It wasn’t too long ago when many believed in the effectiveness of the church planting mantra,”build it and they will come”. The essential formula worked like this: send out the brave Lone Ranger church planter into a particular city or neighborhood with a launch plan for an opening service, send out a leaflet to let people know in advance, add 6 months, prayer, supplication, and presto! your pews would be full. You could literally build a new structure and assume it would eventually house enough congregants to pay the bills.
This strategy actually worked. In a Christendom world everybody identifies, although not usually practitioners, as Christian. When the majority of culture has a Christian memory going to church becomes a reminder rather than a complete shift in worldview.
We obviously understand this kind of thinking doesn’t work anymore, but what we’ve replaced it with doesn’t work either.
Here’s how every church can approach church planting in a new post-Christendom world and have success doing it.
As society slowly moves away from any church influence, we find a growing minority of individuals who have never been and whose parents have never been to a church service. We have a generation of people who have zero connection to the stories we tell or language we use. Words like, “sin”, “resurrection”, “repentance”, or stories about Noah, Abraham, or Paul, have little meaning.
As a result we have tried changing our approach to church planting, but to be frank, churches are not known for being particularly innovative. We may know a paradigm shift is necessary, we’ll make an attempt, but we rarely go as far as it needs to go to complete the shift. We are aware that new buildings no longer fill with people, yet we haven’t changed our tactics significantly. The mantra has changed, but only subtly.
Instead of, ‘build it and they will come’, we now have, ‘have it and they will come.’ The have it is the church service. Planting remains squarely centered around the important church service devoted to particular demographic or location. This reveals a potentially lethal flaw. If you follow the money trail you see that the vast amount of resources for church plants still go to two things: staffing and building for the purpose of running the service and the programs. It’s a vicious cycle. Upset the balance and people will leave your church for something less challenging (or not come at all). Try to do something different and you lose the means to even try something to begin with. So we opt for status quo only slightly changing our strategy when in fact a radical paradigm shift is required.
A radical shift is required because the evidence doesn’t lie. No matter what we think is working, as a whole, we close far more churches than we start.
Both ‘build it and they will come’, and ‘have it and they will come’ rely on the false assumption that the church maintains prominence with the culture around it. We seem to think people will attend when they simply hear about a new service opportunity. Sometimes it works when new church plants attract those with some level of church connection–that is existing identified Christians. The vast majority of our understanding of how to launch a successful church plant relies on the re-attraction of lapsed Christians or transfer switchers from the church down the road. It’s exceedingly rare for Joe Random to come on his own accord off the street.
We need to be more honest and creative with our approach.
What we need to do if we are serious about starting new churches is honestly assess our understanding of the world. If we assume that culture is moving towards a predominantly post-Christendom worldview then we need to be very intentional in the way we exist in this space.
It’s quite easy to follow with old ways and become protectionist, guardians of our traditions, in the face of unknown change beyond our church walls. This thinking is killing us. The evidence doesn’t lie, our remaining churches, not even plants, are shrinking (I am ignoring the anomalies of mega evangelical and pentecostal denominations for the moment). That leaves us two options: embrace and attempt church innovation, or settle and die. Many opt for the latter. Many have closed as result.
All hope is not lost, there’s another way to look at how we can start new churches. I’m not advocating we throw away our gatherings, I believe they still remain crucial to our spiritual formation, but we have to challenge our understanding of what we deem foundational. The importance of the Sunday service is at the top of the list. We simply can’t pretend church gatherings are our center in an age when they have no prominence. Rather, let’s reassert ourselves as participants and leaders in the things that matter. That means revaluing the places we exist–literally–like our neighborhood or network.
Rather than, “build it and they will come,” or “have it and they will come,” we need simply, “live it.”
The old mantras came with a certain level of hubris and assumption that we had something to say and that people actually cared to come hear what that was. We have no more relational equity to borrow from. We need a humble posture to earn trust in each and every facet of our communities. Our new churches must begin with a call to an intentional form of relational depth with people and place. The notion we can plant churches in the post-Christendom context in a matter of years is simply fantasy. The new reality is the slow and arduous relational journey that extends into generations. This flies in the face of flippant attempts of church planting that almost whimsically come and go with a couple harsh changes in season.
Simply put, “living it” becomes our new mantra taking our fundamental call of loving thy neighbour, living out the character of Jesus in that neighborhood, graciously giving because we have so graciously received, and making it real.