January 20, 2020

Tips for Church Planting in Areas of Urban Deprivation

There are all sorts of models and debates about how, why, and when we should plant and/or launch new churches. Some people prefer the small group/house church/community group model, which is certainly a tried, tested, and proved way of planting new congregations within certain cultural contexts.

I, for one, am not convinced that this is a winning strategy in housing schemes (this is not to say, incidentally, that these groups don’t have pastoral merit in our context). We have the ‘parachute drop’ model, in which a group of outsiders drop into a community to learn its culture and begin to build a gospel community. We have the ‘mother ship’ approach, which is most favoured in the UK, where a larger, richer congregation funds a new work in a certain area(s). Then there are those who prefer church revitalisation. This is to name but a few of the many methodologies out there.

At 20schemes, we want to work cross-denominationally, within a conservative evangelical framework, in a variety of contexts. Therefore, we don’t advocate one model over another. Our vision is to tackle the problem of reaching Scotland’s unreached housing schemes by revitalising and/or planting gospel-centred churches. We don’t necessarily believe that one size fits all.

However, we do recommend some basic considerations for those thinking about partnering with us in this type of ministry.

1. Gather a ‘Full-Time’ Team

I think that we need to have a group of around 10–15 committed Christians, who live within the area they intend to plant/revitalise, in order to begin a new work on a scheme. Preferably, at least two of these people will work full-time in ministry if we are to see any sort of traction in the community in the early days. We need key members of our team to be in other full-time employment (for obvious reasons) but we need to have a full-time presence around the place if we are going to build any sort of momentum.

Now, such a team doesn’t have to be in place straight off the bat but we should be working toward that figure within the first five years (yes, you read that number right). That means we need to be careful with the kinds of leaders we place on the ground here. Spiritual and character considerations aside, they will have to be strong leaders, positive thinkers, and have a real entrepreneurial and persevering spirit. Quiet, laid back characters who are easily discouraged will not be good news for this kind of work in the early years. Somebody building a team and a church from scratch will look very different from another who takes on a dying work and has to pastor it through its death and rebirth.

2. ‘Live In’

Lots of ‘missional thinking’ works on the premise of seeking to build on long-term relationships, but, on housing schemes at least, the ‘work’ of establishing your ‘credentials’ is done very early on. Here, people will want to know who you are and what you are about right from the start. They will want to know what you’re doing in their area, primarily because people (particularly those who are skilled and educated) dream of moving out, not in. Therefore, if they establish the key leader(s) as ‘safe/cool/alright’ then they will generally accept the rest of the group, even those they don’t know so well. Being visible during the day and having a routine (paper shop, pub, local caff, etc.) will enable you to get traction more quickly.

I keep banging this drum because I meet so many who think they can do the job by commuting in. They may make contacts and develop friendships, but it is very hard to sell the vision of Christian community when we ourselves aren’t willing to live that community on the ground. I don’t know of any work in schemes or housing estates where the commute approach has worked with any degree of success. Leaders living in community will have a far easier job of selling the vision than those who don’t. Why should people invest in a ‘church’ when the leaders don’t even live in the community?

3. Have a Full-Time Women’s Worker

Whatever approach we take to planting in schemes, we must have a full-time female worker (not necessarily the planter’s wife). Without this, I think we have little or no chance of developing a holistic ministry and breaking into to what is often a very matriarchal system (mums and grans rule in these here parts!). Often, they can be the key to the rest of the family.

4. Don’t ‘Go it Alone’ or ‘Panic Employ’

I have counselled people who are going into schemes once a week for a children’s club or a Bible study, and they are discouraged by the lack of fruit and progress. Others, disillusioned the local church, have moved in to be a ‘presence’ in the community. But this type of ministry is not a solo venture.

Likewise, I have spoken with elderly and/or dying churches in schemes who think that the key to solving their problems in these areas is to employ some ‘young person’ and throw them to the wolves. Usually, it’s some wide-eyed 20-something Bible College grad who is going to get eaten by anybody over the age of eight! Again, without a wider strategy and team support system in place, this is almost certainly a disaster.

Worse than this, I know churches who have employed men in their late 50’s and early 60’s to turn their church around or to replant/revitalise. This is a disastrous policy if he is not able to get a young team around him quickly. Even now, in my 40’s, I realise that my ministry future will increasingly lie more and more in training young men to do the job. Variety is key, but I think planting in schemes is a young man’s job because of the time and effort involved in establishing contacts early on.

5. Establish Where You Gather

Now, I think this is perhaps more important than any other consideration. In housing schemes, people regard religious gatherings—in what they view as non-church-like-buildings—with great suspicion. Anything not considered a ‘church’ is viewed as cultish and extremely suspect. I cannot overstate this point.

For example, in my first church, which met in an old community hall, my dad was really uncomfortable, and at one point questioned me as to whether it was even a ‘real’ church. Yet in my second church, which met in a reclaimed Church of England building, he and my step mum went along (relatively) happily, enjoyed the service, and felt very much relaxed. Both communities were evangelical and had pretty much the same worshipping style, and yet it was the building that allayed their fears and prejudice. There’s a lot of talk about the church ‘being the people’ and not the building, and I understand what this was (largely) a response to. But, do not undervalue the ‘where’ of a new church plant when working in the schemes.

Alongside this, reputation counts in schemes. In Niddrie for instance, we meet in a brand-new building that looks more like a community centre, which seems to go against everything I have written above. Yet, people on the scheme trust it (even if they don’t come to church) because of the 100-year history associated with the ‘mission’ that has been run out of that building. Interestingly, a couple of church ‘plants’ have been and gone in Niddrie the last decade. Their meeting place each time? The local community centre. In my opinion, one of the (many) reasons for their failure was that people here do not associate that place with ‘church’ and therefore did not take it seriously.

Some initial points to consider as we think more about ministry in housing schemes across the land.

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