Planting new churches has been an important outreach strategy in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in many others. Who doesn’t rejoice at the birth of a new church? But the way we have typically practiced church planting, at least in my neck of the woods, has long left me with a troubled sense of concern.
Typically a judicatory calls a pastor to plant a church, and the aim is to grow a congregation in numbers and resources as quickly as practicable. The new church has succeeded when it is able to build a building and be a programmatic church that can support multiple staff.
I’ve always wondered: But what about poor people in poor and/or sparsely populated areas? What about people who do not have the physical and financial resources to “do church” this way? They need the gospel as much as anyone else, but it will be unlikely that they can “do church” they way affluent suburban churches do it.
Here is a bracing post entitled 9 Reasons NOT to Plant a Church in 2012 from a blogger named Andrew Jones. I found this through Rachel Held Evans, who has one of the most helpful and enjoyable blogs that I read–highly recommended.
Jones outlines a number of important critiques of the way church planting is typically done, such as:
- Focusing on numbers and momentum is too narrow and shallow a way to judge how a new church plant is doing. It ignores signs of the Kingdom of God, such as transformation in people’s lives and in all the spheres of society.
- The people who are most likely to join a new church plant already have some background with church. What about people who are total outsiders?
- Focus on people predisposed to favor church culture puts churches in competition with one another over potential members, and this can lead to “sheep stealing” and failure to reach people who have never been reached.
- The typical model asks people to commit to church meetings and activities instead of making a commitment to the Kingdom of God. It focuses on making church members instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ. It encourages a consumer mindset.
- And there’s this–echoing the concern I’ve long held: “Church planting normally thrives in wealthier areas or suburban areas but ignores the urban poor. Stuart Murray Williams addresses this weakness here. It also focuses on the functional people rather than the high-need people and so we end up with church that prioritizes the rich, something we are warned about in the Scriptures (see James).”
I would add that the poor aren’t only in urban areas. Poverty is everywhere, and sometimes it’s hidden amidst the beauty of our rural areas. Poverty can also take many forms.
If the goal is to share the gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ, there are many possible models for forming congregations and “doing church” just as there are many ways to farm and to garden. (See my earlier post on Seed Catalogs and Church Planting.) That also means that there can be lots of different ways of being faithful small congregations. Amend that: there are lots of ways to be faithful congregations, period.