Let’s build churches again

Eric Hanna makes a radical proposal to kickstart the Church in Scotland by going where the people are.

When people talk about Faith in Scotland there is a familiar background drone of pessimism. Even many priests project exhaustion and resignation.

In response to this many of us have simply stopped believing it possible for our parishes to grow. But the Church is missionary or it is nothing – so how do we ditch this managed decline? One way is to start planting new churches. Instead of embracing declining numbers and subtracting parishes, let’s think multiplication.

What is church planting?

Church planting at the most basic level is starting a new church from scratch in an area previously not served. It is a method of evangelism that has stayed the course of time. It was what we see the Apostles doing in the Book of Acts: they preach and teach, the sacraments are given and, as we see St Paul doing, after completing a mission, leave it with leaders to oversee the community of Faith.

Church planting may not be well known in the Catholic world, but it has fuelled the growth of evangelical/Pentecostal churches since the 1970’s. City on A Hill Church in Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s biggest churches. Beginning with three people in 1998, it now has a congregation of 800 people.

Its pastor is Peter Anderson and when I asked him why plant churches he said: “Jesus in the Great Commission told us to make disciples, not churches, but when you read Acts you see disciples being made and churches being planted. Making disciples was planting churches”.

But what does church planting have to do with it?

I live near Inverness, which is the fastest growing city in Scotland and has been one of the fastest in Europe. Our population has grown 17% in this century with a huge growth in housing developments. In one district alone, the Highland Council noted a 115% increase in house-building.

Additionally about eight miles along the A96, Scotland’s newest town is being built – Tornagrain, which over the next 50 years is to become home to 12000 people. We have three existing parishes, one of which was just built in 2007, St Columba’s.

It was an answer to a growing Inverness as far back as 1978, but house-building has continued and now it will not be enough.

This pattern of shifting populations is going on throughout Scotland, to the point that the ‘local parish’ isn’t local anymore. How can our parishes connect with our communities if they do not sit in a community?

Planting churches is about multiplication

A few facts about church Planting: church plants tends to attract ‘new’ people who are not present in established churches. In Research done by ACTS29 (an American church planting network) they state that 60-80% of congregations in new churches are not part of existing churches.

The demographic is often younger and includes a variety of social groups which are often less represented in older churches. These plants can also tailor themselves to the area they are in, for instance, an area with lots of immigrants or places of lower health and living standards.

They also raise up new leaders, people who might get missed otherwise – these are the leaders who go on to help with pastoral or evangelistic elements of the Church.

Catholic church planting?

Much of the information above comes from Protestant ministries and the methodologies come out of Protestant theology. We cannot and should not emulate everything they do but there are things we can learn from.

One of the most important things for any new plants to work is that there is a team of committed individuals or families willing to go and stay in that area or church. It is again about discipleship and in the Catholic context raising up Lay people who could take on the bulk of the work of a new parish. Pope Francis powerfully calls us to action:

“We need lay people who take risks, who get their hands dirty, who are not afraid of making mistakes, who go forward. We need lay people with a vision of the future, not confined to the little things of life.”

Church planting or church renewal is a hard work, it is risky and calls you to live a life bigger than yourself. I should know, I am an ex-church planter, living in the Highlands, not because of a job or family connections, but because I was captured by a vision to spread the Gospel. I was sent and so I went!

As someone who later converted to Catholicism, I believe church planting is an area where we can learn from the evangelicals. It’s not about the clear out of traditions that have sustained our communities for centuries. It is also not about reallocating re- sources or whatever fancy term is used to close a parish.

We need to be Kingdom minded and guided by our Lord, not our accountant.

Embracing the challenge

That said I can hear the critiques already. We do not have enough priests, our parishes are declining, there is no money to build new churches. But this is a chicken and egg argument.

If we do not grow, we do not have priests and then we do not have viable parishes. Are we defeated already? Or are we willing to change our mindset and believe in the possibility that God wants us to do great things?

Eric Hanna is the Editor of St Moluag’s Coracle, an online magazine, and Catholic writer who lives in Nairn.

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