Welcome to IM’s popular feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion among different liturgical traditions represented in the Internet Monk audience.
Who are the Gangstas?
Father Ernesto Obregon is an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Rev. Peter Vance Matthews is an Anglican priest and founding pastor of an AMIA congregation.
Dr. Wyman Richardson is a pastor of a First Baptist Church (SBC) and director of Walking Together Ministries, a resource on church discipline.
Alan Creech is a Roman Catholic with background in the Emerging church and spiritual direction. (Alan’s not a priest. If he is, his wife and kids need to know.)
Rev. Matthew Johnson is a United Methodist pastor.
Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of The God Whisperers, which is a podcast nearly as good as Internet Monk Radio.
Here’s this week’s question: What is the status of church planting in your tradition/denomination? What’s your view of the place of church planting in Christianity as a whole and the future of your own tradition/denomination?
Father Ernesto/Orthodox: Church planting is alive and well within the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, as well as within other Orthodox jurisdictions. Since 1988, we have grown significantly. We have more than doubled in size.
Having said that, I cite 1988 because that was a year of change among the Antiochians. Frankly, before that the Antiochians were all too focused within themselves and their ethnicity. This despite the fact that Orthodox missions began in North America in 1794 in Alaska when the first Orthodox missionaries arrived. But, that early missionary spirit was lost into ethnicity by the mid-1950’s. At that point, it could have safely been said that the Antiochians were Orthodox Christians from the Levant area of the Middle East.
The change came from outside. In the 1980’s, a group of evangelical churches came to Metropolitan Philip and asked to become part of Orthodoxy. The process of discernment became the crucible of the Holy Spirit to call Orthodoxy back to its missionary history. That group was accepted in, and the Antiochians became mission minded Orthodox again. Right now, if you were to ask any of us, we would answer that the Church has no choice but to plant churches. But, we would also emphasize that mere evangelism is insufficient. Unless the evangelism is aimed at the planting of parishes or aimed at bringing people into the Church, we would be in danger of leaving orphaned believers around. That is, we do not believe in evangelism as separate from church planting. We cannot even imagine the possibility of teaching someone adequately about Christ without, at the same time, teaching them about the Body of Christ.
I would argue that this is one of the biggest mental changes that needs to take place within American Christianity. The emphasis on purely individual conversion, the lack of a catechetical process, and the failure to give importance to the “wineskin” within which a new believer is to be placed have led to a Christianity that has behavior patterns that are little different from society at large. It is little wonder that Christianity is seen as a “sweet by and by” religion by American critics, and they have a point.
So, to answer iMonk’s question, I have mixed feelings about the place of church planting in Christianity. If by church planting one means a continuation of the modern methodology, then I see little place for that. It would simply be a continuation of what has not produced lasting change and what has led us to be labeled a “sweet by and by” religion. Church planting that does not lead to any discernible change in behavior is the warehousing of individuals who are simply participating in a cultural exercise. If by church planting one means evangelizing people, catechizing them (we take a year before someone is admitted as a member) so that they have a sound doctrinal and practical basis for their Christianity, and making sure that they are placed into a wineskin that will provide a sound structure to their relationship with Christ and a connection to the Holy Spirit, then I would say that, yes, America desperately needs that type of church planting. Let us remember that those who wrote against Christianity in the Roman Empire were nevertheless impressed by the changed behavior that they witnessed, not simply a result of an “encounter” with Christ but also a result of the catechetical process through which all Christians had to pass and of being placed into a wineskin that provided the structure and support that a Christian needed in order for change to take place. We need more of that in America.
Matthew Johnson/United Methodist:I can’t talk with much authority on a denominational level but I can tell you that several years ago our Conference made a commitment to plant churches in the state of Arkansas. I am fully behind this because I think we need to plant new churches. We’ve probably seen more failures than successes at this point but I’m glad that we are trying. Could we do it better? Sure, and I hope we’ll look at other denominations or movements to help us see church plants grow and thrive.
I am a United Methodist and I’ll confess, I’m smitten with the Acts 29 church planting network. I’ve read their material, listened to their podcasts, and tried to pay attention to what they are doing which seems to be a lot. In the scope of catholic Christianity, these guys are doing what I wish we would/could do because it is in our DNA. There was a time in our history when circuit riding preachers were establishing churches in communities up and down the frontier of the nascent United States. That’s a piece of our history that is badly missing today. I’m not that aware of what other traditions or movements are doing in my area right now, but I encourage and pray for church plants. I pastor in a town of 4,000. I’d guess that we’ve got 1,000 people in church on any given Sunday within the city limits. That means we have around 3,000 not going anywhere. I’d love for them to come worship with us and maybe some of them will but if a church plant came in here and reached some people that the other churches weren’t I would celebrate that.
