Postcards from England: HTB, Alpha & a church planting approach

Holy Trinity Brompton is arguably the best known contemporary British church.  Part of the Anglican family, it shot to prominence through the Alpha course (an introduction to Christianity now conducted in something like 45 countries around the world.  Within the UK, HTB has been very active in planting new churches – initially in London, but increasingly in other parts of the country as well (when they’re invited).

Today I visited one of HTB’s church plants (a London suburban church that’s been running for seven years), and then their office HQ to explore just how it’s been happening, what approaches they’re using, and what’s been learned along the way.

Both visits were insightful, and I really appreciated the welcome and the conversations (and the eye-opening tour of the Alpha/HTB offices).

HTB use a range of approaches as the particular context demands, and I heard a consistent expression of commitment to working with the wider denomination.  They’ve worked hard on leadership development, on understanding their unique DNA (or charism) and what it is that they offer.

Many of the initial plants were into empty church buildings, where HTB would sent a leader and team and establish a new community from scratch (mostly in well established areas of London). In recent times they’ve started what we might describe as “re-planting” or re-vitalising where a leader and team will go into a very small church (which might to all intents and purposes be on its last legs).

Of particular interest is that there are now second and third generation church plants – where previously planted churches are themselves planting. Sometimes they’re using one of the approaches describe above, or in some cases a multi-site (multiple church communities, multiple sites but a shared identity and leadership) or “minster” (a mother church with semi-dependent child churches) approaches.

The story is exciting, but they’re very quick to point out that while it sounds easy and exciting when it’s described in broad-brush terms, the reality is planting churches in contemporary Britain is a difficult task, and one that takes intense commitment, careful planning, and an extraordinary leader and team. There’s also a willingness to be hard-nosed when required – to make sure the right team go, that the context is ready, that the planning is done, that everything is in place to give the project the best chance of success.  That all seems to start with a pretty heavy commitment to prayer (and I think we’d all agree…that’s as it should be).

We also talked briefly about the Alpha course.  It’s been a few years since I checked in to have a look at Alpha, and it sounds like it’s come a long way. The day I visited HTB has just hosted the second night of their current Alpha course with something like 600 guests attending.  The materials have been thoroughly modernised since I last checked in, and are re-filmed every few years to ensure production values, presentation and content are contemporary.  It’s no surprise that one of HTB’s church planting practices is to start an Alpha course immediately every new church plant launches. It has been and continues to be a key part of their approach. I came away thinking it’s past time I checked in to have a look at what Alpha 2017 looks like.

Clearly HTB is a particular kind of church, with a particular style of worship, and a particular set of values.  And many of their plants, while growing up in a contextual nature, share that DNA.  Equally clearly, they’re doing some very good things within the Church of England in the British context, and via Alpha in the wider world.

It was a visit I’m glad I had the opportunity to make.

When this postcard publishes, I’ll be on my way home.  It’s been a genuine privilege to undertake this trip, to visit Leicester, the FX gathering, St Mellitus, London Anglicans, CMS, the Methodist Church and HTB over the last couple of weeks. I’m so very thankful to all those that have welcomed me and shared in inspiring conversations, and told their stories. I don’t underestimate how fortunate I’ve been to be able to make the trip. I’ll publish a more general summary in a few days.

Thanks for reading.

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Postcards from England: Keeping it in the family

Today I had the privilege of visiting UK Methodist headquarters at Methodist Church House, and meeting with a bunch of people from their Discipleship & Ministries team (including Jude, Graham, Richard) and the Scholarship, Research and Innovation team (Stephen and Allan) along with a number of others.

The conversations were rich and wandered around a host of topics – including data and statistics, evangelism, contemporary challenges facing churches in both our countries, leadership development and more.  It was a pleasure to meet with the team, and the connection between the Methodist church and our own Uniting Church (a venture formed when Methodist, Congregational and a large portion of the Presbyterian churches united in 1977) is strong. It felt like our churches are family (which of course, they area).

