A half century ago, as the post WWII boom in church membership began to peak, denominations planted churches left and right (See Putnam and Campbell's American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us). If visit any suburb and you'll find expressions of this focus. You will find churches built in the late 50s and 60s dotting most suburbs. Some of them sit on main thoroughfares, while others sit amidst residential areas. The guiding principle is that found in Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come, and come they did, at least for awhile. Of course, the reason that these denominations were planting churches was that their members were moving from the urban cores to the suburbs. Today, many of those churches are half full, dying, or dead. The baby boom, plus this need to join groups, that fed the growth has long since passed. Yes, there are those big regional mega-churches, but the operate under a different understanding of reality. They park themselves next to a freeway, and offer a great program, and those still interested in such things come. Most of those churches are conservative and evangelical, and speak to the needs of some, but not to most who inhabit the younger generations.
The 1960s and 70s marked the last period of sustained church planting among Mainline Protestant churches. The franchise model that worked so well for McDonald's didn't translate quite as well to Mainline churches. People stopped paying attention to brands. One could also note that Mainliners tended to eschew overt evangelism. We might put an add for an Easter service in the newspaper, but beyond that we shied away from telling our story, leaving the story-telling to others.
Although we've not planted significant numbers of churches in recent years, there are signs of things changing. The Disciples of Christ, my denomination, has "started" a growing number of churches over the past decade. It's something to celebrate! But if you look closely, you'll notice two things. Many are focused on immigrant communities, and perhaps a majority of these churches already existed, but sought a welcoming denominational home. In other words, their identity was formed before they joined the Disciples.
Now, I'm thrilled that we have opened our arms to these new communities, but many of us are concerned that these communities aren't meshing well with the rest of the church. But more to the point, much of this is growth has lacked intentionality. And so, we might ask, other than providing financial support and other institutional benefits to these previously existing communities, how are we as Disciples intentionally reaching out to our neighbors. What are the core values that define the Disciples that are being expressed in our church planting, whether among immigrant groups or younger adults? If you read Diana Butler Bass or Carol Howard Merritt , you'll discover that younger adults are looking for a very different kind of faith experience -- one less focused on institution and more on spiritual practice and true community.
With these questions in mind, I read with great interest a recent Christian Century article entitled "New Clergy, New Churches." It focused on church planting as a first call. The focus was on Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian denominations, some of which have traditionally required recent seminary grads to spend time in existing congregations before being allowed to go forth and plant. The article discusses the realization on the part of these denominations that it may be in the best interest of ministry to release new grads, especially younger ones, into church planting ministry. And some of the seminaries are creating spaces in their curriculum for supporting such a calling.
The Disciples aren't mentioned in the article, but I'm wondering how intentional we're being in utilizing younger clergy to start these new kinds of communities. I looked at the catalogs of our seminaries and didn't see any signs that church planting is a focus. It might be part of a class, but there's no focus. We've seen some emergent Christians come into the Disciples, and from them there is a growing concern to create new communities of faith, and while there are efforts in our denominational system to train people for new church ministry -- we don't seem to be very effective in placing this in the seminary curriculum.
The article does discuss planting churches in immigrant communities -- doing so intentionally -- but a focus is on planting very distinct, one might say, emergent, kinds of congregations among younger adults who are moving back to the urban areas. Many younger adults are moving back to the urban core, and there this recognition that the church should minister to this community. But, in many communities -- Detroit being one -- we've largely abandoned the urban core. Are we prepared to intentionally invest lives in areas of potential ministry. And what kind of person will this require? Once I thought about church planting, took a battery of "tests" and realized that I'm not a church planter, just a believer in it! I understand that not everyone is called or equipped for church planting ministries.
Oh, and it appears that we must let go of our fear of failure. Looking back, many of those early attempts planting failed. In part due to leadership or location, or some other variable. Many failed, but some thrived. The same will be true in the future, but we must let go of this fear of failure. As Carol Howard Merritt opines in the article:
We're not really good at failing, and so we take failures very, very hard," she said. "We need to expect that out of two churches that are being started, one will be a sustainable, viable congregation in 20 years."It takes an entrepreneurial spirit, that many of us lack or don't have in sufficient amounts. But how do we, especially in Mainline circles, identify, train, support, and release into ministry those who have this calling. I would love to see something new and energetic get planted in Detroit. How will this be accomplished?