"Please Stop Planting Churches!" is the title of an article I just read online by K. Albert Little. The article is interesting and challenging and it left me wanting to write a rebuttal. So here goes!
First of all, I should point out that the article itself was written by someone who has converted to Catholicism. It also seems to be pointed toward the evangelical Christian community who are well-known for new church plants.
The main challenge from the author is aimed at what he seems to suggest is a choice being made by church planters - the choice to sacrifice church unity for the sake of doing something new. He says that he sees church planting as a "further fracturing of our already disappointing disunity."
Little wonders whether new church planters wouldn't better serve Christ by partnering with already existing churches nearby rather than trying to start something different right next door.
It's true that the history of Christianity sometimes seems to be a history of church splits due to irreconcilable differences, and newly formed denominations due to disagreements on theology or polity or liturgy or a myriad of other issues - some serious, some less so. And there are probably many examples of new churches being built right beside, and in direct competition to, existing ones. That, in and of itself, however, doesn't mean that they're a bad idea.
As we look around and see our traditional churches struggling to survive in many cases, it makes some sense to echo Isaiah 43:17 and ask what "new thing" God might be calling us to help grow or build or plant. Now that doesn't mean that we can't do that in cooperation with our already existing churches. We can! Sometimes it makes sense for these new ideas to be instigated by traditional churches, or at least attempted in cooperation with existing churches. But not always. Sometimes the "new thing" needs to be separate enough from what has come before that it maintains a sense of independence in terms of its calling and direction.
The article's author holds up church unity as being the primary focus for Christians in a way that seems to squelch new directions and new callings unless they are tied to what already exists. It seems to me that Little believes these new church ventures to be a challenge to the traditional church rather than an opportunity for us to continue to find new ways of sharing the good news with people where they are.
In fact he goes so far as to say "hearing of a new “church plant” here or there never fails to give me pains in my stomach." As unfortunate as Little's stomach pains are, the phrase "no pain, no gain" comes to mind. Our role as Christians has never been to champion the status quo, but rather to challenge it. Our religious institutions should be in the business of continually searching for the "new thing" that Isaiah talks about, not extinguishing it. And the unity that Little talks about in his article (that Christ indeed prayed for) is still possible, I would argue, even while some among our wider Christian community are out in left field (or maybe even right field, although left field sounds better to my ear!) experimenting with new ways to worship, new ways to offer ministry, new ways to be the church in their different contexts.
The example Little uses in his argument against church planting actually works against him, in my opinion. He uses the example of the Anglican Church of Canada's recent examination of their marriage canon. Little says "There were those within the church that wanted to see it changed, much like their American counterparts, and opened up to same-sex couples. On Facebook I wondered out loud which was more important to the bishops, clergy, and laity voting at the synod: gender equality or denominational unity." My answer to that question obviously differed from Little's.
When denominational unity (or even Christian unity for that matter) needs to come at the expense of justice-seeking, then we really have to ask ourselves "what kind of unity is this?" Not any kind of unity that Jesus would have celebrated. No matter what side of an issue we find ourselves on, it seems clear that Jesus wouldn't have us shy away from seeking justice for those whom society has oppressed. If your church doesn't encourage that kind of faithful introspection, then maybe it's time to plant a new church!
I write this from the unique perspective of being a minister in a new church plant that is actually tied to three different denominational bodies, so we at Spirit Path aren't exactly the kind of independent church at which Little is aiming his article.
However, the denominations to which we are connected have been very clear about encouraging our ministry to look different, to be different, to offer ministry in a different way than what is currently being offered by their existing churches - a brand new congregation without solid ties to other pre-existing churches. It's a bold venture, but a faithful one. Well established denominations are taking something of a leap of faith to try to reach people who just aren't being reached by the tried and true methods that have worked for previous generations. Whether or not this experiment is ultimately successful remains to be seen, but in the willingness to try there is a faithfulness that is genuine and adventurous and commendable. And I'm glad to be a part of it.
Just how different Spirit Path turns out to be is up to all of us who are a part of it, but we are continually discerning God's will for this new church. So far it has led us to a "church without walls" - no church building of our own, but rather a house model church that also meets in other places, renting community center space, renting/borrowing space from other churches nearby, gathering at the local pub for conversation, focusing on small group gatherings and worship as well as ministry for families. It continues to feel like a faithful response to God's calling. It certainly has its challenges, but it has yet to give me "pains in my stomach"!
Have you had experience with new church plants? If so, what has that experience been like for you? As always, if you have thoughts about this blog post, please feel free to comment here, or on our Facebook page, or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I'd love to continue the conversation. Also, if you'd like to read Little's original article (upon which this blog post is based), please click on the link below.