I had the privilege too of addressing the Connexional Team meeting, and sharing a little of what’s happening in the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church. Naturally I couldn’t help but share a little of my own (potentially incorrect!) theory of change along the way. You can read it here. Incidentally, I had shared these thoughts with Mike Moynagh during a visit to the Church Missionary Society’s Pioneer training HQ (see yesterday’s postcard) and he wanted to add a layer below “Hope” (you’ll have to read it to understand). He suggested that dissatisfaction (or what we might called a ‘holy discontent’) is the foundational layer of any attempt to bring meaningful change – and that hope comes next.  It’s an interesting idea and I’ll give this some more thought.

On the surface at least, there’s a lot in common between the situation in which the British Methodist church finds itself and our own. Many of the challenges are similar, many of the opportunities are similar. The context, of course, is different – but not so different that we couldn’t explore our respective stories and approaches.

A couple of bits and pieces that particularly caught my attention:

  • The Venture FX project has seen the church here invest heavily in a bunch of new pioneering initiatives – taking the church into genuinely new places and seeking to establish new church communities. Many of the projects continue, and those are important in their own right, but along with the viability of the particular projects themselves, the church is trying to pay attention just as much to the lessons learned along the way for future initiatives that might be quite different in character. The capacity to build a culture of innovation across the church might well depend on how well the VFX experience can be processed – and that challenge (building a church culture that welcomes innovation) is a big one.
  • I heard briefly a story of Trey Hall at Birmingham and some work he’s doing with the team there. What caught my attention was the use of the term “progressively evangelical” to describe something of the theology and character of Trey. Quite often we might describe those with an evangelical heart as being of a more conservative (theologically) character, but this story reminded me that this need not be so. That evangelism need not be the exclusive domain of a particular group within the church – but is something for all of us. Planting new churches can be something that the whole church (in all its theological diversity) can work towards. I’ve made a mental note next time I’m in the UK (that’s not me dropping a subtle hint by the way!) to go and visit Trey.
  • That sometimes our systems and practices (such as frequently changing senior leaders) can mitigate against establishing a culture of innovation
  • That research partnerships with external bodies (such as Universities for example) can help us understand ourselves in ways that we might (internally) be blind too
  • That fresh expressions is a powerful approach to bringing a new dimension to both a church’s own life and its capacity to welcome the wider community – but it works best if it sits within a ‘mixed economy’
  • There’s an interesting shift in the way that ministers are training and released that’s being spruiked by Michael Moynagh. From a more traditional Select->Train->Deploy approach, to Discern->Encourage->Support. I’m interested to dig into this a little more.
  • British Methodism runs a youth assembly called 3Generate. The Youth Assembly (and its leadership) have a genuine place in the life and structure of the church…so it’s more than just a conference/camp/retreat

It was, as I said, a real privilege to visit Methodist House.  I tried not to think about John Wesley himself in a portrait on the wall behind me looking down with a bemused expression as I shared from the colonies…but the team were very gracious and welcoming. I’ll be interested both to unpack a little more of what I heard today, and to stay in touch with their story as it develops in the years ahead.

Postcards from England: Training Pioneers

In the UK church the word pioneer is everywhere. I think there’s barely been a conversation I’ve been in on this trip that hasn’t included it.  And like many words in common use, it’s not always clear that all parts of the church use this particular word in the same way.

For some, anybody doing something new (like planting a church, or starting a missional community) is a pioneer. For others, it’s a leader who is genuinely breaking new ground, helping the church find its way into contexts and situations that it has never been before.

Every college, every training program, ever denomination I’ve encountered is thinking about pioneers.

To some degree maybe it doesn’t matter much that the word is being used in a range of ways – as long as the sense that the church is moving in new directions, and releasing and supporting leaders to help make that happen is real.  There’s just a slight anxiety for me that if everything is pioneering…then eventually nothing is, or at least the word (and the philosophy behind it) loses something.

