Growing places are wonderful, and every place has at some time been a ‘growing place.’ I wonder if as we share learning around what that means we can see growth as normal once again?

Last week I found myself presiding at a church that had elected to explore going down the road to closure. The beautiful large early Victorian building was no longer appropriate for the small number of silver haired people who gathered each Sunday. After the service I stayed for the usual cup of coffee and a chat. One lady told me about a vicar, ‘Vicar Bradford’ who had left the parish in the early 1950s to become vicar of Shildon.

“I wish we could go back to those days” she said wistfully “we were packed, life happened every day of the week. We had a football team, a darts team, there were craft clubs, cooking clubs, gardening clubs, chess clubs, you name it, we did it.” She was telling me the story of a relevant, outward facing church that was packed with the kind of things the local community valued. Religion wasn’t only about hymns and liturgy, it was about community, about friendship, and about being a part of the lives of those around you, even as they were part of yours. For me, as I listened, I heard wisdom that had somehow slipped away, learning that was no longer being corporately lived. The are many and complex reasons for that and the faithfulness of the few still gathering is cause for celebration.

However, while I am reluctant to eulogise those days because any human group comes with human problems (just check out the epistles!) what I am prepared to do is to challenge the narrative that says, ‘those days have gone.’ There is a thriving non-Anglican church not far from me whose table tennis club boasts over 200 members, around 25% are regulars at church. I have a friend who is pastor of an AOG church, and they installed a soft play area becoming the go to place of choice for families. There is something about having fun together that builds friendship, friendship is an authentic place for faith sharing, faith sharing is fruitful in growing the kingdom, and that is what we are about.

If I was to critique my time as Priest in Charge at Shildon it would be that we didn’t have enough fun together and this limited our missional confidence. As Shildon Alive has grown post my time, it now hosts a ‘pop up ping pong parlour’ and a ‘digital games hub’ both of which have been a natural draw for local people of all ages. This ‘putting church in the centre of the community’ is essential for growth as we then rediscover our relevance, share our life, and discover the ‘people of peace’ (Partnership for Missional Church language) all around us.

It is reflecting on this kind of learning that led us (the diocese) to submit On October 11th our 2019 Strategic development fund stage 1 application. It included two further resource churches (resourcing growth through planting new churches) and eight ‘Communities of Hope.’ The ‘Communities of Hope’ part of the application is about stimulating growth in low income communities, through putting the church in the centre. It has come about through a process of listening, shared reflection, and then seeking to apply the learning. They are defined like this:

  • They are small (20-50 adults) to maximise the relational potential.
  • They are shaped by four key characteristics: faith focused, accessible, relevant and fun.
  • They are locally led with paid key workers supporting growth, planting and sustainability.
  • They are active in evangelising through their social networks.
  • They nurture discipleship through small groups running on a peer to peer basis, with lay leaders trained locally.
  • They foster distinctive, attractive faith communities with a strong sense of place.
  • They are open daily and use highly accessible spaces.
  • They respond to local stories through constantly developing strategies that build context appropriate connections.
  • They develop social enterprise as part of the life of each place (e.g. faith sharing while nails are polished).
  • They are ‘safe’ places that understand and are attuned to issues of low-income communities.
  • They include a strong element of relational hospitality.
  • They are established in such a way so that they minimize the need for institutional structures.
  • They are set up to replant and share learning with other contexts.

We are working with three deaneries to pioneer 8 of these and if we are successful, hope to replicate the model in other places. We will hear back from the Strategic Investment Board around December 5th, so please do pray.

However, there is already learning that we are doing as part of the drawing together of the evidence for the application. This learning is all about what it means to be in the centre of the community, and can be reflected on in every context. It is not about tradition or style and is of course ongoing. It isn’t rocket science, though I do believe that learning isn’t learned until it is lived, so the question I always ask myself is not whether I ‘know’ something but whether I am ‘living’ its truth.

To briefly summarise the learning about growing places:

  • They are places where people like each other, evidenced by spending time with one another outside organised gatherings, grow.
  • They prioritise investing in relationship above everything else.
  • They practise a welcome that goes beyond a building, becoming about lives. 
  • They have leaders who function relationally.
  • They see ‘the way things are done’ as a vehicle for love expressed so become ‘safe’  with people wanting to volunteer. (Places where the way things are done matters more than the people doing them struggle to attract others).
  • They see themselves as ‘part of’ the community rather than ‘serving’ the community. 
  • They share in locally relevant responses to need.
  • They are places where people talk about Jesus, or faith, as a normal part of conversation are attractive.
  • They are places where there are opportunities to talk about serious matters such as ‘death’.
  • They care for each other relationally in times of personal crisis.
  • They are fluid, welcoming the change each new person brings.
  • They don’t defend, they celebrate.
  • They are generous with themselves.

This learning isn’t in order of priority and has been drawn from a number of sources including: Antioch Communities (Manchester Diocese); Ignite (Canterbury Diocese); Jubilee Foundation reports; experience within our own diocese; my own lifetime of ministry including living in community, growing a home church, and ministering in Shildon. I hope it is of some use to you.

If your church or PCC would benefit from thinking the learning through in more depth, I am happy to come and share. You can contact me at [email protected] or 01388 834405.