By John Bowen
Published: April 2011
If church attendance is declining, what should be our response? Start new churches, of course!
If that seems counter-intuitive, consider the following:
But surely "starting a new church" is incredibly costly and difficult? One bishop talked to his major donors about church planting, and their first question was, "What does it cost to put up a new church building?" If that is the only model of church planting we have—the "if you build it, they will come" approach—then of course it will be costly. That is what Canadian Anglicans did last time we had a spate of church planting, in the 1950s—put up a building in a new subdivision, assign a priest, and begin a full range of services—so of course that's what we think it means. "That's way we've always done it."
Church planting in a post-Christendom age however is a different animal. (This is one reason new church plants are often called "fresh expressions of church"—to distinguish them from the traditional kind.) A growing segment of the Canadian population has little or no exposure to church. They are (to use the current jargon) unchurched rather than dechurched. For them, to come to a traditional service in a traditional building is (to put it mildly) intimidating—as intimidating as it would be for many of us to attend a mosque or a synagogue for the first time. "Church" therefore has to start "further back," with the full panoply that we call "church" coming at the end of a long—perhaps several years' long—process.
This is turn raises many questions: What is the process by which one grows a church from scratch these days? Who is qualified to do it? It is not a criticism of our leaders that, as one senior clergyman told me, "I was trained for a church in a world that no longer exists." What is the role of clergy, and bishops, and laity in what lies ahead? How can we possibly finance new things? And if we don't know—and most of us confess we don't—who is there who can help us?
It was with these questions in mind that the Vital Church Planting conference began in 2007. The Church Planting Working Group of the Diocese of Toronto (of which I was then a member) thought that an annual conference might help its efforts. The idea was that meeting every year would:
All these things have happened, and more. The conference began in 2007 with 65 or so attendees. By last year, attendance had grown to 170 from all over Canada. Anticipating last year's numbers, a second conference was planned for Western Canada, to be held in Edmonton and co-sponsored by the Diocese of Edmonton and the Institute of Evangelism. The leaders there budgeted for 50—which seemed a reasonable estimate for a first attempt—and ended up with attendance of 140, including five bishops and the Metropolitan. Increasingly the conference is becoming ecumenical, attracting Lutheran, United, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Mennonite and Salvation Army participation—which is wonderful. Last year theological students from Trinity, Wycliffe and Huron attended in strength, with financial assistance from their colleges....
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