All that aside, today I visited Jonny Baker at the Church Missionary Society in Oxford. CMS is an order in the Church of England, and at Oxford (along with running a range of global initiatives) they’re embarked on training pioneers – both lay pioneers and ordained, and in both undergraduate and postgraduate streams. By my understanding they’re using the word pioneer to mean one who helps take the church into genuinely new, genuinely innovative places.

Jonny is quite clear that what is now described as pioneer ministry actually emerged from a community of practice in youth ministry in the 80’s and 90’s.  In other words, this is no new invention that has been dreamed up out of thin air, but an evolving practice that now has something like 40 years of contemporary practice and development. In that time-frame its emerging practice has unfolded alongside post-modernism and the post-christian environment. When the Mission Shaped Church report came along in 2004 (and with it the language of fresh expressions) this was tapping into a long emerging practice, but putting language and concepts around it that were accessible to the wider, institutional church.

The kind of pioneer training that CMS are up to, particularly of the ordained leaders, seems to have evolved quickly in the time they’ve been at it.  Early ordained pioneer ministers were trained alongside “normal” ministers and then given a little extra – I’ve heard it described (more than once) as “Priest +”.  That seems now to have evolved into a quite specialist form of training.

The philosophy of training pioneers at CMS seems to be around training them “in place”. All the coursework happens on a one-day-per-week basis, meaning the students can remain embedded in their local context (as opposed to a more traditional theological training where students are effectively set aside for the period of their training). In this regard at least, CMS’ approach mirrors that of St Mellitus that I visited yesterday.

The challenge for graduates of the course might just be to find places to put their skills to use. Or perhaps that challenge is better put in another way – the challenge for the church is to be bold enough to deploy pioneers into new contexts – and to provide the permission, support and encouragement for them to do what they’re called, and trained, to do.

My ears particularly pricked up when I heard Jonny talk about a “Mission Entrepreneurship” intensive that happens during the course (and that I think is open to others) in a partnership between CMS and Shannon Hopkins of Matryoshka Haus and Pickwell Manor.  The intensive helps participants go from an ‘idea’ to a ‘plan’ in terms of a new missional idea. Ideas might be church related, or they might be about the common good (such as a new London based cleaning business called “Clean for Good” that evolved during one of the intensives a couple of years back and launched this week while I was in London.  It caught my attention because Paul Wetzig (Queensland Churches of Christ) and I have been mulling over just such an idea for the Queensland context. I’m encouraged to revisit that conversation and see whether we might ourselves move from idea to plan.

I’ve met Jonny a few times now, and the conversations are always rich and provocative. This one was no different. Delightfully today we were joined by Shannon from the FX USA team who I’d met at the ILC last week, and by the ever inspiring Michael Moynagh who just happened to be visiting CMS to be a guest lecturer for the day.

Postcards from the UK: St Mellitus College and the London Anglicans

Having completed the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (which you can read about in my earlier postcards), I’ve moved to London for a few days meeting with interesting church leaders in a variety of settings.  The emphasis has shifted a little away from FX to other areas of interest for the Synod of Queensland.

Checking in at St Mellitus College

I swung by St Mellitus College today, and joined the student body for their regular Monday morning worship before sitting down with Russell Winfield, the International Development Officer for the college.

Now 10 years old, St Mellitus is a theological college launched from the well known Holy Trinity Brompton church. While it now operates largely independently of HTB now, it does still retain close links.  The story of St Mellitus has been one of rapid growth, from its initial year with just a handful of students, to now over 650 students spread across four campuses around England.  I’m led to believe it’s comfortably the largest of the Church of England’s theological colleges, and draws students from 35 (of the 41) dioceses in the country.

Those are the numbers.  Beyond that, the range of courses offered (both post-grad and undergrad, along with non-accredited “lay” training) are typical, including a pioneering stream common to many UK colleges these days.

