Below is from the 2012 Book of Reports of General Synod – a paper by the Bishop of Derry & Raphoe Ken Good on Church Planting and why the Church of Ireland needs to take it seriously and get on and do it, despite the objections of others, but also more than this … why it can also help a more traditional congregation. This was referred to by Ian Jonas at our parish meeting on Ballincollig Project
… One approach which warrants mention in a discussion about church growth concerns what can broadly be termed ‘church planting.’
Rev Tim Keller, a Presbyterian leader and author from New York, in a recent article, ‘Why plant churches?’ has summarized the arguments in favour of traditional churches engaging proactively in this activity. Keller goes so far as to say that not only do traditional churches in the Western world face inevitable and irreversible decline unless they plant churches, but that the planting of new churches is the key to reinvigorating older established churches in a way that will renew the whole Body of Christ.
It would be true to say that ‘church planting’ does not have very good reputation in the minds of many Church of Ireland people, particularly clergy. It is negatively perceived because of experiences in which groups or individuals have come into parishes with evangelistic zeal, establishing new churches without any meaningful discussion or communication with existing churches about what they were seeking to do , or why.
Furthermore, some of these groups have conveyed the impression that only they have an authentic understanding of the gospel and that the beliefs and practices of the traditional churches and clergy are suspect or defective. Some very unfortunate experiences and unhelpful behaviours have given church planting a bad name.
Negative experiences and poor behaviours in the past, however, should not prevent us from looking again to see if there might be some merit in the arguments of Tim Keller and others, who claim that, ‘The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches.’
We may also need to acknowledge that there can be some truth in Keller’s contention that traditional churches, on occasion, have been resistant to appropriate church planting because of an overly possessive or defensive desire ‘to protect our turf’.
VARIOUS EXPRESSIONS OF GROWTH
Church planting can evolve in various manifestations or expressions, some of which are already operating effectively in Church of Ireland parishes. One of the more familiar examples of what could be deemed to be a church plant is where a parish, in addition to its traditional 11.30am service in the Parish Church, starts a new ‘service’ in the church hall at 10.00am for young families.
There are several places where this approach has resulted in significant numerical growth in the worshipping population in the parish, more than doubling the numbers in some instances. The reality seems to be that a sizeable number of people who do not seem interested in attending a traditional church service are willing and even keen to attend a more informal family-friendly ‘event’.
Legitimate questions can be asked about how the people coming at 10.00am do and should relate to those attending at 11 .30am, and vice versa. What about the unity of the body? How liturgically balanced is the 10.00am service? While these are important questions, they raise problems to do with growth rather than with decline. They are secondary to the primary reality that the church is growing and people, not least younger people, are drawn to faith and to worship.
Another manifestation of church planting is when a parish decide s to establish a new ‘cell’ or ‘group’ or ‘church’ at some other location with in its parish boundaries in order to attract people who do not appear to be drawn to th e traditional expression of church. Some parishioners offer to become the nucleus of the new group and with the assistance of an effective leader, they set up their base in a ho me or a school or a community centre or a pub and invite people to join them. The focus of the church plant can be on a specific age-group or interest-group or can be more general. Sometimes it work s and numbers grow, on other occasions it may not prove to be effective and the project finishes.
RESISTANCE TO CHURCH PLANTING
Keller’s experience is that the most common responses of traditional church people to the idea that they should plant churches are as follows:
A. “We already have plenty of churches that have lots and lots of room for all the new people who have come to the area. Let’s get them fill ed before we start building any new ones.”
B. “Every church in this community used to be more full than it is now. The churchgoing public is a shrinking pie. A new church here will just take people from churches that are already hurting and will weaken everyone.”
C. “Help the churches that are struggling first. A new church doesn’t help the existing ones that are just keeping their noses above water. We need better churches, not more churches.”
Keller is very clear about the vital importance of traditional churches and of the crucial and steadying role they play in a community. Traditional churches will always appeal more to a certain section of the population. But his answers to these objections to church planting, when it is managed wisely and sensitively, are persuasive: It is not a matter of choosing between church renewal and church planting.