As far as my view of the place of church planting in my denomination, I’d like to see more priority given to church plants but we’re going to have to get over our sense of territorial entitlement. There are times when a good church plant might encroach on the territory of another UM church. Established churches see it as a threat which makes no sense to me. If the existing church had made evangelism and church planting a priority no one would be having a conversation about territorial boundaries. This from a denomination whose founder snubbed the religious authorities of the Church of England and said “The world is my parish.” As you can see from the Wesley Report, we don’t always play nicely when it comes to church plants. (http://www.wesleyreport.com/2009/03/gracepoint-what-really-happened.html). I accept that I don’t know all the details and I might be unfairly characterizing those involved, but it cannot be denied that it was a mess and that territory had a place in the conflict no matter whose side you were on. That kind of stuff is not going to expand the Kingdom of God into the hearts of unbelievers.
Peter Vance Matthews/Anglican: I am a member of the Anglican Mission in the Americas which is an outreach to North America from the Anglican Church of Rwanda. The reason our denomination exists is to plant churches. I am a church planter. The church I pastor now is the third church plant I have worked with. Part of my role in the AMiAs is to recruit, resource and place new church planters. I believe in church planting.
Anglicanism is a parochial tradition. When the Church of England separated from Rome, the nation was thoroughly churched. Reformation did not involve church planting; it involved reforming the existing life of the church â€“ its structures, its doctrine, its clergy and its liturgy. However, in the 19th century, as Anglicanism spread around the globe, the missionary impulse entered the Anglican fold. To some degree in the United States (there is a robust history of church planting by the Episcopal Church in the 19th century) but mostly in Africa and Asia, Anglicanism has taken on a missionary DNA that has led to church planting and church planting movements. One of the classic texts on church planting was penned by Anglican cleric and missionary Roland Allen entitled The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: And the Causes Which Hinder It. In the 20th century the church planting impulse has become part of global Anglicanism. In Rwanda, the Anglican Church has all the classic structures â€“ diocese, bishop, parish â€“ one finds in the Church of England, but the aim of these structures is to facilitate evangelism, discipleship and church planting.
I believe the church is a missionary movement. I believe this missionary reality touches all aspects of life, but I believe church planting is at the heart of its purpose. While I do not believe church planting is a sufficient means to foster a renewal of classical Christianity in North America, I do believe it is a necessary and central part of this work.
Sometimes people argue that there are already enough churches in North America. This can seem right if one drives down the streets of a city and sees what looks like a lot of churches. But looks can be deceiving. I live in Lexington, Kentucky. There are roughly 300 churches in the city. The population of the city is roughly 300,000. If one is generous and assumes the average attendance of all the churches combined is 200 per church, then 60,000 people attend church in Lexington. That means 80% of the city is unchurched â€“ and Lexington is Bible belt country! Again, one might argue that these churches need to grow. But that wonâ€™t happen. Most churches are under 100 in attendance. This is not because they are all dead. It is because natural human groupings are small. The mega-church model is a large exception to the rule. Thus, I suggest, the best way to evangelize a city is to plant more and more churches.
I am looking for church planters. If you are Anglican, or have an interest in being Anglican, and sense a call to plant a church, let me know. I want to talk to you! Heck, I donâ€™t even care if you arenâ€™t Anglican, I still want to talk!
Alan Creech/Roman Catholic: Church planting in the Catholic Church – hmmm. To begin with, I’ll say that I can only answer this question based upon my own personal knowledge and experience. I am not any sort of official representative of the Roman Catholic Church. Yeah, I tried to get hold of the office in charge of all this in Rome, but alas, no return. 😐
As I was saying, hmmhmm, church planting in the Catholic Church (and I can also only speak for America) – uuhmm, say what? church what?? Planting? Are you talking about a garden or something? Sorry. Honestly – very honestly, the most I’ve heard about anything close to this concept is the effort to close as many churches as possible in recent years. Not that we want to close them, but that’s just how it’s shaking down. It’s about viable numbers and paying bills and facilities and yes, a lack of Priests. Parishes are being consolidated all over – you know, shut down two and move both their numbers into another one nearby. It’s a painful situation.
Now, there have certainly been some church plantin’ missionary wild folk in the Catholic Tradition. The Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits (among many others) have set the world on fire with missionary zeal in their day. Have you seen the movie “The Mission”? That’s Jesuit hard-core stuff right there. And the Blackrobes were martyred a many in the early Native American and Canadian wilderness. They went among the native peoples, taught them the Gospel, baptized them, and started churches. I was amazed at the number of Franciscan enclaves there are in Ireland when I was there, and the age of some of them – not long after Francis kicked the earthly bucket – those boys were travlin’.
