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The English join the Church planting movement

Some people would say Ric Thorpe is doing it the wrong way: but it looks like it might just work

Myth: Churches are dying everywhere in the UK especially in the Church of England

Fact: The C of E London diocese (region) grows year on year and has started to plant new churches. And they are not the only ones doing it.

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In its homeland, the Church of England is doing something that most denominations in Western countries have not been able to ignite or sustain. It is taking Church planting seriously, and will spend 47 million dollars to create 100 new churches by 2020. “Churches plant churches not denominations” is a mantra of many church planters – could the Church of England be about to prove that wrong?

In Australia during the past two months to advise and enthuse local Christians about church growth, church planting bishop Ric Thorpe has a radically inclusive approach to spreading the good news of Jesus.

“We need everyone, to reach everyone,” says Thorpe, a seasoned minister who was appointed Bishop of Islington (and church-planting overseer) in 2015. “We need every kind of church to reach every kind of person.”

Thorpe explains how the  Church in England, a sister church to the Anglican Church of Australia, has started new Christian communities in workplaces, schools and housing estates, as well as ones which target specific groups (such as French or Turkish speakers) or locations (King’s Cross Station and its commuters). Thorpe recounts being struck by a young assistant minister’s idea to start a weekly “meeting” at a local shopping centre, because she realised “they’re not going to come to us; so we will go to them.”

Supported by the Church of England’s Centre for Church Planting and Growth, chatty chap Thorpe isn’t limiting church planting to the aforementioned examples, or to his own brand of Christianity. While he is happily grounded in the Anglican Church in England, Thorpe believes God needs all Christians – irrespective of denomination, background or style – to proclaim who and what their faith is in.

As he has done in Australia by meeting with Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal and Uniting Church groups, Thorpe loves working alongside different denominations. Having worked for 15 years at London’s Holy Trinity Brompton – home of the Alpha Course, which backed Thorpe’s Australian visit – he has seen the value of knowing what you are about but not then being stymied by points of disagreement with fellow believers.

“You begin to appreciate that [while] we might have differences, we are part of one body, the body of Christ; one Church, rather than lots of little churches,” explains Thorpe in New Testament terms. “As soon as you begin to inhabit that space, that becomes really exciting.”

“I don’t need to agree with everyone on many parts of doctrine, and so on, to be unified with them. I know there are raging debates about where we draw the line – and I think they are important debates to have – but often we reject things just because they are different.”

Church planting movements have tended to spring up outside of major denominations, free from the inherent bureaucracy, tradition and culture of an existing organisation. Trying to start something new within an established Christian denomination can be tough. But while church planting movements such as Acts 29, Geneva Push or City to City might be more nimble and have less hurdles to entrepreneurial endeavour, denominations have potential to offer scale. What Thorpe is doing in thee  Church of England, can the thought of as planting a church-planting movement within an existing denomination.

Thorpe  doesn’t restrict his vision to always being about the completely new plant. “I have a passion for revitalising the Church; renewing and reforming the Church from within,” says Thorpe, alluding to the Church of England’s “reform and renewal” outlook. “We have an absolute mandate to start new churches in places where the church isn’t but also to renew churches, particularly if they are dying or have closed – or are asking to be revitalised.”

Basically, Thorpe’s model for Christian churches going forward is to work out how can the gospel be best served up in a particular place for particular people. Thorpe isn’t prescriptive or precious about the format; he just wants those involved to clearly know why and how they do what they do.

“The first thing is knowing why you are doing it in the first place. Know your ‘why’.”

“My starting point is to actually say that the assumption in Scripture is that the Church is going to grow. The growth parables of Jesus and the stories in the Acts of the Apostles; even in persecution, when the Church is scattered, the Church grows. The disciples pray and ask for boldness in Acts 4 – and for opportunities to preach the gospel.

“So, that’s what I start with: let’s do everything we can to proclaim the good news and find the places where that hasn’t been done before. To be honest, that’s most places. We tend to be quite contained within our churches and not looking outwards very much.”

Driven by Jesus’ expectation to always draw new followers (see Matthew 28:16-20), Thorpe advises Christians to be open to adapting or changing how they regularly worship. “If we are not prepared to change the way we do church – not changing the content of what we believe – then we are going to do a disservice to generations coming through. They will just reject it because they can’t relate to it.”

Thorpe is an exponent of making any necessary changes which “win the right to communicate the good news of Jesus, in a way that they can relate to.” He promotes pinching stuff from other denominations or Christian streams which have had success at bringing the good news to contemporary generations – without changing the message.

The passion with which Thorpe talks about church planting or revitalising can seem to skate across his earlier acknowledgment that some will reject the good news of Jesus. But Thorpe doesn’t pretend that evangelism is easy or will have guaranteed results. Instead, he takes another tip from Jesus about how to spread his good news. Recorded in Luke 10:6, Jesus instructed his initial disciples to look for the “person of peace” in any new place they visit. Scouring a community for the “person of peace” – “the person who is not just open to welcoming you, but is also a connecting person to many other people” – could be the gateway to sharing the gospel in a neighbourhood.

“There will be people and places that reject it but look out for the people who are open,” enthuses Thorpe.

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