Honour, navigate, build

Ric Thorpe

Bishop of Islington, England

In 2009, I saw a video by Mark Jobe from New Life Community Church about their Restart programme, helping older churches that were stuck in the past to have a new future. He summed up their strategy as “Honour the past, navigate change in the present, build for the future”. I showed it to our network many times because this summed up our church planting strategy that we have employed since 1985. So, giving credit to Mark Jobe for the phrase, here is our take on using this strategy in our church planting to date. 

Honour the past

We are part of historic denomination, stretching back to the Gregorian mission of St Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 595AD. In my own church, St Paul’s Shadwell, prayers have been prayed since 1656 when a church was first built for that area. Set in that context, we are but a link in a long chain of disciples working in God’s harvest field, and not, as perhaps I would like to feel sometimes, the “next best thing since sliced bread”! There is so much to discover as soon as you start digging into the past that informs the present and the future for your particular context.

There is also something important about prayers from previous generations. Surely we are reaping what others have sown? Where previous decline has been mourned with “tears of sadness”, we are witnessing growth with “shouts of joy”. We must honour the saints of the past and their prayers.

We must also learn from the past. There is plenty to learn from older generations about what went well and what didn’t; about initiatives that have had a lasting legacy, positive or negative; about the spiritual history of an area that can inform what happened before and what might happen still.

This part of our strategy means that we want to bless older generations of Christians who have served in the place we now inhabit; we want to acknowledge their sacrifice, their prayers, their service, their rootedness in past traditions. We want to identify their dreams and link them to a future that is only possible with changing from the past in the present. It also means we want to identify what will be most challenging as they face that change so we can help them.

Navigate change in the present

In our model of church planting or “church partnership”, we have been invited to “plant” something new, to bring new life and growth, to give a confident future. To do something new means to bring change and change is always hard.

I recognise that one of my key roles as leader of our church community is to help those I am leading to change from where they are to something better. That involves casting vision, identifying specific goals that people can grasp and that are exciting and motivating and developing a strategy to see those goals reached.

The one thing a leader needs to keep on doing is encouraging people with the vision: this is where we are going and this is why it is worth it. That will involve creating the “burning platform” that shows people we must change, through to encouraging people through the hard work of seeing that happen in practice. I have found Mike Breen’s Lifeshape “square” on leadership and discipleship so helpful here when he describes the challenge of encouraging people not to give up when the going gets tough but to help them into what he calls “conscious competence”, seeing things beginning to succeed.

Keeping everyone on board is one of the other leadership challenges and encouragement and listening are important elements to this part of the strategy.

Building for the future

In any church planting, the whole reason for doing it is to see God’s Kingdom grow by reaching new people with the good news of Jesus Christ. This requires seeing a different future that is worth going through the agonies of change for. We want to see the church grow with new disciples, who are making disciples, transforming their communities and planting new churches. Therefore, we need to plan and act intentionally to see that growth.

It makes a huge difference to have an expectation of growth. Jesus said that if seed falls on good soil it will produce a crop 30, 60, or 100 times what was sown. We are looking for good soil. We are looking for people who are open to the Spirit (“people of peace”, Luke 10). That means that we will prioritise our time, our budgets, our ministries, around seeing that growth happen.

Structuring a church plant in this way means that we will build for the future. We cannot do this alone. But we know that we are called to be co-workers with Christ. And what a privilege that is!

We can all
play our part!

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