There are “missions” today too, in outlying areas. In Eastern Kentucky there are very tiny Catholic “missions” set up in trailers or rooms here and there, run by more established churches in towns not far away. That’s a kind of church planting. There are small groups of Ordered Religious Priests, Brothers and Sisters who live in areas you just don’t move to, ministering to the people there, many times in the inner-city where no one sees them except those who live there. Is that “church planting”? Not per se, but it is “the presence of the Church” among the people of the world. These things are coming to mind as I think about this.
These things are great. What I don’t see, though, is an attempt to do what my good friend Peter up there mentioned – trying to reach people in a city the size of Lexington through planting multiple churches instead of trying to grow the ones we have bigger. Bigger, as I see it, is not always better. Could there possibly be some kind of effort to develop new ways of establishing Catholic faith communities in a place like this, or any place for that matter, which might possibly tap into the missionary Christ living inside the great masses of the un-ordained? Maybe? One huge disadvantage I see (my perspective is perhaps a bit unique due to my mixed background) is the lack of simplicity where it comes to what constitutes “a church.”
There is also an, as I see it, unfortunate idea that when we build church buildings, somehow we need to spend waaay too much money on a facility that is “worthy” enough to house the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — as if God is overly concerned with the grandeur of houses built by the hands of men. His Sacramental Presence in the Eucharist is indeed beautiful and deeply nourishes us, helping to transform us into His Own Image, but God is not a man that he needs a 9 million dollar edifice to live in. I would imagine that if His earthly tabernacle had to be a hollowed out space in a tree in the forest in order for His Life to enter a softened human heart, then so be it and He would be glorified.
How about a ton of small, quasi-monastic, base ecclesial communities scattered around a city or a rural area for that matter, who build relationships with one another, pray together on a regular, systematic basis, have some sort of leadership to help with spiritual direction, and who are connected to a larger local parish church. That’s a thought that I could flesh out a lot more, but for such a thing, there wouldn’t be need for highly educated clergy, not at that level. I’m not saying anything like “do away with clergy” so don’t even try it. I’m talking about new ways of being church together in a Catholic context without having to build a bunch of buildings or have a bunch of Priests that we don’t have. There’s a lot that could be done and no real need to dismantle anything in the process. OK, that’s all I’ve got. Peace to all in this house.
Wyman Richardson/Southern Baptist: The planting of new churches is a huge emphasis in the Southern Baptist Convention. The statement on the SBC North American Mission Board website provides a pretty accurate reflection of the rationale for this emphasis: â€œBelieving that anything healthy reproduces, the Church Planting Group works with our partners to plant healthy, reproducing churches with evangelistic passion as part of the New Testament church planting movement among all people groups in the United States, U.S. territories, and Canada.â€ To this end, the â€œChurch Planting Villageâ€ was created for the purpose of providing (caution: cringe alert!) â€œYour One Stop Shop For Church Plantingâ€ (http://www.churchplantingvillage.net).
This is but one example of what is, again, a massive push for the creation of new churches in the SBC, an push that is at least verbally present in virtually every area of SBC life.
There are quibbles: Iâ€™ve heard many pastors complain about what they perceive to be the non-strategic planting of churches in saturated areas without appropriate communication with the existing churches. This comes across to these pastors as pompous, myopic, divisive, and harmful. Furthermore, some question the motives and the rationale of the emphasis.
That being said, I am in general agreement with the NAMB assumption â€œthat anything healthy reproduces.â€ Perhaps I would phrase it a bit differently, given that there have been many a â€œhealthyâ€ disciple or ministry that has faithfully tried to see the gospel spread and â€œreproduceâ€ but has met with very little or no signs of outward â€œsuccess,â€ for lack of a better word. In other words, is the faithful believer who is genuinely seeking to be salt and light but who has not seen the conversion of people to Christ â€œunhealthyâ€? I think not.
But, with that caveat, I agree. The planting of new churches is, in my opinion, biblical, right, and good. It is also logically necessary as the gospel even now continues to spread into unreached groups and locales. I have some questions, again, about the planting of new churches in so-called â€œsaturatedâ€ areas, and yet the state of many of our churches as well as an absurd and ever-encroaching tribalism that keeps too many churches from genuinely trying to reach their community renders the creation of new churches unfortunately necessary even in these areas.