The mood in the room, at least on the day I visited, was buzzing. Something like 2-300 students gathered (as they do each Monday) to start the college’s teaching day with worship (part of St Mellitus model is that all teaching happens on the same day – leaving students to do private study other days, and to be in field placements for 3 days per week). The worship is student led, so it various in style and format from week to week, and on the day of my visit it had a solidly contemporary/evangelical flavour.  There was a buzz in the room, of anticipation, of chatting and catching up, of preparation for the day in what looked a relatively young student cohort.  It was an altogether lovely and encouraging way to start the week.

One story told during worship stuck with me. The leader was sharing an experience in which she with a group of friends had rented a house to live in an economically depressed area, with the intention of investing in the community there. They came to be known as “the church house”, with neighbours welcome anytime, the community supported, and people knowing it was a place they could always turn for help.  Even “non-church” people in the community appreciated their presence and pitched in to help from time to time. It struck me that perhaps this is the core purpose of church, and that just about every neighbourhood could do with “a church house” like this one. No, it’s not rocket science, but I appreciated the reminder.

St Mellitus College is located in an old cathedral style church called St Judes.  The church building was turned over to the college in a pretty poor state, and with very little use from a pretty small congregation.  The venue itself has been remarkably transformed – with the heritage of the building honoured (to my eyes at least), but an unapologetically contemporary flavour with smart, well planned additions to the building to enable it to serve both its original purpose, and its new place in the world.  It strikes me that this is something of a metaphor for what St Mellitus are attempting to do – to honour their heritage while building a new church entirely.  In a country expecting a huge number of clergy to retire in the next 10 years, and in which the church is in decline, St Mellitus is one way the church of England is addressing that challenge.

The college’s philosophy includes study that is grounded in prayer and worship, and that is intricately entwined with the real world – where students are at the college building only one day a week (plus occasional residential intensives), but out in real-world field placements the rest of the time.

Time will tell, of course, how successful St Mellitus will be. They seem to have their feet firmly grounded, and when I asked about evidence and outcomes, Russell was pretty clear that at only ten years of age, it’s hard to be sure.  His view was that I should ask the question again in 40 years’ time to see if the initial growth, and early anecdotal evidence is supported by long term value for the church.  I was glad to visit St Mellitus, and encouraged by what they’re up to.

 

London Anglicans Planting 100 New Churches?

After St Mellitus I headed over to visit the HQ of London Anglican Diocese church planting team.

Formed as part of the Diocese’ vision for it’s future agreed to in 2013 (under the banner Capital Vision 2020), the team is at the centre of an intent to plant or significantly renew 100 churches within the diocese by 2020.  Even in a Diocese the numeric size of London (500+ churches) this is a seriously ambitious goal, and a fair chunk of the time I had to visit was spent exploring how they’re going about the task.

I would start by observing that they’re well organised, and they’re clear and unashamed about the target.  There are a bunch of other elements to the Vision (to do with leadership development, faith sharing, doubling the number of young people engaged and so on) and all seem equally ambitious.  Have a quick look here at the elements of their vision.

Part of the strategy is to create and recognise what they describe as City Centre Resource Churches – the kind of larger churches that will be actively planting new churches (coincidentally a very similar description to one we’ve been starting to use in conversation at Queensland Synod this year).  Other elements include fresh expressions (as an aside, this wasn’t the first or last time I heard fresh expressions talked of as part of a wider church planting strategy while I’ve been here…sometimes I think we separate the two…), training church planting teams, work on local government estates, revitalising struggling churches, partnering with area Bishops and one fascinating story about a purpose built boat that will be moored on the river adjacent to an urban renewal project that doesn’t have room for a church building, and from which the church will operate.

4 years into the project, and there have been just under 50 new or significantly revitalised churches launched. With 3 years to go, there is a sense of confidence that they’re on track.  Interesting when the conversation turned to ‘failure’ rates, the statement came back that there had been a close to zero failure rates (I think it was actually zero, but my notes and memory have let me down on this…so I’ll say “close to zero” to be safe), and that this was a minor cause for concern…because it might mean that the church hasn’t taken enough risks.  I found that a pretty refreshing attitude for an organisation as structured and generally careful as I assume the Church of England to be.

