Fifty Years of Church Planting: the Story as I See It..
This is the first chapter of Fresh and Re:Fresh. David Fitch penned this for the book about a year ago. It remains a good summary of the issues.
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Over the last three decades, I have watched church planting change dramatically in Canada and the Northern parts of the United States. Back in the sixties/seventies, we used to send fifteen or twenty people from one local church into another place several towns over that was “under-churched.” We would hold worship services, teach Sunday school, have a children’s ministry. We would set up shop. We would choose a pastor who “had all the tools” as they would say. He (most often a male) would be young, energetic and able to work like crazy. We would send out pubic announcements expecting many who were looking for a church to just show up. And if we did the basic services well, then we assumed the little gathering would grow into a self-sustaining church in 3 years. In many ways, these church plants resembled franchises.
Church planting worked like this because there were still large numbers of Christians to draw from for a congregation. We were in the great post-WW2 expansion in North America. New towns and subdivisions were springing up left and right. And just as each town needed a supermarket, a library and public schools, so also it needed a church. One could assume that out of the many thousands moving here into these new habitats, some would be Christians and need a church. So we planted churches like franchised local grocery stores. This was the era of Christendom.
In the eighties, the focus on church planting changed. Post WW2 expansion had slowed. More and more of the suburban boomers had not returned to the churches of their youth. The focus of church planting shifted to recapturing these now unchurched people for Christ. Now when we went to plant a church we needed to first conduct marketing surveys. We asked what we could do to make church more relevant and user friendly.
The surveys focused on finding out what unchurched people were looking for. What turns them off of church? How can we do church in a way that relates to these people? How can we make church relevant so that the “unchurched” would come to our services? What could make church more attractive? We focused on delivering the services with “excellence” and “efficiency” characteristic of the marketplace. In these ways we planted churches like Wal-Marts. The seeker service and church growth methods were invented. Hundreds of boomer generation people came who had left the church a decade before. Many hundreds of people in traditional churches left as well for “the new and improved” big box churches. Today, hundreds of mega-churches exist across North America as a testimony to the “success” of this approach to church planting.
Church planting like this worked because there were still huge numbers of unchurched people who had once learned of Christ in the earliest years of their upbringing. These unchurched had some familiarity with who Jesus was. Deep within their boomer psyches, Jesus still carried credibility, even authority, even if they did consider the church obsolete. We assumed therefore that if we could just make Jesus more relevant and attractive (as opposed to their former experiences of church) they would come.
If the Bible could be communicated in a way that was meaningful to people’s everyday life and needs, these unchurched would surely listen. And they did come. People making “decisions for Christ” multiplied. Church-planting like this, however, still depended upon what was left of the vestiges of North American Christendom. A majority of the conversions were former high-church catechumens “coming back to Jesus.” They had never made a “personal” decision to follow the Jesus they had earlier been taught about (most often in catechetical rote fashion). In this way, the seeker church movement was built upon Christendom.
The days of Christendom are fading fast, and a following change in mindset of those who would plant churches. As the number of Christians without a church shrinks, as the number of unchurched who once were catechumens of Christianity grows extinct, I have witnessed first hand a new wave of church planters who think of church planting in completely different ways. They are not interested in competing for the leftovers of Christendom. They resist the notion that the church is in need of just one more innovation. They are interested in nothing less than becoming missionaries, to plant churches cross culturally, to cross cultural barriers to people who have no knowledge or language about Jesus.
FROM SETTING UP GROCERY (BIG-BOX) STORES TO CULTIVATING GARDENS
For those of us born before 1970, this change is truly stunning. The landscape of post-Christendom demands we think about church planting with a new eye for faithfulness, truth and integrity. Among the new missional leaders, church is the name we give to a way of life, not a set of services. We do not plant an organized set of services; we inhabit a neighborhood as the living embodied presence of Christ. Missional leaders now root themselves in a piece of geography for the long term – becoming not only missional but also incarnational.
When we plant today, we survey the land for the poor and the desperate, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. We seek to plant seeds of ministry, kernels of forgiveness, new plantings of the gospel among “the poor (of all kinds)” and then by the Spirit water and nurture them into the life of God in Christ. We gather on Sunday, but not for evangelistic reasons. We gather to be formed into a missonal people and then sent out into the neighborhoods to minister grace, peace, love and the gospel of forgiveness and salvation.
The biggest part of church, then, is what goes on outside gathering. If the old ways of planting a church were like setting up a grocery store, now it is more like seeding a garden, cultivating it, and watching God grow it amidst the challenges of the rocks, weeds and thorns (I owe this metaphor to my co-pastors at Life on the Vine). What do these leaders look like? How can we walk alongside them? After hanging with a hundred or so of these leaders over the past few years, I have observed that missional leaders will most often be the following kinds of people.
THEY WILL BE SURVIVORS
Enduring missional leaders must learn how to survive financially and spiritually for the long term. They must be able to hold down a job that does not consume them, but that enables them to live simply for the long term. In Christendom, the denominations used to pay someone to go plant a church. This would usually be one person who was unusually gifted and (based upon the above premises) could get a self-sufficient church going in three years. This person was in essence paid to extend an organization, open up a franchise, and set up a version of church that mirrored the distinctives of the denomination.
