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Rearranging the deckchairs or building new boats?

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“For us, church planting was me and my family moving to Mackay,” says Jai Wright, the pastor of Mackay Evangelical Church.

What followed was a prolonged struggle to connect with a highly transient culture shaped by fly-in/fly-out work patterns, but after four years’ effort the Wrights have had to move their congregation to a high school to accommodate the 50 members now attending.

Cases like the Wrights’ explain why for some years church planters have occupied a similar space in Australia’s Christian community to that of entrepreneurs and innovators in the secular world. Both are driven by personalities prepared to operate outside of an established system, try the unusual and make gains that were thought to be unachievable.

But if Australian Christianity is a slowly sinking ship, is church planting building new boats or simply rearranging the deckchairs?

Australia’s largest home-grown church planting network, Geneva Push is turning five, providing an opportunity to evaluate whether this strategy is effective in adding souls to the Kingdom. It has been associated with the planting of 45 churches across Australia over four years. It’s assessing a further 20 potential planters who plan to plant within the next two years.

One such planter is Anglican minister Pete Wood. He and his wife Liz planted a church in the new Western Sydney subdivision of Ropes Crossing. This year their church of 60 members celebrated its third birthday with the baptism of four new members. Pete and Liz have bought a house in the middle of Ropes Crossing and are settled in for the long haul.

Ollie and Nadia Heggers from Western Australia reflect a familiar church planters’ story: determined planting where past evangelism has failed or efforts were thin.

“We decided we had to plant a church here because Christians weren’t present enough in the community,” says Ollie.

Four years of opening their house, conversations and connecting with community services has seen Forrestdale Gospel Community swell from 12 to 40.

Geneva Push research, analysing 151 successful church plants, suggests members of church plants display a greater vitality than those of existing churches across a wide range of indicators: a stronger sense of belonging, more ownership of the church’s vision, more intentional welcoming and a greater desire to share their faith. As a result, church plants have 9 per cent more ‘newcomers’—people who have not been attending any church for five years.

Most planters agree that churches needed to be designed to draw people to visit to learn about God.

Clayton Fopp, the senior minister at Trinity Mount Barker on the outskirts of Adelaide says that’s why his church plant puts a high emphasis on adapting to reach its community. Forty per cent of his congregation have had no previous connection with church but feel at home in a culture constructed with them in mind.

“Everything we built in over time was included only if it would help us connect the people in this area with Jesus,” says Clayton.

Tasmanian church planter Mikey Lynch says church plants fulfil a vital role working alongside established churches.

“To some extent church plants become like the R&D department for the local region. Church plants are dumb enough to try things that everyone says won’t work—and then they work.”

And ideally, says Mikey, planters should be thinking “in such a way that [their church] will be on a trajectory to plant its own churches.”

It’s a strategy Clayton appreciates. “We’re a granddaughter church—a plant from a plant. The churches we start, we want them to be committed to planting too. We want to say to our congregation, ‘It’s not about you.’”

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