Development for church planting teams included bespoke training, coaching, financial support (at one of three established ‘levels’) and assistance with matters such as strategy, financials, personal leadership, structures, buildings and so on.

Additionally, the team have been operating what I heard described as a “Church Growth Learning Community” – a community of leaders from congregations who are committed to growing, and who meet together regularly over two years to explore strategies to do so.

It’s not all sweetness and light of course, and when learning from an experience like this we have to take seriously the differences in both context (the UK is still quite different from Australia in terms of the place of the Church…particularly so for the Church of England…in broader society) and the capacity to deploy significant resources (people and otherwise) in support of agreed strategies.

Still, I saw a church willing to set very clear goals, a church quite committed to learning again how to proclaim the gospel in a way suited to their context, and a church willing to make decisions and bring its people and resources to bear on the challenges of our day.

I walked out with a little smile on my face, pleased for the Diocese of London that they’re on the path they’re on.

Postcards from England: ILC1 – FX around the world

We’ve just wrapped up four incredibly stimulating days at the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community that took place at the beautiful Ashburnam Place (Battle, England).

 

Teams gathered for the event from all corners of the globe – the host team from the UK joined by Southern Africa, United States, Mountain Sky (also United States), Canada, Sweden, Germany   and of course Australia.

It was both fascinating and encouraging to hear the stories of fresh approaches to church and faith community that emerged from each of the national teams.  There’s something special that happens when a “tribe” of like-minded people gather together.

It was interesting too to discover that the shape of Fresh Expressions (from an organisational perspective) differs greatly in each place.

In Southern Africa for example, they’re a well organised team and have formal partnerships with nine different denominations.  Meanwhile in Mountain Sky USA, it’s predominantly an initiative of the United Methodist Church through that area (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana) and involves approaches to planting new churches and new faith communities in an area that seems to bear many of the same cultural hallmarks as Australia.

In the UK, naturally (as the originators of the Fresh Expressions movement) they’re very well organised, and with a partnership involving several denominations. Each denomination shares in resourcing the wider movement, together with undertaking their own work of developing new expressions within the denomination.  The movement began in 2004 in the UK under the auspices of then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – who saw it as an ideal vehicle to begin a contextual church planting movement within the churches involved.  That commitment continues, and while there are more traditional church planting movements underway in the UK, Fresh Expressions (and the associated training and support offered under that banner) continues to be a vehicle that helps local churches and local leadership groups establish new church communities.

Each of these stories (and more) provided great food for thought for the Australian team. We gathered at the conference not ever having actually met as a team before (indeed several of us didn’t know each other until we arrived!) and through the week were able to dream together about how we can (collectively) energise Australian activity in the area of fresh expressions.

I valued the opportunity to meet so many leaders from around the world. Session times were predominantly spent in our country teams (and this worked brilliantly), which meant meal times were a noisy buzz of excited conversation and story sharing.

In the next three posts I’ll share (a) a couple of particular stories I encountered and which I think have something to offer in an Australian context; (b) a couple of things I learned about myself (I’ll try not to overshare!), and (c) what the Australian team see as the future of our network down under.

Your questions or comments, of course, are welcome.

Postcards from England: Partnership for Missional Church

While in Leicester (see the previous story!), we took the opportunity to sit down with Nigel Rooms of the Anglican Church’s Church Missionary Society (CMS) to hear about a project they’re running called the Partnership for Missional Church.

Now if you’ve hovering in church circles, you’ll have stumbled across this word ‘missional’ more than once or twice in the last few years.  It’s a conversation that has quite a head of steam as we continue to ask the question “what does it mean for a church to be shaped in response to its understanding of God’s mission” (or something like that).

CMS, through this program, are endeavouring to help local churches reflect on this kind of question, and to turn their attention to the notion that God is at work in their world, and the question of how to join in. These are, in a sense, the classic questions of the missional movement.

