“Band of Brothers”:  The Very Young, Very Male Face of Boston’s Church Planting Movement 

This is the first in a series of articles entitled, “Band of Brothers: A Case Study of Church Planting in Boston.” See here for an introduction to the series and here for more on Missio Alliance’s commitment to women in ministry.

“In the last 15 years, we have also seen a lot of young guys coming and planting churches in the city.”

Stephen Um, President, The Center for Gospel Culture in The Gospel Coalition (TGC) Report from New England “Seeking Gospel Renewal in Boston and Beyond

Did you know that since the year 2000, over one hundred church plants have been started in Boston, by over ten networks, most of which recruit young men from other states? Whereas the leadership table for women in evangelical churches here in Boston had been slowly expanding, these church planting initiatives being imported from other states have sadly shifted the tide.

The majority of these church plants are part of a growing “men’s movement” which defines spiritual leadership as exclusively male and sees the discipleship of men as the center of its church growth strategy. The role of women in Boston-based church planting had been growing, and then this... Click To Tweet

Pictures Speak a Thousand Words

NAMB BostonThis is a picture of just one of the nine church planting networks that has come to Boston, “Boston Church Planting,” a part of the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board. They have sent over 42 young male church planters here to Boston in the past five years as part of its “Send North America: Boston” campaign.

The male face of this network is no accident. Much of the church planting culture spreading across the US has a deliberate strategy to recruit young men to saturate certain “strategic” cities, like my own. These initiatives deliberately center their leadership and strategy around the discipleship and leadership of men.

Dave Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination that promotes women in leadership, noted in a 2009 Christianity Today article how this “patriarchal” wave of church planting has already changed the face of American evangelicalism and set the needle back a century or so for women’s shared leadership in the church:

“For every one church plant by a mainline denomination, there are 9 church plants by an evangelical group, and most evangelical denominations were more open to women’s leadership 100 years ago than they are today…”

Most evangelical denominations were more open to women's leadership 100 years ago than today Click To Tweet

To capture the particular animating mindset and shifting gender norms behind this shift, I will be relying considerably on first hand sources (images and quotes which are included in the longer article below) from church planting websites and affiliate organizations themselves. Better than I might myself, these sources convey the primary leadership motifs – one militaristic, which we will explore here, and one royal/priestly, which we will explore in another article – driving this movement.

Leadership Motif: “Rally the Men”

Let me admit at the outset that I have become something of a church planting “watch dog.”

Personally, I go to a church plant in the Western Suburbs led by a beautifully gender-balanced elder board and a husband/wife co-pastor team. Yet I have heard heartbreaking story after story of young women living in and around Boston, eager to serve and use their gifts in the service of God, who have unknowingly stumbled into churches that are not interested in discipling them.

They were attracted to these hip churches because they liked the music or were drawn in by the community, only to gradually discover the patriarchal leadership ideology and ethos which rolls the royal red carpet out for young men to grow and develop their gifts as leaders yet keeps young women at the margins in authorized roles which are deemed not to carry “spiritual authority.”

I have spent a lot of time clicking around, trying to understand how all these “hip millennial church plants,” which are popping up all over our city, could have more regressive and restrictive gender policies than anything I have seen in my 20+ years living here in Boston. In our city, Boston, most people presume a level playing field for men and women even in the church. So how is this happening?

In my befuddled digging, I have found an eerily similar parlance which spans many of these church planting networks. The center of this current wave of church planting, which began around the turn of the century, is not the organic revivalism or immigration patterns that we’ve seen in other waves of local church growth. Rather, at its center is a neo-men’s movement that emphasizes male discipleship (“get the men”) as the primary church growth strategy and uses a militaristic self-identification (“band of brothers”) to motivate men to move here to Boston to spread their patriarchal version of the Gospel. To my dismay, in my research to better understand this patriarchal tilt in the church planting movement here in Boston, I have stumbled upon a militaristic imagery (as featured in the image above from one of the most popular networks, Acts 29) laced throughout the church planting leadership materials which seems to equate church planting with sending troops abroad to hostile lands. It takes softer versions of what evangelicals call “complementarianism” to their next logical level: “women step aside, men step up!” “You are a royal ‘band of brothers,’ reclaim your rightful place as the ‘prophet, priest, and king’ of the church and family.” (A future article will deal with this framework of spiritual leadership more directly). What happens when complementarianism slips into patriarchalism? Click To Tweet

This men’s movement within the church planting subculture does not readily appear on the home pages or storefronts of these church plants. Yet this “band of brothers” narrative has been carefully orchestrated and exported to progressive cities, like Boston, where most people, even most evangelicals, presume a level playing field for men and women.

