Three questions that get asked when church planting

As you probably know, we are in the process of trying to plant a church into the town of Rochdale. The town itself has around 100,000 people in it and part of the wider borough of Rochdale which has c. 210,000 people in it. The wider borough has a couple of gospel preaching churches in outlying towns such as Middleton and Milnrow. But the town of Rochdale itself lacks a faithful, bible-teaching, gospel-centred church in its midst.

As we head into the plant, several questions rear their head. I don’t think they are terrible questions to ask in a sense, but they do sometimes give away how we go into these things. Here are some of them:

Aren’t we taking a big risk?

The short answer is, yes. Nothing is without risk. The truth is, church planting is risky. We could pour a lot of time, money, people-power and energy into something that in a few years simply isn’t viable. Church plants fail at an alarming rate.

For some, that would be reason enough to stop and wait until that risk is minimised. But, in our opinion, if we wait until there is almost no risk, the chances are that we will never end up planting at all. Even if we do get around to planting something in time, that will be years where the 100,000 people in the town of Rochdale are without a credible gospel preaching church in their midst. When weighed against the fate of those who may not have a chance to hear and respond to the gospel, we have to ask, what really is the bigger risk? Our potentially failing some way down the track having tried or our not going at all?

Do church plants work?

In one sense, I understand this question. Behind it lies the belief that we wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time and money doing something that won’t achieve anything. That is, of course, entirely understandable.

But in another sense, I think the question isn’t a great one. For one, I am not so much convinced that we should plant a church because ‘it works’ but rather because the local church is the only vehicle known in scripture for the spread of the gospel and the work of discipleship. The question is less, ‘does it work?’ and more ‘what does scripture ask us to do?’

But aside from that, it all depends on what we mean by ‘what works’. Works to do what exactly? If the goal is to go out and make converts, I can think of lots of ways we might do that which (potentially) might work better. But I am not sure of many other things that would so effectively make disciples and I certainly cannot think of anything that would be a more faithful means of achieving those things.

I think when we get drawn into the question of ‘what works’ we end up traipsing down the road of pragmatism. On such a view, the last place we should be looking to plant is a deprived town full of South Asian Muslims! But the more pertinent question is, are we being faithful? That is, faithful in what we are seeking to do and faithful in the means by which we do it. The results, really, are the Lord’s prerogative.

Does the borough need another church?

Behind this one lies a few other questions. First, how far do you reasonably draw the boundaries of church reach? For example, would we expect a church in Rochdale to credibly reach out to people in Salford, a borough the other side of Manchester? If not so far, would we expect a church in a neighbouring borough to reach the one next to it? If not that, would we expect a church within an outlying town within a borough to meaningfully reach into another town within that same borough? Or, are local churches exactly that; local.

Second, we have to ask about the reasonable reach of a single church. Would I reasonably expect our little church in Oldham to meaningfully reach all c. 240,000 residents of our borough? To even reach 1% of the borough, we would need 48 churches of around 50 members each. So, another 47 churches all slightly bigger than we are right now. The idea that the whole area can or will meaningfully be reached on our own is crazy. This is true for almost any place. We have to be realistic about what one church, on its own, could meaningfully achieve. Are unchurched folks likely to bus out to us to hear the gospel we want to share? It seems more likely that we will meaningfully share the gospel with our friends and neighbours as we live with and among them. That necessitates churches in areas where there are currently, none.

Third, we have to ask – regardless of what we think should happen – whether the people in a particular area will view it the same way. For example, as a child, I went to a church on an estate in Birkenhead. Realistically, if the church was somewhere away from that estate, even if still in Birkenhead, we wouldn’t have reached anybody from the estate itself. That is just not how the locals operate. Similarly, if people in one town in a particular borough would never have cause to wander into another, we do have to question the wisdom of attempting to reach people from a place to which they would never go. Instead, it is sensible to put something in their midst, in the places where to do go, and live amongst them, so that they might engage with the gospel.

If you would like to help support the church plant in Rochdale, please do get in touch using the contact form on this blog.