Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

1.3 What is Church Planting and Why Does it Matter?

The immediate answer to the Chapter's question of definition, what is church planting, is contained in the Rev. Bob Hopkins 1991 working definition: "Church planting is creating new communities of Christian faith as part of the mission of God, to express His kingdom in every geographical and cultural context"(29). which, the Report commends for being concise, theologically well-connected, flexible about forms of church and the varieties of mission task.

Paragraph 2.2 of Breaking New Ground thought in terms of: "The transposition of a worshipping community of people into a located place or building"; it described the usual conditions of a church plant as follows:  “ …

The Report's critique of this list is largely confined to the last item where it notes acutely that there can be no assumptions about outcome; when you plant a church you do not know precisely what will develop. The problem with the succeeding discussion, however, is that it is encumbered with the horticultural analogy. When you plant a seed, supposedly analogous with a church, you do know what you will get within quite narrow limits. If you plant a poppy seed you cannot predict the number of seeds the new flower  will have in its head but you know what its structure will be and, what is more, you know that it will be almost identical with the structure of the flower from which the seed was taken; and you would be horrified if that seed produced a dahlia!  What the Report means to say is that when you plant a church it must retain a basic set of characteristics but the geometry will be variable. It also means to say that no matter how variable that geometry is, the phenomenon must be recognisably 'church' in the Anglican sense. The authors might have been better off thinking in terms of creating ecclesiological space.

Another problem is that there is far too much emphasis on process rather than outcome - but, then, this is the product of a process-obsessed Church, retaining its 19th Century bureaucratic processes created for a vast and established enterprise in the threadbare, missionary conditions of the 21st Century - and so it is welcome when the Report goes on to say that “The list now ought also to include reference to Christ, worship and discipleship, in order to be more fully rounded and specifically Christian”(31). Amen! These were notable omissions.

After another bout of terminological wrestling with horticulture, we reach more fruitful territory:  "Church planting is a process. It is a branch of practical mission theology, developing the thinking and disciplines that underlie the creation of fresh expressions of church” (32).

There then follows the Report's own definition: "Church planting is the process by which a seed of the life and message of Jesus embodied by a community of Christians is immersed for mission reasons in a particular cultural or geographical context. The intended consequence is that its roots there, coming to life as a new indigenous body of Christian disciples well suited to continue in mission"(32). This is adequate but clumsy; the Report would have been better off describing the new forms of mission required for the largely unchurched without reference to the horticultural analogy.

The Report then turns to the question it posed at the end of the previous Chapter; what is church? For the purposes of Breaking New Ground, in the context of planting it is: "A group of Christians predominantly drawn from a discernible neighbourhood, culture or network who are led by those with authorization from the wider church, whose worship and common life includes regular commitment to preaching The Word and to the celebration of the two Dominical Sacraments"(32). This definition, says the Report, has much to commend it  because: "church" means more than buildings; it has a sense of rootedness; it embraces culture and networks as well as territory; it connects with accountability within the wider church; it includes worship and common life; and Word and Sacrament are balanced. However, the Report says this is inadequate because it focuses too much on function, lacking reference to mission identity and practice: "Unless and until the Kingdom and the mission are in the DNA of the seed of the church, what is planted will prove to be sterile". This, of course, is true but it applies to all forms of church not just church planting.

The Report then goes on to discuss: "New forms of church", "New ways of being church" and "emerging church" before settling on "fresh expressions of church" as its own favourite, noting the phrase in the Licensing of clergy: "Proclaim afresh", although this does not distinguish new life from within existing churches and those who go out; And so "planting" and "expression" are to be used together.

The Report then goes over some old ground on the need of the Church of England to reach out, as part of its mission, to the unchurched but then says that this strategy affirms diversity. This diversity, the Report says, cannot be sustained through one kind of ministry and worship in a single congregation; but this raises the question of whether church planting is a form of escape by its proponents from the bonds of conventional churches.  To use an historical example, the primary purpose of the Pilgrim Fathers was not to be missionaries but simply to escape religious intolerance. In this light, church planting might be seen as incidental or even exploitative. This might be a case, in T.S. Eliot's words, of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Yet again, at this point, tough argument is rather spoiled by disingenuousness; after all, says the Report, we all worship in what were church plants.

The Report gets back onto stronger ground when it says: "Church planting is a strong reminder that the Church is called to be essentially, not incidentally, missionary in character" (36) and then backs this up by summarising Richter & Francis; Gone but Not Forgotten (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1998) figures on church attendance and the de-churched:

This breakdown calls into question any strategy of bringing people "back"; 40% have never been churched in the first place and 20% have been severely alienated by their experience of church. We must address the audiences differently and should not concentrate exclusively on the fringe and open de-churched: "Any apostolic church ... has no option but to face its mission to the non-churched, even if this is at the cost of finding new ways of being and doing church to exist alongside what we do and are at present"(40). This is good theology but in an environment of limited resources it is not necessarily good strategy. Effective outreach depends upon a solid core and it might make better sense to work on the 40% of the population which might occupy that core as a necessary precondition for tackling the 60% who are really outside. The counter argument is, of course, that we must do both and that there are amongst us people with different gifts, some to strengthen the core, others to reach out. There is, however, a very strong case to be made for a much greater degree of self understanding within the Church as a necessary precondition for outreach. At the core of this self-understanding there must be the ability to separate what is essential from what is traditional; and right at the core of this discussion there lies the most essential question of all in the context of this Report: if geographical episcopacy is as problematic as it seems to be not only in respect of fresh expressions of Church but also in the such matters as the ordination of women and of gay people (which, as I write, has led to the consecration by the Church of Uganda of a bishop to minister in London because there is no provision in London to create a bishop without a see) should the episcopacy be more flexibly constituted, an issue which will be taken up again in Part Two, Section 5.

The report then refers again to the "Time bomb" of future weakness; we have relied for half a century upon the assumption that Sunday Schooled children will one day return to the church; but the number of Sunday School attendees has steadily declined to approximately 4%, so there will be very few potential returnees. This, concludes the Report, means that we need fresh expressions of church to which it turns in the next Chapter. The  problem may go much deeper. Reverting to the horticultural model, our seed might have become sterile, issues dealt with in Part Two, Section 7d.

In the meantime, we turn to the core of the Report.