Do We Really Need Another Church Plant?
We need to go where the people are. We need to think outside the box. We need to share the Gospel. These are just a few of the phrases that I hear frequently these days among church planters, including many who are very close friends and who I have a great deal of respect for. These are noble goals and ones that align with many leaders inside conventional churches too; theologically, I have no contention with these objectives.
I am not a church planter. I am a sociologist of religion who is also deeply involved and invested in various levels of church leadership. For a moment I want to invite us to take a step back, to suspend assumptions about church plants (for or against), and raise a series of sociological and theological observations, insights, and questions that I think ought to inform discussions surrounding church plants. To be clear, I am not generally referring to mother churches that birth churches – more on this later.
The brutal fact is that many churches are closing across Canada and many other churches open each week with more empty seats than full. It strikes me as odd that so much human energy and financial resources are directed into planting new churches when there are human and financial shortages all around in existing churches. Is this a wise use of resources?
Many church planters respond to my query by noting the “new wineskins” metaphor. Perhaps. But let us take a sober moment to consider the implications of this. If leaders and members of existing congregations are not investing the time and energy to evangelize or invite new members into the fold, what will suddenly cause them to do so in a new church plant? Will meeting in a pub or someone’s home necessarily draw new people into a faith community, simply because the atmosphere and content do not look or feel like a church? I have my doubts because the underlying assumption is that if we simply change the wineskin, people will be more interested. This is false thinking, as I adamantly argue in my forthcoming book The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. I don’t think the “demand” is as strong as many assume.
The reality is that most people are drawn to a church community because someone they know invites them in. If people are not inviting them in to the empty churches, why will individuals abruptly invite others into a new church plant? Think about it. As an outsider to a church group, is it more intimidating to enter a church where you can come and go as you please or to be confined to one’s living room? Admittedly, some will come to a church that meets in a theatre or someone’s living room over a church building, but such individuals are few and far between. My research clearly shows that if they really wanted what religious groups are offering, they would come regardless of the location or format.
The honest to goodness truth is that many church plants epitomize the “circulation of the saints” thesis. They generally attract members from other congregations, or church attenders who re-locate to an area and are looking for a faith community, or disenfranchised evangelicals. Of course, these individuals can benefit greatly from such congregations, but then let us call a spade a spade – church plants, and most congregations for that matter, are not necessarily evangelizing in the truest sense, even if this may be their intention.
Let’s Do Coffee
I recently presented at a conference where I met many young energetic church planters. Their gig? Re-locating to a new city to plant a new church under the auspices of a coffee shop. The narrative? To hang out with ordinary people, to build relationship, and to draw them into a faith community. Here too, all worthwhile goals and theologically sound. But, let me raise two questions/issues.
First, isn’t building relationships with those outside the Christian faith the task of all who say they follow Jesus? Whether a lawyer, gas attendant, or plumber, does Scripture not call all Christ-followers to build relationships with those in their immediate sphere and to share the Gospel? Is it just for the select few church planters? Do we need to pay church planters to open yet another coffee shop or to build relationships? As per my leaning in the first point on empty churches, perhaps a stronger emphasis on those already in churches to take seriously the call to build relationships with those in their sphere is the place to direct human and financial resources – not in another coffee shop.
Second, if relationship building is the goal, does it make much sense to move to a different location where you know nobody and need to start from scratch? Why not begin in one’s immediate sphere with existing relationships in their neighbourhood (etc.), where one is a known quantity? Sociologically it makes far more sense to utilize people who are already part of the community that the church is being planted in. These individuals actually (or should) know and understand the local culture, community, and people – essential starting points for successful ministry. I cannot help but shake my head when groups invest notable human and financial resources to send/come from afar.
Max Weber, a pioneer in sociology, talked extensively about organizations and leadership. Weber is well known for his phrase “routinization of charisma.” By this he meant that charismatic figures sometimes emerge in an organization who generate rapid interest and followers (e.g. Jesus, Hitler). The challenge is to harness the leader’s vision and ideas across an organization as it grows – it is easy for a leader to influence a handful of people, but far less so when dealing with hundreds, thousands, or millions of followers. As such organizations inevitably routinize over time – they create specific beliefs, practices, texts, rituals, customs, and processes to help ensure that the organization moves in a similar direction.
How does this connect with church planting? Many church plants start out of a critique of some kind of institutionalized expression of religious life (e.g. “we are a church for those not into church”). They meet in a bar/pub or someone’s home or a movie theatre or another neutral territory to ensure that gatherings do not feel or look like a traditional church. The goal is to diminish the level of high liturgy, leader-follower dynamics, and other patterned activities that many reject in most conventional churches. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these goals; they are motivated by shared intentions of mainstream churches. However, church plants, like most organizations, either thrive or die in their early days due to the appeal of the central leader(s). If the leader is successful in attracting people, the organization inevitably grows to a point where it must routinize and organize in all of the kinds of ways that church plants originally resisted. It will require leadership structures, patterned activities and rituals, and a codified set of beliefs that members adhere to in order to survive and thrive. The alternative? Church plants die … and many do.
It is not uncommon for church planters to plant a church in one location, stay a few years, and then move on to plant another church. Sociological research shows time and time again that a relationship between leaders and followers is essential for congregations to flourish. Moreover, it generally takes a minimum of five years until church leaders and followers reach the level of trust required to truly partner arm in arm moving forward. Put bluntly, church planters who stay for a couple of years only to leave to plant another church are doing a disservice to those who first joined the church plant.
Churches Planting Churches
Lest it sound like I am altogether opposed to church plants, I am not. I think the most sensible way into church planting is for churches to plant other churches. The reasons build on many of the things noted to this point (and I am sure many other reasons could be included).
In many of these settings a church has an existing track record of successful evangelism – it is part of the members’ DNA rather than suddenly “willing” an evangelism impetus into people in a new church plant.
Most of these contexts are regionally based. They begin with an off-shoot of members who already live in the desired ministry location/neighbourhood, thus relationships are already established where the new church plant is birthed.
Rather than denominations siphoning people and money away from congregations that are struggling in order to plant a new church, churches birthed from existing churches expand and extend existing signs of life and can be largely supported by the mother church until the new plant is self-sufficient.
Do we really need another church plant? Under the right contexts and conditions, I think there is merit to church planting. Even among the examples that I have questioned throughout, there exist successful church plants that have thrived. This is wonderful and should be celebrated. Yet to be clear, these are the exceptions not the norm. Regrettably I am not sure that many of the contexts and conditions and reasons that churches are currently planted under are that sound.
I do not claim to have this all figured out. My thoughts on this topic are evolving and I am reading and talking with many about this subject these days … and I welcome your input and pushback as well; healthy and respectful dialogue is good and fundamental to the academy, and I hope for church leaders too. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and stay in touch via my website at www.joelthiessen.ca.