The Accidental Planter (part 1)

Back in 2011, we had a series of church members meetings and an way day to tackle the theme “Space to Grow”. The Chapel building holds about 100 people, we can get up to 120 in at a squeeze with some overspill into the foyer. In reality the true, comfortable capacity of the building is much less. There’s a calculation (not limited to churches) that when a venue’s attendance reaches about 80% of capacity on a regular basis, it is technically full, any growth in attendance begins to plateau out as new-comers begin to find it harder and harder to find a seat.  It is also likely that capacity puts pressure on other aspects of church life and facilities including your ability to run children’s programmes, toilet facilities and even on having the time and space to welcome people properly. 

So, we were at a stage where we needed to do something -but what.  We tried different formats to get enough chairs in, these were not often popular and quickly cut into any honeymoon period a new pastor might expect. We had long conversations at church leaders’ meetings. These started with the question “why do we want to grow”. Looking back now, I think that is a much more important question than I realised at the time. A lot of churches just assume that growth is a good thing and do whatever it takes without taking time to carefully think through what and why.  We were at the other end of the spectrum, people enjoyed the homely feel of the Chapel and there was a nervousness that growth would lose that. 

However, over time, minds and hearts began to change. Together we realised that we could not sustain a kind of accidental one in one out policy for ever.  We realised that if our building was full and if the other Gospel hearted churches in the immediate area were full then there were still  15,000 people in Bearwood and 50,000 in Smethwick who would not be in a church hearing the Gospel and worshipping Christ.  Growth was about looking outside of ourselves and seeing the wider need.

We ran through the options. There seemed initially to be two in front of us. The first was to start a building project.  However this looked to be fraught with challenges.  It would require a lot of fund raising, we didn’t actually have the space onsite to expand easily and we knew it would take time. I know churches that are ten years into such projects and are only just beginning to break ground.  We did not have that kind of time.

The other option was to move out to another venue such as a school hall.  The problem with this was that there was just no appetite at all in the church for it although it was my preferred option and I’d seen other churches do it well. There would have been a lot of work each week setting up and clearing away and people were not sure how we would make the link from midweek events in our building to a physical gathering elsewhere. To be fair, even the nearest venues were not completely on our doorstep and would have shifted the centre of gravity in a way that may well have substantially changed the surrounding demographic.

Then one of our leaders said “Why don’t we start adding services.”  They talked enthusiastically about visiting St Michaels in York that had several services. They mentioned other churches more locally that did this too. I have to be honest, I thought the idea was crazy.  Yes, some big churches did this but the key word there was “big.” For a small church like ours to do so just seemed to big a stretch.

Yet over time, it became clear that this was the only serious option on the table. For me, something clicked. I realised that I could spend a significant proportion of my time here overseeing a building project or trying to persuade people to move to a new venue or we could do this. What this meant was that we would have more and more opportunities each week to share the good news about Jesus and to disciple people. Out of this grew a vision to see congregation multiplied, to get involved in church planting, something I hadn’t come to the West Midlands to do but which became an essential part of our ministry here and now is a big part of our thinking for what next.  We realised that it was important to us to be available to share the good news with hungry, needy people whenever and wherever they were available to meet with us..

That’s how, really by accident I got involved in church planting. It has been so encouraging not to have to do this on our own but to have links and support through 2020 Birmingham and CPI (now Counties Planting).  The obvious and objective consequences were 3 Sunday congregations, a Spanish speaking church plant and a revitalisation/replanting project. More importantly, I would suggest is that it helped us as a church to become even more outward focused with a greater awareness to the Gospel need on our doorsteps.

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