In the new post-Christendom, this doesn’t make sense. In my opinion it takes at least 5 years of “seeding a community” before one even begins to see an ethos of community and new life develop that can be a cultural carrier-transmitter of the gospel. As a result, the new missional community leaders must have patience, steady faithfulness and the ability to live simply. They must be able to get jobs and not see the ministry as a privileged full time vocation. They must have a mental image of how they are going to sustain their lives financially, relationally, spiritually and personally. This must take the shape of a sustainable rhythm. In my experience, these kinds of leaders are often found among the young and disenchanted evangelicals. I have learned they merely need a vision and a support network and they are willing to sacrifice in ways my generation never would.
THEY WILL BE COMMUNAL SHEPHERDS
I have found that missional leaders are most often shepherds of an overall ethos of a community. They are not starting and managing an organization. They may not even be good at organization. Instead they are cultivating a communal sense of mission identity among a gathering people “for this time and place.” It used to be every church planter had to be an extravert entrepreneur, someone who looked good and had the perfect family. Single people need not apply. This person had to be a good salesman (woman) and had to have endless energy. He or she had to set a vision, direct a course, motivate and sell.
It’s true that many of these qualities are helpful in starting new things. Yet I have seen, in this new era, that the missional leader is more often someone who can take time and be with people. He or she will listen to people, discern the needs, articulate where we are going, and knit the community together in a common struggle with gentleness, encouragement, and listening. We do not gather as we once did to hear a charismatic leader preach an entertaining piece of inspiration. We do not gather for a professional piece of programmed worship experience. In the new post-Christendom we are coming together to be formed and shaped, supported and edified for the Mission as a band of brothers and sisters. Yes, we do gather on Sundays to hear the Word, to be nourished at the Table, and respond to what God is calling us to — but we do all this not as individuals but as a community, a community “sent out” into mission.
These kinds of leaders do not grow on trees; they must be mentored in character for the patience and faithfulness such shepherding requires. The type A person who is always selling or programming something has a role – don’t get me wrong. But missional communities will not grow unless there is a nurturing, sustaining presence prodding and investing for the long term. Leaders that can adapt, roll with the punches, and shepherd communally are more valuable than the high-powered “strong starters” who wish to be on to the next thing in two years.
These new kinds of leaders are mentored not through leadership conferences and books, but in regular times together to practice together listening and mutual submission. They need to see love and consistency, and they need guidance and not a dictator.
THEY WILL BE INTERPRETIVE LEADERS
Rarely do missional leaders lead their communities as the featured Bible teacher who dictates the Alpha and Beta of Biblical doctrine. Rather they are interpreters of what God is doing communally through the teaching and preaching of Scripture. They read Scripture in community and preach looking for what God is calling us to in the neighborhood. It used to be that every church planter was a gifted preacher who could draw the crowds. Those days are past.
They are, not because you cannot attract dissatisfied or thrill seeking Christians from other churches with a great preacher, but because we have seen that true spiritual growth occurs communally only when the whole congregation is involved in times of praying, hearing, submitting and responding to the Word. Interpretive leaders do not dictate from the pulpit a list of do’s and don’ts and solutions from God for every problem. They interpret the Scriptures to open our eyes to what God is doing and where He is taking us. In other words, they cultivate other interpreters/listeners.
In a different way then, we must mentor leaders who are more than great preachers. They must lead their communities in seeing what God is doing via the eyeglass of Scripture. “Where is God taking us, where is he calling us?” How do we respond faithfully in this time and place?
The sermons and teaching of missional leaders, therefore, fund the corporate imagination of God’s Kingdom in our midst and where He is at work in our everyday lives. And when conflicts arise, we sit and pray, submit to one another, and pray for courage and humility and discern the Scriptures for the journey we are in called to make in God’s mission. This kind of leader often does not come from our (all too often) modernist seminaries. They are grown in a community which gathers to worship the Triune God so as to discern Him at work in our midst.
THEY WILL BE DIRECTORS OF SPIRITUAL FORMATION
I believe that missional leaders must know how to guide the community in spiritual formation. Admittedly, this kind of leadership is not common among younger evangelicals at least. Yet I still believe that the development of communal worship liturgies that are historically thick yet still local and organic is crucial for these times. We now recognize that the consumerist forces of our post Christendom Canada (and even worse in the United States) cannot be resisted as isolated individuals. An individual alone cannot resist the forces of desire that tell us a five bedroom house, and two new cars are more important than Mission, the very life we share with the Triune God. Our communities therefore must be places of spiritual formation, of resistance to the forces of distraction, unsatiated desire and exploitation of those we choose not to know.