The nice guys hanging out in coffee shops who moved here to start a church likely have attended bootcamps and conferences where they are encouraged to watch movies like Band of Brothers, Braveheart, and Patton. A few excerpts from Acts 29’s document, “The Resurgence Report: How to Replant a Church: Recruit Men for the Battle” are illustrative:

Recruit men

… Here’s the bottom line: If you cannot rally and lead men to mission with you, you should not be a pastor…  Pastors must be qualified men who can lead other men to follow Jesus and fight the good fight. If men will not follow you into battle, you will never be able to lead the mission of God to replant your church and then plant more churches.

and elsewhere…

If we want to see healthy churches, men must lead the way. If men don’t step up to the challenge to replant and lead your church, everyone suffers, especially women and children. Godly legacies and godly churches are built by the power of the Holy Spirit through the hands of humble men who selflessly care for God’s church through sacrifice and perseverance.

and again…

If you have never seen this modeled, I recommend watching a couple of movies to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Watch the opening scene of Patton with George C. Scott or the war speech in Braveheart with Mel Gibson. Both movies are about men who lead other men to battle and call them up.” ~ Resurgence Report

An “Insider’s View” of a Larger Problem

This is not just about Boston. We chose to highlight Boston because it is a particularly interesting “case study” as Boston has become one of the top church planting “destination cities” in the United States. Boston is called the latest “1040 window,” a spiritual “wasteland” with no real churches or Gospel witness.

As described by one church planting network:

Boston has been called a church planter’s graveyard because of the difficulty of the work, but the need and the potential for gospel renewal compel us to go and make Jesus known.

For us, Boston is a perfect blend of need, influence, and personal connection. The city is a decidedly secular, exclusively humanist, post-Christian society in need of churches. Multiple generations have passed since the culture was predominantly Christian, leaving no semblance of cultural Christianity.

Boston is virtually an unreached people group, in one of the most influential cities in the world.
~ Boston Church Plant, ‘Why Boston?

Band of Brother Series at Missio Alliance

This post is the first in a series that I and four other Boston writers will share from our different vantage points about the shape and ripple effects of gender issues in church planting here in Boston. We’ll share stories of churches that are quite literally recruiting young men to see cities like Boston as their “battlefield.”

We want to press into questions like…

“Why are ‘a lot of young guys’ coming and planting churches in the city?”

“What particular gender norms are they bringing with them?”

“What implications does this have for the larger Christian ethos here in Boston and surrounding region of New England?”

As you may be gathering, I am not too keen on this new leadership construct. I am saddened greatly by what it is doing to millennial Christianity here in Boston. But judge for yourself. If this topic is of particular importance to you, I invite you to take time to read through this more exhaustive examination of the patriarchal tenor infusing many of these new church plants.

I’m a mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter and two adolescent boys. Like most parents, I want a world for my daughter where she can chart her course in the world freely, without limitation. I also work globally for the empowerment of girls and women in highly patriarchal places. In many of these places, women’s basic human rights are still highly tenuous and religion is all too often invoked to roll back women’s equality and keep them in a subordinate place. Girls and women still struggle to live with a basic sense of respect, free of violence and various forms of subjugation.

With this humanitarian backdrop close to my maternal heart, as I read the enthusiastic patriarchal language and militaristic imagery of these church planting networks and their partner organizations, I cannot help but feel denigrated on behalf of girls and women everywhere. I feel a particular sense of maternal protectiveness for young women getting involved in these churches, not fully understanding the larger implications for their own human development and for the world we are giving our daughters here and around the world.

Ideas matter.

Ideas laced with the sanctioning power of religion matter all the more.

They have societal and humanitarian implications as we are all interconnected. What we think and say and do in one corner of the world has echoes elsewhere.

What do you think? Is this “band of brothers” leadership motif a positive development for our city? Is this a relevant and responsible use of Scripture in the 21st century? Is this the face of Christ we want to offer our city and our world? Is 'band of brothers' the most fruitful imagery for envisioning God's call to church planting? Click To Tweet

**View this PDF for an elongated account of what has been emerging across the church planting landscape of Boston.