The PCI is a denomination in numerical decline, yet there is evidence of green shoots emerging, particularly through recent church planting initiatives in the Republic of Ireland, and these offer by far the greatest scope for expansion. However, with the denomination struggling to hold on to the membership it already has, and with both parts of the island experiencing economic recession since 2008 (in the Republic this is particularly severe), many may question the wisdom of spending money on new initiatives. In addition, the only church planting model with which the PCI is familiar is an extremely expensive one.
On the other hand, we are under a Scriptural mandate to go, tell, plant, and grow. We cannot apply that simply to times of economic boom or numerical strength. After all, the apostles were neither rich nor numerous, yet they began the greatest reproductive church planting initiative in history! Neither can the PCI leave it to other traditions or denominations, most of which are actually smaller and financially less resourced.
The full-time seminary-trained pastor is an important part of the reformed ecclesiastical modus operandi – and with good reason. While Presbyterians may covet the life, zeal, and planting initiatives of smaller, independent non-reformed communities, those communities often covet the Presbyterians’ training, biblical literacy, teaching ministries, and the extent to which they look after their pastors. Nevertheless, serious questions remain – practical but also theological – as to whether this has to be the only model. If it remains the only model, then it is likely that PCI church planting will be rare, and may even grind to a halt altogether. In Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putman write, “It is amazing but consistent – churches that need to grow think they can do it without change! They think they can break the code by doing the same things they have always done.” This is not only true of local churches in the various aspects of their congregational life and witness; it is surely also true of denominations and their approach to church planting.
The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explore how bivocational church planters have operated in Ireland, with the hope that some of the data may be useful in helping the PCI explore new ways of resourcing new church plants, particularly in the Irish Republic.
The study explores the church planter’s experience in relation to their vocational status and its implications for the development of the plant. The following research questions underlie the study:
- How was the development of the plant impacted by the structures of the denomination?
- What personal challenges did the Church Planter face?
- In what ways was the church’s development affected by the planter’s vocational status?
- In what ways did the bivocational planter’s experience differ from that of the full-time planter?
I believe there is potential for this study to play a part in helping the PCI to re-evaluate its church planting and mission strategy, especially in the Republic of Ireland. It is hoped that by listening to the experiences of those inside and those outside the denomination who have been involved in planting, both bivocationally and full-time, the denomination may be open to examining a variety of new models of engaging in church planting and creative ways of funding it. I further hope that, through discussing the research findings with PCI decision-makers, the perceived obstacles to such new models can be articulated and examined, and, as a result, a realistic picture can emerge of what may need to happen if the PCI were to change its church planting methodology.
Ireland is a rapidly changing society. Secularism and the devastating impact of clergy sex abuse within the majority Roman Catholic church (highlighted most recently by the Murphy and Ryan Reports), have left many either spiritually diffident or disillusioned. As a denomination that has always understood itself to be ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, there is a developing role for the PCI to play, alongside other reformed and evangelical bodies, in bringing a message of salvation, hope, and grace to this new Ireland, and modeling new types of ecclesial communities to a culture that is increasingly hurting and cynical concerning all things religious.
In summary, this study will join an emerging body of data which could be used to help the church be creative and courageous in its missionary vision, not only for the purposes of extending the reach and influence of the PCI, but also for the continued reformation of the church catholic, and above all for the glory of God and the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the sole King and Head of the church.
Definition of terms
Church Planter – someone who, alone or as part of a team, is sent to start a new congregation in a place, or among a people, where no congregation of similar ethos or denominational affiliation previously existed. It does not include those who are sent to revive moribund churches, nor does it make any distinction in terms of age, gender, or ordination status.
Bivocational – refers to those known commonly in the Christian community as “tentmakers.” It covers all those who hold a recognized primary leadership position within the church – pastor, teacher, or head elder – but who do not draw their full salary from the church or from a denomination, earning their living or subsidizing their income through work in some other trade or profession. Bivocational is a term of convenience and is in no way meant to imply a hierarchy of vocations or a rigid separation of vocations. Nor does it deny that for the believer the only true vocation is to live as a child of God.
Ireland – refers to the island of Ireland. With the exception of the interviewee working in the denominational secretariat, all Irish interviewees worked within the Republic of Ireland. However, since the PCI is an all-Ireland denomination and the decision making bodies are resident in Belfast, the research is undertaken with an all-Ireland perspective, whilst remaining aware of the clear cultural and contextual differences between North and South.