165 Church Plants?

By Shannon Youell 

What might it look like if some of our churches become “church plants?” I posited this question in our last blog whilst noting how our church plants are navigating the times we are in. Since posting that blog I have had two of our CBWC pastors mention they’ve been told we need 165 church plants when we come out of this. That’s an interesting perspective to follow up my question. We are a family of around 165 associated, established churches. How might we begin to consider becoming “church plants?” 

Though there can be times when a church might consider deconstructing and starting again, I would certainly try to convince you otherwise in this time. If you called me to ask how your existing church becomes a church plant, I would echo Tod Bolsinger: “This isn’t the time to become what you are not.”i

During this time of constant pivoting, changing who you are as a church community of Christ followers would be less than constructive. However, as Bolsinger further explains, “This is a time to learn how to be the very best version of your church and organization for a changing world.” 

How do we begin to even discover what our “very best version” might be?  

Last week, out of curiosity, I spent some time checking out a dozen or so of our CBWC churches websites. I was curious to read the Vision Statements of our diverse group to understand the sense of engaging in God’s Mission in our churches. Here are some of them:  

Growing deeply-rooted followers of Christ. 

“In and For the Neighbourhood.” 

“God-dependent, Jesus-Rooted, Spirit-Led. 

“We desire to be a church that changes the world for Jesus. 

Our desire is to be followers of Jesus, by putting God’s love into action. 

Deeper Higher Further. 

Our vision is to be a church that unchurched people love to attend. 

Loving God and others where we live and gather, by connecting, belonging and engaging. 

“Making disciples of Jesus from all nations. 

“We are a people of invitation on the journey from brokenness to wholeness in Jesus. 

We envision the holiness of God flowing through the city…like a flood. 

Connecting Real People to the Real Jesus in Real Ways. 

“A community of people SENT to be known by love, live by faith, and be a voice of hope to the communityand beyond.” 

“To live a life of following Jesus, to be a place of spiritual formation, and to seek and contribute to the peace and well-being of the city.” 

Wow, right?! These are fantastic. These statements reveal hearts rooted in a desire to engage all peoples in community, faith, and spiritual formation for the meaning and purpose of loving God, others, self, neighbour with everything in every way of our every day.  

During the last six months, people all over the world have been coping and navigating something we’ve not previously all experienced at the same time. Many challenges and issues—and joys and discoverieshave been realized as we had to completely shift everything in our lives. People, families, organizations, businesses, recreation, entertainment. We changed how we spend our time, our money, and our talents; how we do relationships, how we deal with stress and with apathy. 

For people of faith, the challenge initially was in finding ways to continue having a Sunday worship service so that people didn’t feel displaced, isolated and perhaps “disappear” from the church. There has been increasing concern that some might not return to church when restrictions are completely lifted. Webinars, affinity groups, books, blogs, magazines and news articles abound on how to keep “doing Sunday.” The longer this goes on, the more heightened the fear that people will drift away and whether the church will survive this long term.  

“Where religious institutions have been mistaken…is that they have fallen in love with a specific solution, rather than forever evolving to meet the need.”
The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile 

Of course, we need to find ways, creative and outside our normal box, of how we are a community of faith, on mission with God during this time. But rather than having our focus being on the fears and problems we have as we look for signs of people leaving the Sunday service and not returning, we should be looking for signs of those who are struggling with or leaving their faith or haven’t found faith yet.  

And that’s where the Vision Statements come into play.  

Over the past 35+ years of being both a follower of Jesus and a leader of followers of Jesus, I have observed that more often than we’d like to admit, the Vision Statements emblazoned across the front of our sanctuaries, on banners on our websites, in our bulletins each week and our new members classes, have become a pithy hats off to what we once aspired to as a community. I’ve been to many church services and church meetings (including the church(s) I’ve been in community with) in many different expressions of church and found that more often than not, the very people to whom the Vision is towards are surprised to discover this is their statement. They just aren’t recognizing it lived into what they do together as community. Ouch! We get into patterns and rhythms that become familiar and expected and we can lose the passion we had to live into and out of the Vision that faithful people prayed and discerned together. 

It may be time to revisit our Vision Statements, either to revision them to better reflect the current reality of our community and ministry, or affirm this indeed is who we aspire to be. Then, it’s time to assess every activity we do through the lens of the Statement and lovingly lay to rest those that no longer fulfill what they once may have. And, with joy we can pray and discern together how to begin living into the ones that are still burning in our hearts. 

Church Plants have Vision Statements too. They are current and still very fresh in the minds of those who have prayed and discerned. Often every decision they make, every good program that they may explore are still being weighed against that Vision. Were our churches to begin to do the same, it is possible, without throwing out all we’ve grown to become, to get back to our roots and think like church plants again.  

Rather than merely counting on  a specific solution to “get us through to the end,” or trying to preserve what we have, what if we focused more on drawing nearer to God than we may have been in a while as a gathering of individual people? And what if we went back to our first passion, as expressed in Vision statement, with an openness to hear what God is saying to the church today?  What if our primary activities included drawing one another closer to God through deeper emphasis on spiritual formation that leads to confession, repentance and transformation?  

What if our hearts become so passionate that God is our everything and Jesus is our Lord that we have a reignition of talking to others about what is happening to us, journeying with others of no faith, some faith, waning faith in ways that draw them deeper and deeper into the very nature of God’s holiness? 

That’s what church plants tend to lean into. Perhaps rather than seeing them as “new churches” that will one day look like “ours,” we might begin to see them as churches that we might need to vision ourselves to look like.  

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i. Tod Bolsinger is the Vice-President for Vocation and Formation and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is author of It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the community of God transforms lives, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Times, and Leadership for a Time of Pandemic: Practicing Resilience. We recommend you read all three!