What’s the Best Way to Plant a Church on a Housing Scheme?

What’s the Best Way to Plant a Church on a Housing Scheme?

There are all sorts of models and debate 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 (not to mention biblical), proved and tested 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).

On the other hand, there are those who prefer church ‘revitalisation’ as a more effective strategy, and I will write more on this in upcoming blogs. Craig Whitney has written an interesting little piece here on the concept of the “core” and the “launch team” as we think about these matters. He does raise some interesting points. I have outlined some basic considerations below for those thinking about this type of ministry.

1. Gathering a “full time” Team

I think that we need to have a group of around 10-15 committed Christians (obviously living in) in order to begin a new work on a scheme. Preferably,  at least 2 of these people ought to be full-time 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 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. Lots of ‘missional thinking’ works on the premise of seeking to build 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 straight off the bat. They won’t be as polite (or as individualistic) as middle class people and they will soon ask you what your ‘motives’ are. They 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. If they establish the key leader(s) as ‘safe/cool/alright’ then they will 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.

2. Have a long-term Team Building Plan

Myself, a single mother, my wife, a youth worker and a pastoral assistant make up my core team. Within that group myself and the single mother are what I call “culturally indigenous” – we grew up on a council estate/housing scheme. The others are middle class ‘imports’. On my internship I have a Brasilian and a young, semi literate “culturally indigenous” convert from the scheme (he moved there 4 years ago). In my “pre-internship” I currently have an “indigenous – to Niddrie” single mum – about to be married and 2 “culturally indigenous men”. All are (or will be) meeting with, studying with, praying with people from around the scheme from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. This is healthy and it has taken time to develop. My team is purposefully “broad” as we seek to try to (1) reflect the cultural makeup of those around us and (2) build an effective model for training future leaders.

We must be thinking 5-10 years ahead when we’re working in schemes. Even if you are on your own now, you can turn this around by even seeking out one key person to invest into. People ask me how we attract our interns. Pray for one (or more), advertise for them, envision them. Show them how they can be part of a bigger vision for kingdom work in your area (and not just there to do your photocopying). Invite them along to help change the culture of your church and/or set the future direction of a new one. In my experience people are attracted to vision. More than that, they are attracted to those who they think have the credibility to pull it off. Once you attract one young leader, more will follow, momentum will build, vision will grow and you will begin to see movement. One of the dreams we have at Niddrie is to train and send interns out into difficult areas with men who are under resourced in order to encourage them and help them build this forward momentum.

3. We don’t have to be big to make an impact

Can I suggest that a church of 20-60 active and committed believers living gospel centred lives in a housing scheme is extremely healthy and can be a real catalyst for further, similar plants.

3. You Must Have a Full Time Women’s Worker

I think that 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 wholistic 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. (My own preference for church planting would be to go mob handed: planter, women’s worker, youth and/or children’s worker as a minimum in a brand new work).

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 sole 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 is some wide-eyed middle class kid who is going to get eaten by anybody over the age of 8. 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 late 30’s, I realise that my ministry future will increasingly lie more and more in training young men to do the job.

5. Where You Gather is Key

Now, I think this is perhaps more important than any other consideration (and not mentioned in the article). 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 considered cultish and extremely suspect. I cannot overstate this point enough. 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’ in that place. Interestingly, a couple of church ‘plants’ have been and gone in Niddrie the last 5 years. 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.