The program is a long-term one, taking three years to work through in a partnership between the local church and CMS (or the program’s original developers, the Church Innovation Institute in the USA) in three movements:

  • Year 1: Listening
  • Year 2: Experiment
  • Year 3: Focussing

It also incorporates a heavy emphasis on discipleship – through five practices: dwelling in the word, dwelling in the world, announcing the kingdom, hospitality (of which more in a moment), and corporate (collective) spiritual discernment. It all hangs on a range of ‘ologies’ including theology, sociology, missiology, ethnography and so on.

The process seems in some ways to be a carefully assisted change process. The community is introduced to the capacity to understand itself, it’s world, and it’s God in new ways, and then supported as it responds to those new understandings.

There were, once again, a few topics explored in the course of the afternoon that captured my attention.

The first was the mention of hospitality. At risk of being something of a broken record, this is a topic I’ve wondered about before – in particular the tendency in our world to put ourselves in the place of host when we think about hospitality – whereas the Jesus stories are filled with encounters in which Jesus is the guest rather than the host.  Learning to be guest in our communities, and to see God at work in the world and life of our host is a critical skill.

The second related to an observation from systems theory about the interplay between process and outcomes. The theory (as I heard it expressed) suggests that in a given situation we can either control the process, or the outcomes, but not both. In the Partnership for Missional Church exploration, the attempt is to manage the process – and to let the outcomes be whatever they may be (or whatever God may determine…to take a slightly more theological tone).  The PMC journey is a carefully managed process, but with not pre-determined, or even preferred outcome envisaged before it begins.  What will be, will be.  I’m drawn to that approach.

Thirdly, we heard that there is a body of research that suggests that local churches learn best from one another, than from professional trainers and consultants. As a kind-of-consultant, I of course rankled at this suggestion…but only for a moment. Of course there are times when insights from outside are helpful, but it does seem intuitively true that peer learning is a powerful tool – and that local churches (or their leadership teams) in conversation with one another can learn a great deal from one another’s experiences.  Which reinforces the importance of great relationships with neighbouring congregations. Let’s not be out there going it alone!

The next postcard is a few days away. We’re now gathered with teams from around the world in an International Learning Community on fresh expressions of church.  We’ve collectively agreed on a social media fast for the duration of the gathering (in terms of the gathering itself and the conversations we’re having here), so that we can be fully present to one another, and allow the full process of the gathering to work its way through out thinking.

I’ll tell you though that it’s been incredibly stimulating, and there are lots of thoughts and questions I’m wondering about.  I’ll be back to say more in the next postcard.

on birthdays with a zero…

My youngest is just days away from a very special birthday. The one in which she reaches the magical double-figure mark. She’s bounding around the house with barely contained excitement, the anticipation of the big day breaking forth in unexpected moments as she thinks about a party with her friends, a day with her family, and her first electronic gadget (the iPod has become a de-facto rite of passage at age 10 in our house…please go gentle on the judgement of our parenting choices!).

Lots of birthdays hold significant meaning when you’re young. Double figures. Teenager-hood. Sixteen. The 18 year old adult. The 21st. Time honoured significance in each of those birthdays.

It seems that once you reach a certain age though, birthdays lose something of that magic. Sure it’s nice to have a special dinner with the family, and to receive some best wishes from friends, but it’s not quite as enchanted as when you’re a kid.

Except if the birthday in question has a zero in it.

Maybe its just not possible to keep up the enthusiasm year-in and year-out for birthdays, so we ration it to once every ten years instead. Turning 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and the grand old century mark, these are special days.  Often we think of them as marking a transition point too, onward to the next stage of life.

Zero birthdays give us pause to reflect not just on the last year, but on the last stage of life, the last decade or more. And to think far more than 12 months ahead, pondering what is to come, what choices we’ll make, what the next stage of life holds in store for us.

Anniversaries are a bit the same. Oh Sheri and I will definitely mark the passing of our 22nd anniversary later this year, but we’re already planning toward the 30th in a much bigger way.

A zero is just one number among ten, but somehow the zero makes it special

All of which comes into sharp focus this week.

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