Thursday, March 29, 2012

Church Planting

This is the text of a presentation I made on March 27 to Niagara Presbytery in which I challenged the Presbytery to get serious about planting new churches.

Over the last five or six years, we’ve had many conversations and meetings in Presbytery about church planting. We have closed a third of our congregations since I came to Niagara in 1996, and we have recognized that unless we start some new ones, the future of the United Church is not very promising.

Niagara Presbytery passed a motion a couple of years ago committing the Presbytery to starting some new form of Christian community.

In 2010, the Presbytery paid for seven people to attend the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto.

The Congregational Support Committee has held several discussions on strategies for beginning new churches.

Some of the assets of Central Ave. United in Fort Erie have been directed to the Extension Council, to be held for up to two years as seed money for a possible new church planting venture in Fort Erie.

Funds are available through Hamilton Conference and the General Council to support new ministry initiatives.

Hamilton Conference staff are enthusiastically supportive of church planting proposals.

Presbyters responded very positively to Pastor Mike Collins of The Village Church in Thorold when he spoke at the January meeting of Presbytery about how that church was started.

The time seems right to move ahead.

Church planting has become a personal passion and burden of mine as I have become convinced that the church cannot abdicate its mission to pass on the faith to a next generation and still remain the church. As it says in the Psalms, “We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s hand” – and healthy sheep reproduce. For 1500 years of Christendom, the church has been able to count on its numbers being replaced simply by birth as children inherited the religious identity of their parents, supported by the values of a Christian culture. We know that time has passed. So, we need to relearn how to plant churches.

I have been a member of the United Church my whole life, and despite wondering at times if we’ve taken leave of our senses, I have remain committed to the church that is my home. And I continue to believe that the streams of faith that gave birth to the United Church of Canada in 1925 can still be a powerful witness to Jesus Christ in the 21st century.

I spend a lot of my time thinking, learning, networking and reflecting on what is involved in beginning new churches in a post-Christendom culture. I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge which I want to place at the service of the Presbytery so that we can begin to start new congregations.

When I speak of church planting, though, there are a few things we need to realize.

First, any future “church plant” will bear little resemblance to the 1950s style “new church development” model, where the church went into a growing suburb, bought a piece of land, identified members of the United Church tribe who were moving there, invited them to start attending services at the local school or community centre, and gathered enough money to break ground and build a new building.

Today, you can’t build a church building in the traditional sense for less than $4 million. There are no burgeoning new suburbs in Niagara – or at least not many – and where there are, the majority of their residents have no meaningful identification with any traditional denomination.

There is enormous fluidity in the forms churches take these days, so we can’t predict up front what a newly planted church will look like exactly. But we can say a few things with confidence. The church of the future will not be primarily “attractional” – it will not be a place people come to in order to access programs and services. Instead, it will be apostolic – a community gathered around faith in Jesus, and sent out to live the gospel in neighborhoods, work places and places in need of hope and healing. It will not be centred around a costly infrastructure of programming and paid staff. Rather, it will be “lightweight and low maintenance,” centred on relationships and serving others, not burdened by impossible budgetary overheads.

Second, we will have to admit that we know longer know how to do this. We will have to have the humility to turn to other denominations that have a successful track record of planting churches. The Christian Reformed Church, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the Mennonite Brethren and the Free Methodists are all active in church planting. Realizing that there may be significant theological and cultural differences between us and them, we need to be open to their skills and expertise in starting new congregations.

I believe the United Church has a unique mix of inclusivity, commitment to social justice, and willingness to ask critical questions that will resonate with today’s spiritually searching population. We also have in our historical DNA a deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the one who shows us the face of God, which will be essential in planting new churches.

But we also have a kind of institutional paralysis that prevents us sometimes from moving forward. Diana Butler Bass in her book The Practicing Congregation notes that mainline Protestant churches have done precisely the opposite of what thriving organizations do. They have changed their core traditions while resisting innovation in form. They have changed the content, but clung stubbornly to the package. That has to be reversed. We need greater clarity about basic identity – who we are and whose we are – while learning to be experimental and adventurous in developing new forms of church.

Third, we should not see any new church planting initiative as conveying the message that churches that have had to disband or amalgamate have somehow “failed.” There ought to be no implied judgment about any existing congregation in committing ourselves to starting new congregations. Nor should we see resources that might go into future churches as help that has been somehow withheld from current congregations. We need to have the grace and the faith to accept that every institution and organization has a natural life cycle.

As Diana Butler Bass says, what is happening to many of our churches is nobody’s “fault.” Most organizations do not endure for more than a few generations without reinventing themselves. Many of our churches have been operating faithfully out of essentially the same model of church for over 150 years. And we need to simply accept that some of our churches are at the point where they are not capable of making the kind of radical transition they would need to make in order to reinvent themselves. We should say this without a hint of judgment or condescension. We should celebrate the faithfulness and work of all of our congregations, knowing that not every church will last forever. Or expect that every church will be able to adapt to new realities. There is a new congregation in St. Thomas that was planted as a mission of a local Christian Reformed church. It is reaching out to whole groups of people, including young people and single moms, that wouldn’t normally be in a traditional church. The parent congregation realized that, you know what, there are certain people we will just never be able to reach. We shouldn’t try to draw them into our existing church, but start something new.

We should continue to do everything we can to support the good work of our existing congregations, at the same time as we work to plant new forms of church that will more effectively address the cultural situation of the 21st century.

I would like to issue a challenge to Niagara Presbytery to stop simply talking about church planting and begin to do it. I propose that we commit ourselves to move ahead with planting at least one new church in the next two years. In order to do that, we need more than nodding heads and murmurs of support. We need people who will be involved in doing research, visioning and discernment – who will help to answer the questions Where? What? Who will lead? How will we support it? To begin to seek sources of funding. To recruit leadership. And above all, to bathe this entire initiative in prayer.

I’d like to know who is prepared to commit some time and energy which, let’s face it, is always in short supply, to this task. It doesn’t need to be only Presbytery members. Maybe there is someone in your church who is longing for something new. Maybe there are folks who still belong to your church but have drifted to the margins because they’re looking for something more. We don’t need experts on church planting, because none of us is an expert. We need people who have a passion for the future of the church, and are willing to make a leap of faith.

So I would like to appeal to you to speak to me, email me, phone me, tell me you’re interested, or you know someone who might be. And let’s get started.

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