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What are we learning from Strategic Development Funding?

Although it is still early days for most of the projects supported through Strategic Development Funding, we are beginning to identify some key learning points.  In this article, based on a paper for the Strategic Investment Board, David Jennings reflects on some of the emerging themes: intentional evangelism, the capacity of churches to grow, the value of establishing new worshipping communities, the challenge of culture change, and the value strategic programme managers can bring.

Intentional Evangelism

1.      The importance of getting the basics right: both within projects that are up and running, and in the process of developing applications, it is regularly reported that levels of intentional, external mission have fallen to low levels in much of the inherited church: for example, many churches have not run a discipleship or enquirers’ course in many years, even in churches with relatively large congregations that have the capacity to do so.

2.      In contrast, projects (such as Coventry’s 20-30s workers) are showing encouraging progress in part because of the high levels of activity (57 events in 12 months), coupled with intentional pathways (a “next step”) for attendees. The experience of the existing projects continues to bear out the importance of intentionality more widely – the strongest factor associated with growth in the research underpinning From Anecdote to Evidence.

3.      Such approaches - also evidenced in the clear outreach plans most resource churches have developed – is demonstrating the importance of having a clearly thought-through methodology that goes from the initial activity through to the desired end-point, even if this has to be modified in the light of experience.

Capacity of churches to grow

4.      Another issue which is surfacing more regularly in some of the discussions, around both SDF applications and the evaluations of existing projects, is of the capacity of existing churches to grow. This is often, though not exclusively, related to their capacity to undertake mission relevant to families, children and young people. The extent of this issue is underpinned by the statistics that half of Church of England churches have a weekly adult attendance of just 31 and child attendance of 3.

5.      The issue being reported is that, where congregations are small and/or increasingly elderly, although their witness may be very faithful, their ability to engage in effective mission – particularly to those not represented in their current congregation – is likely to be constrained. And even if they can engage, current service offerings, orientated to the existing congregation, may struggle to retain new people.

6.      In such situations, dioceses need to develop new strategies. The most common current approaches are to create new worshipping communities in the form of fresh expressions and resource churches (and church planting), recognising in both cases that the practical resources (money and volunteers) and missional energy will need to come from larger churches or specific networks, supported by targeted diocesan investment.

The Value of Establishing New Worshipping Communities

7.      Although it is still early days, projects which involve establishing new worshipping communities – be they fresh expressions of Church, resource churches or new congregations – are delivering numerical growth more quickly than other approaches. This reinforces a similar finding from the work to Develop Church Growth in Deprived Areas, where these approaches saw the highest level of growth (with little substantive growth from other approaches). There are likely to be many reasons for this, but the fact that they tap into mission energy (people, ideas), are by their nature mission-focused from the outset, and do not have to try to change an established church, are likely to be relevant.

8.      Of course, we need to be mindful of issues like sustainability and longevity as well.  The reality of a significant mortality rate in church plants and fresh expressions is well evidenced – the Church Army’s 2016 research showed rates in the 10% to 20% range.  However, we are hearing of mortality rates as high as 25 or 30% in some dioceses, and this is an area which will be important to track, noting that the most frequently cited reason is a change in leadership or related issues. An area we will be watching closely is how the different approaches fare in developing new worshipping communities; some are highly structured and programmatic (London); others more informal and network-based (Leicester); and some have elements of both (Leicester, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Bath & Wells and St Albans).

9.      A parallel issue is the blurring of lines between ‘established’ models of church and fresh expressions – the so called ‘mixed economy’. Leicester’s SDF project has described a ‘merged’ economy, where many of the fresh expressions and new missional communities grow from existing parish churches. However, we are increasingly hearing of a wider interpretation still – the value of simply undertaking intentional missional activities that are reaching out from existing churches, with less emphasis on whether it meets the strict definition of a fresh expression of Church. Some are in the same style as the originating church (eg resource churches), and sometimes deliberately reaching beyond existing congregations through different approaches.

Culture

10.  The issue of the need to change church culture – and need to plan for it within projects - is an increasingly frequent one.

11.  That said, in some areas – Transforming Wigan is the best example so far – a deliberate and concerted attempt to tackle such barriers through training, coaching and change management, supported by senior leadership – has begun to deliver real change, and a willingness to engage in new approaches and structures. In Chelmsford, Interim (“Turnaround”) Ministry has also delivered culture change in congregations, albeit in a different context. There is some evidence that focus is important – trying to achieve culture change is much easier with a workable number of parishes.

The value of Strategic Programme Managers

12.   We are already seeing the difference that the appointment of Strategic Programme Managers is bringing to the development, initiation and delivery of proposals in dioceses. This is not limited to funded activity, but those who are more established have helped to act as agents of wider change, modelling good practice in terms of stakeholder engagement, delivery discipline, establishing efficient governance, and maintaining lines of accountability for delivery.


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