By: Shannon Youell
Models of church planting all have their season in culture and context. This is important as we sometimes lament the future of the church. There have been innumerable books written, studies published and anecdotal stories surrounding our malaise on the state of the church in today’s Western society. We acknowledge and grieve and often blame ‘the world’ or ‘secularism’ for this state. To counter the dilemma, we invigorate our efforts to plant more churches, or attract non-believers to our existing churches, still stuck on the notion that if we build it (better) they will come. Sometimes our ‘stuckness’ is because of our DNA of ‘what’ church is. It’s so deeply imbedded that we can have difficulty imagining church gathering/life differently. We love certain things the way they are and there is merit in that! Tradition is built upon the richness of how we gather and live as Christians.
‘Church Planting’ is a rather recent terminology. Some of the reading on the history of church planting that I’ve done over the years suggests our current understanding of it developed right after WW2 and met the need of newly surbanized already Christians missing their Methodist or Baptist churches that were in their neighbourhoods in the cities or the rural communities from which they migrated from. In North America, it was also a time of rising multiplication of denominations. Juxtaposed together, denominations heeded the call of their adherents to provide suitable places of worship for Christian gathering, and teaching. Church Planting, then, was a response to what God was already doing in growing and developing neighbourhoods as more and more people exited from city and rural communities to suburbia on the return of soldiers from the fields of war.
The target demographic was those who already were Christian and wanting to be in communities of Christian faith. During that season, many families attended churches of their choice for all sorts of different reasons. There was still a common shared moral ethic and those moral ethics emanated from the Bible, whether or not one was a church-goer.
With general society having a shared understanding in those codes of morality, evangelism as a calling of the local church, in general, declined – most were already considered ‘evangelized’. Local churches focused their activities and teaching on helping Christians live better Christian lives.
Congregants mostly understood their role in evangelism as inviting their unsaved family and friends to come to church where the pastors and elders would ‘get them saved’. Most of us would never consider ourselves missionaries. Missionaries were a specially called and equipped people who are ‘sent’ to live among the people of other lands, and we were happy to support them and happy to not ‘be’ them.
Fast forward a few models and decades into the twenty-first century. As the once presumed common moral and societal codes seemingly disintegrated around us, the spiritual needs of our neighbourhoods shifted away from the church and towards other disciplines and pursuits. The presumption of North America being Christianized nations was crumbling, even in the midst of mega-churches and continued efforts to plant new churches. While engaging some, the majority of the unchurched remained just that and the efforts mostly resulted in already Christianized people to change address or move back ‘home’.
We are no longer a dominantly Christianized nation. Many who grew up in the church leave or are leaving and finding meaning in their lives in other ways. They aren’t necessarily abandoning God, they are abandoning our way of being the church. There is no doubt our culture and context have experienced a sharp paradigm shift. I believe when this occurs, it behooves us, the church, to pause and seek God for where and how he is working his mission in the world because God is always at his work even when everything we thought we understood shifts.
The missiological movement has helped us recognize that we are all missionaries, each one of us – that mission overseas to usually under-developed nations is one aspect of God’s missional activity in the world. I believe it is also starting to shift our emphasis from church growth and church planting back to evangelism and discipleship as the task of the church. Healthy growth and the planting of new churches are not sidelined, just realigned within the goal of the God’s mission.
I think church planting and church growth are the accidental and necessary result of intentional relational evangelism and discipleship. Along the way of joining God on his mission of restoration, redemption and reconciliation to all humanity, we suddenly find ourselves becoming new communities of faith as “…the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47b)
Next blog I want to explore how church planting as a result of missionary activity in our neighbourhoods, towns and cities is finding a new/old kind of expression. God is still at work and the future of His church is alive and well and waiting for us to participate with Him.