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How the faithful borrow ideas from business to create start-up churches


On a wintry day in the City of London, the tiny baroque church of St Edmund the King is packed.

The 50 people in the congregation are led in a prayer and Bible reading but then get down to the main business of the day: learning how to create start-up churches.

Barely 5 per cent of the British population goes to church, according to the UK Church Statistics report. On current trends that will drop to 4 per cent by 2030.

The group at St Edmund’s, consisting of 18 teams from different parts of the country, is part of a movement aiming to reverse that decline. This is the start of a “church planting” course, held for a day a week over six weeks, at the end of which participants will be sent to parishes to start new church communities or revitalise old ones.

The group includes several ordained priests, who are leading the teams, but there are also bank workers, an operations manager and a charity fundraiser, as well as college students and retirees.

Today’s sessions are about turning coffee shops and community halls into places of worship or rebooting existing churches where the congregation has dwindled.

The course tutors, a strategy consultant, the rector of an already planted church and a small business coach, encourage attendees to write their plans on whiteboards, setting goals and highlighting the challenges they currently face. These range from finding key team members, such as an operations manager, to getting a bank account.

Bishop Ric Thorpe. Bishop of Islington .Conference about Church Planting at St Edmund the King in the City of London. For W&C. 16/1/20. People learning how to start new churches.
Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington, is a former marketing executive at Unilever who says the church can learn a lot from the corporate world to recover congregations © Anna Gordon/FT

Everyone then reads what fellow participants have written down, adding their own words of advice or thoughts on what they think God might be telling that planting team to do.

At the end of the six weeks, the planting teams will pitch their business plans to a panel of church officials. In some cases, this could decide whether the team’s local Anglican diocese will provide additional cash and resources for the plant.

This business-style training format is the idea of Ric Thorpe, 55, a former marketing executive at Unilever, who was ordained in 1996 and appointed Bishop of Islington in 2015.

“We need to learn from industry,” he says. “When I was in marketing at Unilever we tried things out and if they didn’t work we dropped them. It encourages an innovation culture.”

Bishop Ric’s key objective for his ministry is overseeing the creation of new worshipping communities across England. He founded the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication, using St Edmund’s as a training base.

His first “planting” success came in 2005, in the east London parish of Shadwell, where the church was facing imminent closure because of its dwindling congregation.

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By adding a more relaxed family service and evening worship aimed at young people, numbers swelled to 200 regular worshippers, and groups quickly formed from among this congregation of new Christians and those who already had a faith that had moved to the area to repeat the exercise in four neighbouring churches.

Attendance across all five churches rose from 55 to 765 in a decade, Bishop Ric tells the planters assembled at St Edmund’s. “Planting is the most effective way to grow the church and if we can focus on that goal, with help, we can create growth,” he says.

“General Synod [the legislative part of the Anglican church] recently passed a motion that a new church should be created in each of the 12,500 Church of England parishes. That could mean one million people coming back to church.”

The curriculum for the planting course is designed to mirror the way people in workplaces get new projects under way, by brainstorming ideas then trying something out — and coming back to debrief and share lessons learnt.

Teaching this way means that the courses can be completed quickly and create the kind of momentum required to successfully plant multiple times, according to Bishop Ric. “We need to increase the amount of training on the job because we do not have enough church planters,” he says

“It is the way that I learnt during my time at Unilever. My first job, on day one as a management trainee, was to integrate into a £5m business called Dexstar Chemicals. I did not have a formal training session for another three months.”

He says that the Church of England, where training to become an ordained priest takes eight years, could learn a lot from this speedy approach.

Bishop Ric spent his first years as an ordained vicar at Holy Trinity Brompton, a west London church that is the birthplace of the very successful Alpha Course, an 11-week programme designed to get people talking about faith in a Christian context. Since it began in 1990 it has been rolled out internationally and taken by millions of people worldwide.

HTB has also been a pioneer in church planting in the capital, providing staff and funding support for 21 of the 53 plants in the Diocese of London between 1983 and 2013, according to Bishop Ric.

Toria Gray is one of the planting course leaders at St Edmund’s. When not advising churches, Ms Gray is the director of a strategic coaching business. “The principles are the same whether you are a local gym looking to open a new spinning room or a group of Christians starting a church. You are still having to recruit new people and put together a schedule of action points.”

The challenge of church planting is creating momentum to launch new services faster, says Ms Gray. To this end, the Gregory Centre is launching a network of course centres across England.

The number of churches in England is rising, driven by informal gatherings in non-sacred places, collectively known as “messy church”. But the growth has not been enough to offset the decline caused by the ageing demographic of current church attendees.

The typical church plant creates a congregation of 40 people with about 10 per cent achieving megachurch status, with more than 400 weekly worshippers, according to Peter Brierley, a statistician who produces an annual report analysing data from parish censuses across all denominations in England, Scotland and Wales.

There are about 9,000 rural Anglican churches with an average congregation of 12 people, each losing on average one person each year, and 6,000 non-rural churches, losing as many as 10 people a year, according to Mr Brierley’s research.

“This would mean that there would have to be a pipeline of planters starting more than 900 churches every year just for regular Sunday attendance to remain at current levels,” he says. “But between 1989 and 2020, there was a net increase of just 50 churches a year across the UK.”

The reality is that existing church congregations across the UK are in decline, so the success of the planters will be vital if the church is to create a new generation of worshippers.

“Christendom is coming to an end,” Bishop Ric says. “We are building the new Christendom.”

The ‘planters’

Nathan Hunt has brought a team of six planters to St Edmund’s. They include a garage door fitter, whose boss gave him paid leave to attend the course, and several retirees.

Mr Hunt was a teacher for 14 years but is now the baptist minister of a church in the Berkshire village of Shinfield, where he planted a congregation of 15 people, drawn from Wycliffe Baptist Church, a large city temple in East Reading. Attendance at Shinfield Baptist now averages about 80 people a week.

“The team coming on this course enables them to see that other people have the same audacious vision,” Mr Hunt says. “My hope is that they might think that Nathan is not such a nutter for doing this after all.”

Mr Hunt’s group has already made inroads into this new parish by starting a weekly toddler group and a quarterly charity cake bake with curry cooked by a local Hindu family who wanted to get involved. The fact that they are attracting people of other faiths does not concern Mr Hunt.

“We are doing this because we believe God loves a community,” he says.


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