Thursday, June 21, 2012

Called, Gathered and Sent (Or, Why Mainline Protestants Suck at Church Planting)

I've been what could be considered a Mainline Protestant for 20 years.  In those 20 years, I've learned something about mainliners:

We really suck at planting churches.

Let me back up a moment. I started attending Calvary Baptist Church in located in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC in the fall of 1992.  It was and is an American Baptist congregation and like many mainline churches was active in the community.  Since I darkened the doors of Calvary, I've been part of Mainline Protestantism.  I moved to Minneapolis and joined a Disciples of Christ congregation which became my denominational home.  Today, I work full-time as a communications specialist for the local presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and part time as the Associate Pastor of a local Disciples of Christ congregation.  So, yeah, I'm a Mainline Protestant.

If there's a theme that has been running in the background all these years, it's the one about liberal Protestants being in decline.  All of the major Mainline Protestant denominations keep experiencing decline, with more and more churches closing and the surviving congregations growing grayer and grayer.
I've been around enough to see how we deal with this issue.  Sometimes we ignore it and talk about the potential problems with evangelicals, sometimes we talk about "transformation" and about changing the church (but never seem to make any real changes), and sometimes we seek to blame someone or something for the decline.

What we don't do, or don't do very well is planting new churches.  All of the mainline churches have some kind of new church planting movement to get local judicatories and congregations to get involved in new churches.  While I don't think they are absolute failures, they aren't always astounding successes.  New churches get planted, but not at the rate that we are closing churches.

There are good reasons to start churches, but for whatever reason, the general populace in mainline churches are not that excited. (I've shared my own experience with this.)The same goes for pastors.
Why is this the case?  Why do we suck at planting new communities of faith?
I think it comes down to one word: eccesiology, the understand of who and what is the church. Wikipedia describes ecclesiology as such:
In its theological sense, ecclesiology deals with the church's origin, its relationship to Jesus, its role in salvation, its discipline, its destiny, and its leadership.
The problem here is that we have lost the sense of what the church is and how it related to Jesus and to God.  If we don't know why we have churches, then why in God's name would we plant any?
What does it mean to be a church?  Why should people belong to a faith community?  How does that congregation relate to the community around it?
These are questions we need to be asking, but in many cases haven't.
Since we don't have a language to describe church, other things fill the void which frankly do a bad job.  In writing on the future of the Mainline Church, James Wellman notes that the emphasis on social justice might actually be harming mainline churches more than helping them:
The ‘former' Protestant mainline churches show no signs of stopping their decline. The emphasis on an educated clergy has created an elaborate system of bureaucracy that tends to repel entrepreneurial personalities and attract introspective intellectual types that are more comfortable in the classroom than in the pulpit. Moreover, the growing movement to ordain gay and lesbian men and women, while noble from a liberal and progressive perspective, tends to shift the focus of attention away from family ministries. Without an emphasis on families, churches tend to decline rapidly. Liberal Protestantism, statistically, does not keep their children and youth in their churches. The aging of these churches is also well known.
These churches focus most of their energies on ministries of social justice, particularly on meeting the needs of the homeless. This group tends to advocate inclusiveness and tolerance, making clear what they reject, but they are often unclear as to what they support religiously. As a small subculture, they will continue, but no longer, in any sense, as a mainline. Ironically enough, in some ways, their marginalization is a function of their success in ministries of justice. Most of their causes are already a part of the American mainstream, for example: women's rights, abortion rights, and even, to some extent, gay rights. Many Americans ask, then, why even go to these churches? (emphasis mine)
Contrast this with how Evangelicals see the church:
The future for Evangelicals appears to be more open and perhaps expansive. Evangelicals, again broadly speaking, tend to see the Bible as inerrant; they counsel conversion and look to Jesus' blood atonement as the requirement for salvation. They also tend, stylistically, to be much more deliberate in using modern and contemporary methods of music, worship, and, more broadly, communication. Some have argued that they are accommodated to the culture, but when interviewed, Evangelicals argue, "No, we use modern methods to reach out to those who are lost in order to share the love and salvation of Jesus Christ." That is, Evangelicals argue that they are "less" accommodated then what they call "liberal or progressive Christians."
In general, however, Evangelicals rarely talk about the ‘former' mainline; they talk much more about how to reach those who are unchurched and who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. In large part, because they are so structurally decentralized, they have become fragmented and entrepreneurial. Because of this ethic and ethos, young leaders with entrepreneurial personalities are drawn to this kind of Christianity, which ensures, in part, that their dynamism will continue. As to whether Evangelicals are now the mainline is simply a question they don't ask. They are far less interested in dominating economic or political institutions then in evangelizing young people. Indeed, Evangelical youth are much more likely to stay in the church than those in the liberal or ‘former' mainline churches. The growth of Evangelical churches, at least from their present state, seems to be assured.
The Lutherans have this phrase that sums up what it means to be a Christian and what the church is for: called, gathered and sent.  Evangelicals know they are called by God to spread the gospel.  They get it.  We don't really know if we are called, don't know why we gather or why we are sent.  We've lost that language and replaced it with talk of justice.  I'm not saying that we should all become conservative churches and drop issues like gay rights or poverty.  But those aren't the reasons we are church.  As Wellman notes, as society becomes more accepting of gays, why go to church.  If I can get all that I want from a Democratic caucus meeting on poverty or the environment, why the hell plant a church?
If Mainliners want to grow again, then we need to go back to basics: we need to know why we are church.  We need to be develop again the sense of being called by God, gathering together for common fellowship and prayer and being sent to preach the good news of Jesus. When we can actually name why we want to plant churches, hell why we are church, then maybe we will stop our decline into irrelevance.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Just Wondering...

