New Communities Pioneer Pilot Projects: An Evaluation for the Diocese of Oxford

Reflections by Revd Will Donaldson, Head of New Congregations, on the Summary Report by the Church Army Research Unit

Why this report is important and helpful

As the Head of New Congregations in the Diocese of Oxford, giving leadership to one of the main strands of mission within our common vision, I believe that this report from the Church Army Research Unit has rich pickings for us as we move forward towards our vision of growing 750 new worshipping communities by 2030, and so becoming a mixed ecclesial ecology diocese – with traditional parish churches flourishing alongside new churches and congregations, in rural benefices, urban areas, new housing areas, market towns and suburban communities.

Here are some of the key learning areas from the report that will shape the future:

1.       Remember our church pioneering history

This report has reminded us that our New Congregations programme for this next decade is part of an ongoing ministry of nearly 20 years of growing new worshipping communities. The ‘Cutting Edge Ministries’ project, under the Bishop of Dorchester’s oversight, lasted from 2002-08 and was literally ‘ahead of the game’ in terms of developing Fresh Expressions of Church. Since 2008, other church plants and fresh expressions have sprung up all over the diocese. We are simply standing on the shoulders of others. There are currently regular meetings which draw together all our diocesan pioneers for fellowship, support and prayer – I am always struck by what significant ministries they have embraced, and how much we will need their energy and experience in the future.

2.       Thank God for our church pioneering ministries

This report has drawn our attention to eight church-planting projects into new areas of housing and invited us to celebrate all that has been achieved by a select group of bold and godly pioneers. Despite challenges, difficulties and setbacks, their achievements (under God) have been significant: building community, forming new worshipping communities, growing disciples, training lay leaders and developing sustainability. We give thanks for their vision, courage and perseverance, remembering the words of St Paul: ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’, 1 Cor 3.6.

3.       Learn from our church pioneering experience

The projects studied have highlighted various challenges it terms of sustainability of paid leadership and regular giving, a mismatch of expectations between key parties involved, growing a team and delegation, ecumenical partnerships, building projects – and not having a building, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these are being considered carefully as we move into this new phase of growing new congregations. But there is also much that the report has done to re-affirm the principles that we already have in place: loving and serving our communities first, investing in relationships that provide a platform for the subsequent establishment of new worshipping communities, developing a collaborative culture, training lay leaders and being adaptable to changing situations.

We must all read, mark and learn.

Revd Will Donaldson
Head of New Congregations, March 2021