Seeds in the wind: Church Planting in the Twilight of Christendom

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Mark Van Steenwyk, mark@missio-dei.com
Pastor, Missio Dei, Minneapolis, Mn.

harvest.jpgIn an age where people like to shop around for religious affiliations, church planting methods have changed. The dominant church planting models in the United States assume that a church planter can show up in an area, and within a year, have a largely self-sufficient congregation of at least 150 people. This sort of method works in developing suburban contexts with a high number of loosely affiliated Christian residents already looking for some sort of Christian community. However, what has worked for so many church planters in growing suburban contexts (and in some other growing areas of the city) is losing effectiveness. Celebrity megachurches are maximizing their resources to keep from declining. The days of quick salvations—where a life decision about Jesus Christ is made after a short speech—are coming to an end.

We are experiencing the twilight of Christendom. Christianity is losing its place of honor in our culture. We are entering a time where church planters have to be missionaries. Methods aren’t as predictable. Our contexts are increasingly less homogeneous. We live in a society where the nations gather and where fewer people make assumptions about Christianity.

Such a time is filled with opportunities. We can begin to foster new communities of deep discipleship that aren’t as fettered by the historic missteps of Western Christianity.

However, if we are going to engage in this emerging missionary context that is 21st Century America, we need to take bigger risks. We need to engage our contexts with greater creativity and with a deeper attention to disciple making and less attention to building congregations that only attract unaffiliated Christians.
Unfortunately, most denominational church planting systems are insecure. Faced with declining budgets and the desire for results, they would rather compete for crowds of nominal Christians rather than engaging in the task of homeland missions.

When I planted Missio Dei (a congregation afilliated with the Baptist General Conference and Mennonite Church USA) five years ago, I felt alone. Most existing church planting systems avoided urban contexts and those that didn’t wanted quick results. Every major method out there assumed the planter should build a congregation of tithing commuters. In my urban context, which is diverse and lower-income, having a church of primarily tithing commuters (in other words people who do not live in the church’s neighborhood) would be counter productive to mission.

In the past five years, I’ve met remarkably talented church planters who are trying to chart a different course. They are pioneers. Refusing to plant churches in the usual ways, they are exploring new models in challenging contexts. And, for many of these men and women, they are doing this without support. Meanwhile, denominations still pursue “tried and true” methods that are quickly becoming irrelevant.

We’re entering a time in our history where one-size-fits-all methods will no longer work. What we need are new ways of approaching church planting. In light of this new opportunity, here are five suggestions/observations:

hallway.jpgThis is a time of high risk and high creativity. Instead of trying to do a few church plants “right” we should find ways of equipping, empowering and sending a higher number of leaders to imagine new ways of planting churches.

2) Church planters need relationships more than they need money. With enough key relationships, a church planter can have an ample supply of emotional, spiritual and financial support. A well equipped church planter can raise their support if they have the right people endorsing them, and that doesn’t need to diminish any church or denominational budgets.

3) Church plants need permission to fail. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing wrong. Spending too much energy keeping ourselves from failing stifles creativity.

4) Deep is more important than wide. One of the most common indicators people use in determining the success of a church is its size. Planters feel huge pressure to grow their churches numerically. Do we really believe that the biggest problem facing the church in America is that it is too small? Or is the problem more qualitative than quantitative? Church planters need to know that it is OK to spend time and energy going deep (as Jesus did with the Twelve).

5) Church plants are poor. Their pastors often have to work a second job or are underpaid. Most churches take things like office supplies, hymnals and annual retreats for granted. Established churches can help a lot by offering the little things like leftover office supplies or by inviting new churches to join them for their retreats.

We are in a time of transition. Many researches believe that the Church in the US is in decline. And because of this, denominations have gone into survival mode. Are we going to hold tightly to what we’ve done before as we vainly hope that things will turn out well for us if we play it safe? Or are we willing to embrace the risk of engaging in our changing context in new ways?

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