warren’s fifth mark speaks to the need for inventive and multifaceted leadership in the church. He highlights that a healthy church, “operates as a community rather than functioning as a club or religious organization.” In these churches, relationships, likely in small groups, are cultivated; leaders, lay and ordained, work in teams; and lay ministry is valued and there are real opportunities to express the diversity of gifts inside and outside the church. This perspective on leadership was illuminated at St. Peter’s Bethnal Green. On the Sunday of our visit, a young woman preached for the first time. She had moved to London from Brazil and on the previous Easter Sunday, from her apartment down the street, she heard the singing from this church plant. She wandered in and now, nine months later, was giving her first sermon. Furthermore, it was clear that in this particular faith community this high level of lay leadership and involvement was not unusual.
To that end, Warren makes it clear, “Put simply, healthy churches are highly participative. People today are less inclined to be passengers or ‘pew fodder’. Those whose faith is real want to do something about it and with it. Good churches make that possible.” The link between high levels of lay leadership in strong communities with collaborative clergy and evangelism is not accidental. In fact, it might even be possible to draw a direct line between Warren’s fifth mark, “operates as a community,” to his sixth, “makes room for all.” That linking line would be evangelism. Warren explains,
One of the striking and widespread ways in which this [healthy lay ministry] can be observed in a church today is in the work of evangelism, not least in churches that might run a mile from thinking they are doing any such thing. Even 20 years ago, evangelism was seen as something that a few specialists did – the rest of us got on with other things. Now, however, the Church increasingly sees evangelism as ‘helping people on the journey to faith’. Typically this is done through running some ‘process evangelism’ course such as Alpha or Emmaus. … Evangelism now is what we do, together.
The strength and diversity of lay and ordained leadership in the church plants, and those churches and diocesan leaders who plant churches, was clearly connected to an evangelical enthusiasm for sharing the good news of Christ.
Third, one of the most striking aspects of our time in London was the evangelical fervor that the churches and leaders exhibited. To be clear, this was evident both from those who self-identified as Evangelicals and those who referred to themselves as “Liberal Anglican Catholics” and those somewhere else on this spectrum of liturgical piety and theological conviction. There was an evangelical impulse more than Evangelical theology.
Ian Mobsby and Phil Potter, in Doorways to the Sacred: Developing Sacramentality in Fresh Expressions of Church, interviewed The Rt. Rev. Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark, which includes part of Greater London. There, Clark draws the intersecting lines of connection between mission, evangelism, and baptism. “The sacraments, and baptism particularly, lie at the heart of faith, … baptism can also be at the heart of our mission and evangelism. If the sacraments are divided from their purpose in God’s mission of love to the world, they are diminished and the Church is impoverished.”
This coheres with my experience of churches in London. There was a profound appreciation for the sacramental life while being animated by a desire to share the good news. At the same time, there was a recognition that the work of evangelism was not transactional or simply about cognitive assent to a propositional doctrine. Clark continues,
“Process evangelism is the term for the recognition that most people who come to Christian faith do so gradually, through a series of influences, and over a period of time which may take months or years.
This process of cultivating gospel-oriented relationships with churches meeting in neighborhoods, farmers’ markets, restaurants and historic church buildings was lively and intentional. Likewise, we witnessed small gatherings of peer-groups, flat mates, homeless individuals, and university students all vivified by a yearning to embody the good news. In this context, baptism functions as “sacrament of belonging at least as much as it is the sacrament of believing.”
Mission is constitutive of both sharing the good news and social action. The Rev. Ian Mobsby, Woolwich Episcopal Area Mission Enabler in the Diocese of Southwark and the Priest in Charge of St. Luke Camberwell in Peckham London, concludes his book, God Unknown: The trinity in contemporary spirituality and mission, elucidating, “mission is very much like the image of a participative dance [perichoretic love]…. It is an image of the dynamism of God in mystical connection with humanity and the cosmos, which desires to see the common good being expressed in love.” He contends that a Trinitarian view of mission, which includes both evangelism and social justice, would be profoundly relational, overflowing with loving service, creative, fervently about God, contemplative, counter-cultural, and invitational. Further, mission in this triune sense would be, “Seeking for transformation and justice in society and in people’s spiritual lives.” These are characteristics to which the church must continue to aim, but they are also exemplary of what the last twenty years of church planting and growth in London have been about.
The Episcopal Church, as it combats the trifecta of impoverished polity, fear of change, and uninspired evangelism and discipleship, can learn much from London and the ways in which the church faced its own crisis of mission and identity. We have the opportunity to envision new structures and strategies, empowered relational leadership, and enlivened, socially aware, process-oriented evangelism.
Aaron Klinefelter has been a House Church planter and pastor, a youth minister, a university campus minister, and presently serves as the Assistant to the Rector and Associate for Children and Families at Trinity Church in Menlo Park, CA. He also is a postulant from the Diocese of Southern Ohio. But most of the time you can find him driving his kids around in a minivan.