This means that our Sunday/Saturday gatherings must be places of spiritual formation, encouragement and sending out for Mission. We must ever navigate against putting on a show that will attract; rather we must develop a liturgy that is simple, accessible and Scriptural and that guides our lives into Christ and guards us from the distractions that would take us away from Mission. I know that liturgy is a difficult pill to swallow these days for the newly arriving missional leaders. But there will be no missional community of people formed and shaped for mission if we just preach Mission as a legalistic requirement. Mission requires patience, a sense of vision and a level of self-denial that can only be formed inwardly in living bodies, trained in the simple organic disciplines/liturgies of the historic church.
THEY WILL BE LEADERS WHO GIVE AWAY POWER
Missional leaders that have served for any length of time have learned how to die to their egos and allow God to use every man and woman’s gifts in the community for the furtherance of His Kingdom. Hierarchy is the product of Christendom. It hails to a day when Christianity still held power in society, when Jesus was still established as a given in Canada (even when the protestant liberal Jesus dominated Canada, there still remained a basis for authority and a respect for who Jesus was).
Hierarchy made sense in a day when the preacher in the town was looked up to and held power. This old world, when one man could wield influence and get things done in the name of Christ, is waning. As a result, no one man or woman can lead a community from the top down and expect the church to go on as a viable social reality. We cannot be the very Body of Christ if we do not empower the manifold gifts in the community to minister the kingdom as part of everyday life. If we even try to operate out of the old hierarchical ways, missional communities will flounder and their leaders will die from exhaustion. I have seen it happen over and over.
It is my belief therefore that missional leadership needs always to be multiple. Most missional pastors/leaders need to be bi-vocational (bi-ministerial) for their own survival. Such leaders must learn to mutually submit to the other leaders as they guide the journey of the community. They must mutually learn to mentor leaders and give away power. Different strengths should be recognized among leaders and then multiply that leadership (following the APEPT model of Frost and Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come).
This model subverts the CEO pastorate style we have all become so used to because each pastor gives away power instead of consolidating it. This kind of pastoral leadership models a living body for the rest of the community to see instead of dictating to the rest of the church to “just do it.” In this way, all shall own the leadership of this community and the journey we are on in the Mission. This kind of leadership needs to be mentored, modeled and practiced and it never comes easy.
THE PROMISE OF CANADA’S NEW MISSIONAL LEADERS and the COMING OF MISSIONAL ORDERS
All of the above paints a picture of not just a new kind of leader, but also a new vision of what Canadian church can look like in post-Christendom. There is an invigorated ecclesiology emerging here in these up-and-coming church planters. This view of church places emphasis on forming a social life together that is rich in community. Inherent in this social life is the drive to be hospitable, open communities that invite the stranger into our midst, telling Our Story, ministering the grace and healing of the gospel. We will take up space, not as a defensive enclave, but as the visible manifestation of His reign ahead of time for all to see and experience.
This view of church says we must dedicate ourselves to a specific geographic area for many years at a time. We must inhabit this geography for Christ and discern where God is at work in those who cross our paths daily. We must look for the hurting and confused across this landscape, every day seeking to incarnate Christ to them. And we must patiently listen to our neighbors, blessing them and praying for their restoration.
This long-term presence in our neighborhoods makes mission to the lost within post-Christendom possible. This new sense of ecclesia knows we must live all of the above as a way of life born out of our relationship with the Triune God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. We must engage together in rhythmic transformational practices of spiritual formation that order our lives into God. Only in this way can we avoid becoming a new kind of social justice legalistic holiness. Many will recognize in this description some of the Rule of St. Benedict including the rule of conversatio (community), hospitalitas (hospitality), stabilitas (geography), and obedientia (transformative practices of mutual submission). This is the way of missional orders – an expression of kingdom life that can root missional communities in the new post-Christendom of the West.
Birthed out of this view of Christ’s church, emerging missional leaders imbibe a mentality that is drastically different from the church planter of the past. They lead in ways more akin to an Abbot (or Abbess) of a Medieval missional order than an entrepreneurial wiz-kid of the typical franchise start-up church. They possess character like a patient gardener as opposed to the restless CEO numbers-cruncher. Indeed, most (not all) of the missional leaders I have met already exemplify strains of the new mentality. I believe this bodes well for the future. For I believe this new generation of pastors provides hope for a renewal of Christianity in Canada. They are already leading communities, house churches and monastic-like orders all over the country.
Like a fermenting revolution evolving out of a tired and reified ancien regime, these tiny bands of Christians have come on the scene committed to live a shared life of worship, spiritual formation, community, hospitality and service to the poor (of all kinds). In ways never imagined by the machinations of the evangelical mega-church, many of these bands are already infecting their neighborhoods with an embodied gospel that cannot be denied — only responded to.
Knowing Christendom is gone, these new leaders carry no pretension. Instead they embody the gospel in its most compelling, authentic, non-coercive form. This new wave of Christians is small in number and possesses little to no resources financially. Most do not impress with their grandiose visions. They do not hang in the halls of power. They do not make a show of their successes. Yet their vision of a simple Christian habitat as witness in the world reminds me of the Irish missional orders God used to effect a profound conversion of European society in the 4th century. We have seen the world changed like this once before (read How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill). Could we be in the early stages of seeing God move in a similar fashion once again? Let us pray it be so.