I agree with Michaelâ€™s assessments in his â€œCollapse of Evangelicalismâ€ article and think that new church starts will become increasingly important (crucial, even) in the ruins of this collapse. But the creation of these new churches will need to mean much more than the creation of new gathering places, and the motivation will have to be much more than denominational expansion, the replenishing of dwindling denominational coffers, the sustaining of denominational church-growth bureaucracies, etc. The motivation will have to be a renewed commitment to the gospel, a renewed understanding of its power to transform human hearts, and a renewed conviction that the stewards and propagators of this gospel are the people of God. As such, the creation of new churches will likely come less from denominational entities and more from conviction-driven local congregations. This would be, I think, a welcome development.
William Cwirla/Lutheran: he language of â€œchurch plantingâ€ is not native to my Lutheran confessional tradition. The Lutheran Reformation was a reformation of existing, established churches in regions where Christianity was the dominant, if not exclusive, religion. Since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended the Thirty Yearsâ€™ War, Lutherans have operated quite comfortably with a regional or state church institutional model.
On the other hand, my own denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), has church planting at its foundation. The LCMS grew by gathering scattered German immigrants living on the western frontier of 19th c. America. Language barriers limited much of these efforts (a fact often misunderstood or ridiculed by others). CFW Walther, the first president of the LCMS and pastor of the â€œmother churchâ€ in St. Louis, intentionally divided his large congregation into four distinct but related congregations and seeded these new church plants with members from the mother church. Many LCMS congregations followed the same pattern. The LCMS sent seminary trained traveling preachers (Reisepredigern) all over the western frontier to gather new congregations. Congregations also freed their pastors to travel during the week to plant new congregations.
This church planting activity continued through the mid-20th century during the post-war boom years of the LCMS. Often a church plant resulted inadvertently out of a congregation division, for wherever two or three Lutherans are gathered there will be a split. Sometimes congregations relocated when they had lost touch with their surrounding community. I grew up in such a church plant on the southwest side of Chicago; I was baptized in the local elementary schoolâ€™s gymnasium, since our congregation did not yet have a building.
Things seemed to have changed in the 1960â€™s and 70â€™s as urban congregations declined and suburban congregations were smitten with the â€œchurch growthâ€ bug and the temptation to become a â€œmega-church.â€ I believe that our synodical fascination with the church growth movement did more to hurt the formation of new congregations than any other single factor. Instead of looking outward to generate daughter congregations, congregations looked inward to grow ever larger in numbers, property, and programs.
Church planting seems to be on the front burner once again in the LCMS. Our synodical missions department has set a goal of 2000 new church plants by the year 2017 and currently reports 498 new church plants since 2002. My own district, which encompasses southern CA, Arizona, and southern Nevada planted 7 new congregations last year and 20 in the last five years serving a wide variety of languages in an ethnically complex region.
Certain aspects of Lutheranism are challenged by recent trends in church planting. As a sacramental confession, we hold to a sacramental view of the pastoral office as a unique, divinely established office that functions within the Church with the authority of Christ. No one is to preach and preside in our churches apart from call and ordination (Augsburg Confession XIV). No one can set himself up to be a pastor or church planter simply because he has the itch. In our circles, church planting tends to be pastor-driven and top-down in our circles. I will be curious how this compares with my Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox gangstas.
Lutherans in general, and the LCMS in particular, place a high value on the local congregation, respecting existing congregational boundaries and treating each congregation as though it were a little regional church, much like a diocese or geographic parish. Church planting activity within the vicinity of an established congregation tends to be frowned upon if not discouraged. This is especially problematic when the local congregation is weak or dying or has lost meaningful contact with its community. The increased mobility of people and their willingness to travel to find a church that suits their needs, makes geographic boundaries largely irrelevant.
Lutheran congregations tend to institutionalize rapidly, turning them inward and closing them off to newcomers, who are seen as threats to the status quo and the power structure. I recall my field work days when I served in a church plant in semi-rural Missouri. The character of the congregation completely changed when they built their first building and rapidly began to take on institutional concerns. Ironically, they were a much more vibrant, outreach-oriented congregation when they gathered in a borrowed music room at the local middle school.
Another factor that is potentially limits our church planting today, in my estimation, is our increasing diversity in doctrine and practice. Whereas LCMS church plants of the 1950â€™s resembled congregational â€œfranchisesâ€ with everyone more or less on the same doctrinal and liturgical page, todayâ€™s church plants reflect a broad diversity that makes many Lutherans uncomfortable. Today, an â€œLCMSâ€ branded church may look and sound Evangelical, Emergent, semi-Baptist, quasi-Orthodox, or darn near-Catholic depending on whoâ€™s paying the bills. I suspect that our concept of unity in doctrine and practice is going to be seriously tested by those 2000 church plants by 2017. It already is.