The following was written by Pastor Jerry Crenshaw as new way to plant churches.  What do you think?  Do we have room for what Jerry is talking about?  Do you feel called to plant a "house church" ? How can the Region (meaning all of us, not the Regional staff or just pastors) help this become a reality?

Dennis, I love these posts and the questions and searching hearts that are reflected. But I wonder. We seem to think of church planting as something only seminary trained, professionals can do. Call out the experts. It seems to me that a lot of churches have been planed by amateurs.. or by lay people. Acts seems to have some good examples of that. It also seems that we have a institutional model in our minds. Like the only good new church ministry is to establish a lasting institution, building campus and all. I wonder if we can find ways to challenge laity to gather their friends around a need in their community. I wonder if there are not those who would love to do “missional type work in meeting a felt need. Could we then encourage them and walk with them helping them to reflect upon their work through their faith perspective. What are their cherished values? Why do they “want to give back” to the community? How does their working together reflect up their love for their “neighbor”/ What does it say about their love for the divine presence _ for God? Help them to reflect and grow from where they are, not from where we think they should be.

If we could then help them discern their needs. For instance when they felt a need to worship together as a community could we trust them and help them to find what meets their need? Could we offer resources and encouragement? Could we be aware enough to bring like minded groups together? This is not offered as any answer, not as the only solution to a rather complex challenge. But I hope we are aware there are those out there that are being disturbed and are beginning to wonder about a new faith experience that just might lead to church happening.

I have worshiped with at least one group that has gathered and are growing a church with out ordained ministers. Their excitement and sense of joy at owning that experience is exciting. On my first visit they were excited to tell me, a stranger who just walked in off the street, that they were all responsible for preparing for their worship experiences and leading in them. They bless the loaf and the cup together, with visitors, and serve each other. They decide together how to reach out and minister to the needs around them. They gather around their sick. They help those who have become jobless.

I keep hearing of others who are wanting to do something in calling a new faith group together. I am encouraged by these and wonder if we do not demand to much or that we expect them to meet our standard of church. I think we, as a region and as individual congregations, have so much to offer such groups. And I wonder if what is holding me back is a set of blinders that I have some how assumed was church. As I said, “I wonder...”

Keep up the excellent and stimulating blog and facebook page. I join with you in inviting others to share their dreams and wonderings... and longings... and prayers. Thanks again.

If you or a group of people are interested in planting a faith community, please let me know.  Email me at