A Process for Church Planting
Over half of the people in the United States are not actively and happily involved in the life of any church. The need to share the love of Jesus with the world is growing. Jesus’ words are as true now as ever: “I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (John 4:35). We cannot simply accept the decline of church communities. We need to recreate, revitalize, or reshape—in a word, change—the way we “do” church to follow and serve Jesus on the Way into the kingdom.
Where churches are no longer central to the culture or sought for their values in spiritual growth and support, Christians need to find other models for “reaching” people. We need to do more than develop an attractive church (cathedral) or community (monastery); we actually need to find people and bring them into our activities. We cannot simply “attract” people to churches; we need to “reach” them. We need to go out and meet people and bring them into community.
This can happen through the growth or revitalization of existing congregations, or it may occur through planting new churches.1 Numerous church studies show a direct link between the rate of church growth or decline and the rate of starting new churches. This may be because new churches immediately focus on reaching more people and are often more open. New churches are free to try new styles of worship, new methods of education, new music, and other “nontraditional” ways to reach new groups of people. New churches may seem more inclusive in terms of racial or ethnic background, generations or age levels, socioeconomic class, theological views, and liturgical styles. So, in various ways, new churches provide opportunities to connect and build relationships differently with non-church people who aren’t drawn to existing churches or who dropped out of church some time ago.
Not only is there growth in new churches themselves, but churches that start new churches also grow significantly. Helping start new churches teaches us how to reach and engage new members rather than passively waiting for new people to come through our doors. And while existing churches may fear competition, they discover that there is lots more room for other churches. The most effective churches do a few ministries very well and reach only up to three percent of the local population. Few churches have all of the resources or skills to serve everyone in an area. Every Christian church community needs to consider helping to plant new church communities as one of its priorities for building up the body of Christ. A church planter or missioner and a leadership team develop a new Christian community by building relationships, empowering others for ministry, and developing a leadership team through focusing on the following development goal areas:
1. Mission. Facilitate the discovery of the new community’s unique identity, understanding what God is calling this faith community to be and do at this time in its journey and preparing for the future in such way as to strengthen and enhance the understanding of its mission and ministry.
a. Discerning and focusing on a primary mission field involves striving to identify and participate in what God is already doing in and with the local community.
b. Some places to learn more about potential mission fields are business and community associations, development groups, service agencies, demographic and census data, and being present in the area. Networks with community leaders, activists, officials, media sources, service agencies, etc. are the foundation for understanding community needs and building trust and long-term relationships in the community.
c. Ideally, the defined mission field will be discussed and evaluated with respected members of the community network developed for the mission. Become fully aware of their needs and what to offer people the new community may serve. Learn where and how to best make personal connections.
2. Outreach. Intentionally consider how to reach a particular mission field and then actually make efforts to reach people. As the mission focuses on a particular demographic, people close to that demographic (friends, families, those who want to help serve) also become part of the community.
a. Missionary model: A missionary model goes to people in their own setting and community, becomes part of that community and serves it so that people can experience Christian life.
b. Individual relationships: Initial presence in the larger community often develops through individual pastoral relationships. This is an opportunity to listen and learn, show caring for people, and develop trust. However, the goal is to grow relationships into a community ministry rather than into a chaplaincy.
c. Group relationships: The new community will grow relationships through developing small groups and ministry teams that help members experience a sense of belonging and support (peer support, pastoral care, payer, sharing), foundation (developing spirituality, formation), and purpose (ministry, empowerment). Group focus or activities may center on needs of the mission field (education, jobs), life stages (youth, young parents, seniors, grief), conversations (Bible or book groups, other shared activities) or particular ministries (worship, pastoral care, outreach, prayer, vacation Bible school).
d. Worshipping community relationships: As the new community grows, the community will develop a larger multicultural and inclusive community that shares worship, sacraments, common traditions and identity. If community worship grows out of a particular group, the group must remain open and permeable to other individuals and members of other groups. It is important to create an environment conducive to being led by the Holy Spirit in a way that speaks to all Christians, and to encourage the gifts of all to be integrated into worship.
3. Mutual Ministry. The new community will invite others to join in and involve them as members of the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12). It is critical to develop leadership and participation in the ministry of the new community beyond paid leaders. Initially, particular ministry needs may be accomplished by one or two members or partners. As the community grows, leaders will help with discernment that will help people identify their own gifts and those of others. Then the leadership team will build on this approach to create, empower and work with ministry teams for key areas (such as worship, finance, outreach, activism, communications, pastoral care). Ministry teams may have leaders and members from within and beyond the mission. As the mission grows, it needs to continually discern and raise up new leaders to connect with and shepherd its members (John 21). Ministry team leaders will be responsible for helping to involve and develop members of the mission as Christians and leaders and members of each ministry area. Each ministry team needs to provide on the job training for life and life with Christ, so activities need to be grounded in conversations about what God is trying to do in members’ daily lives, prayer, Bible study, and service to others. Successful ministry teams provide for Christian formation as well as consistency, continuity and sustainability of particular ministries.
4. Supportive Partnerships and Networks. The new community will develop partnerships with neighboring congregations and other churches and with nonprofit, service, granting, governmental and business agencies and associations which serve the mission field. A growing community always needs more people who are willing to share their gifts to directly serve others or to support the mission community (such as volunteer coordinators, communications specialists, grant writers, and teachers for programs such as leadership training, and people to help find and connect people with resources for basic human needs).