My friends over at Allelon posted a video of me talking about some basic observations on post-Christendom and the challenges of seeding new missional communities (what we used to call church-planting). We were at a great event called Cultivate offered in Hamilton Ontario last fall. Recently I have had to write down again some of my reflections on this topic as I have been writing a chapter surveying my missional church planting observations in Canada for Resonate‘s newest publishing venture. What I have posted below is basically what I have come up with. Although I am primarily thinking about Canada here, I also think it applies to many parts of post Christendom U.S. I’ll post these observations in two parts, 1.) the post Christendom shift in the situation we find ourselves in and how this is reflected in church planting practices, and 2.) what this looks like for the kinds of leaders that would seed missional communities in post Christendom. The first post is pretty much old stuff. It sets up the second post which I find more interesting.—————————————————————————-
50 YEARS OF CHURCH PLANTING: THE STORY AS I SEE IT
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’ 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 announcements expecting many who were looking for a church to 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. We might call these churches 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, 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 still an 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 first to conduct marketing surveys. We asked what we could we do to make church more relevant and user friendly. These surveys focused on finding out what these 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 want to 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 this way 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 amounts 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 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. They did come. People making “decisions for Christ” multiplied. Church-planting like this however, still depended upon what was left of the vestiges of N. American Christendom. A majority of the conversions were former high-church catechumens “coming back to Jesus.”1 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.
To most Christians living in Canada, the days of Christendom are fading fast. There has been a 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 the 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, across the 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 presense of Christ. Missional leaders now root themselves in a piece of geography for the long term. 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 them, 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 sent out into the neighborhood 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, watching God grow it amidst the challenges of the rocks, weeds and thorns (I owe this metaphor to my fellow 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 offer the following observations. I’ll post on this next.
1 Ironically many denominations still categorize these “decisions” as “conversion growth.” Meanwhile more and more youth are leaving evangelical low churches for the high church traditions (Colleen Carroll, 2004). I wonder if the high church traditions count them as (re)conversions as the low church evangelicals once did when their youth converted to evangelicalism? .