In reality, one of the best ways to revitalize a traditional church is for it to plant a new church. Older congregations have a stability and steadiness that many people thrive on and need. This does not mean that established churches cannot win new people. In fact , many people will be reached only by churches with long roots in the community and the marks of stability and respectability.
Church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation.
Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. But the average new church plant will bring in six to eight times more new people into the life of the body of Christ than an average older congregation will.
Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshiping body, while traditional churches gain 80–90 per cent of new members by transfer from other congregations.
Although there is some pain in seeing good friend s and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members. Younger adults have always been disproportionately found in newer congregations. Long-established congregations develop traditions (such as time of worship, length of service, level of emotional responsiveness, sermon topics, leadership style, emotional atmosphere, and thousands of other tiny customs and mores) that reflect the sensibilities of longtime leaders from the older generations who have the influence and money to control church life.
The automatic maintenance of such habits doe s not reach younger generations effectively. As a congregation ages, powerful internal institutional pressures lead it to allocate most of its resources and energy toward the concerns of its members and constituents, rather than toward those outside its walls.
New congregations, in general, are forced to focus on the needs of nonmembers, simply to get off the ground. Because so many of a new church’s leaders came very recently from the ranks of the unchurched, the congregation is far more sensitive to the concerns of the outsider.
There is, however, no better way to teach older congregations about new skills and methods for reaching new people groups than by planting new churches. It is the new churches that have freedom to be innovative, so they become the Research and Development Department for the whole body.
In older congregations, leaders emphasize tradition, tenure, routine, and kinship ties. New congregations, on the other hand, attract a higher percentage of venturesome people who value creativity, risk, innovation, and future orientation. Many of these men and women would never be attracted or compelled into significant ministry apart from the appearance of these new bodies.
Often older churches “box out” people who have strong leadership skills but who cannot work in more traditional settings. New churches thus attract and harness people whose gifts would otherwise not be utilized in the work of the body.
These new leaders eventually benefit the whole body of Christ in the community. In general, the success of new churches often challenges older congregations to evaluate themselves in substantial ways. Sometimes it is only in contrast with a new church that older churches can finally define their ow n vision, specialties, and identity.
Sometimes a new congregation can partner with an older church to mount ministries that neither could do by itself. Older churches have feared the competition from new churches. Mainline church congregations, with their centralized government, were the mo st effective in blocking new church development in their town s. As a result, the mainline churches have shrunk remarkably in the last twenty to thirty years.
A MORE REALISTIC CHALLENGE
Keller helpfully places the initiative for church planting with the traditional churches, not with evangelizing groups who come in from out side, operating without any meaningful communication with existing, established church es. In fact, he argues that continued and widespread communication between church leadership at all levels is an essential foundation if church planting is to be effective. His approach to planting churches could present the Church of Ireland with a much more realistic and inspiring challenge than the negative view we previously held about unwelcome intruders who arrived uninvited ‘on our turf’ to steal our sheep!
If the Church of Ireland were to decide that there is, indeed, merit in Keller’s approach and if we were to see dozens of parish es attempting to plant new congregations in cities, towns and communities throughout the country, what might be the ministerial implications of such a decision?
For several years, the Commission on Ministry has been dealing in some detail with the identification and training of ‘pioneer ministers’, those who have a particular apostolic gift for initiating new churches. We would need to revisit those discussions and recommendations and could face a very exciting period of church life which would present us with issues to do with growth and development rather than of contraction and decline.
At the outset of this paper reference was made to the view that effective leadership requires three essential elements :
First, an inspiring vision of how things might be;
second, the effective communication of that vision;
and third, the exercise of wise and courageous judgment in implementing the vision, especially when tough calls need to be made.
On the subject of growing churches and the Church of Ireland, it could be argued that more work needs to be done on all three.
Our vision for growing, (as well as unifying and serving) churches needs to be developed, refined and clarified. Our communication of that vision needs to be more effective and more persuasive. And our decision-making about how and where churches can grow needs to be courageous and wise.
+Ken Good January 2012