Part IX. Be a Plant, not a Parasite!

While the motivation for the change away from a church growth model to smaller more relational models may have been mainly theological, there were undoubtedly major cultural and intellectual changes taking place in wider society that, if not prompting a re-examination of church planting practice and expectations, certainly facilitated the change. The well-documented transition from modernism to post-modernism is reflected in titles and sub-titles such as Ed Stetzer’s Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s, The Shaping of Things to Come : Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, Michael Moynagh’s Changing World, Changing Church: new forms of church, out-of-the-pew thinking, initiatives that work, and Stuart Murray’s Planting Churches in the 21st Century : A Guide for Those Who Want Fresh Perspectives and New Ideas for Creating Congregations.

However, just to show that some of the older terminologies are not quite dead a book written as recently as 2010  shows some of the business-speak of the Church Growth Movement-inspired methodologies at their clearest. Larry Waltman wrote a book called (ironically?) Church Planting with Paul, and which contains chapters entitled: “look for opportunities for success;” “find your market;” “write that successful business plan;” “work the plan;” and “controlling the campaign and evaluation results.”  This now seems increasingly anachronistic.

Has Church Planting Had Its Day?

Stetzer recognises that things are not what they once were. He writes that many of the earlier methods “no longer work as well as they once did. The rapidly changing cultural landscape (requires) that we use different methods to be successful.”  While the book offers useful challenges regarding denominational strategy and considers the bivocational option, it is not evident that his definition of ‘success’ is any different from that of the Church Growth Movement and the rest of the book offers little by way of an alternative methodology.

Contrast this with Murray’s comment that up until the turn of the century there were certain expectations and a clear idea of what was meant by success, and if expectations were met no-one asked any questions about effectiveness, methodology, relevance, indigenous leadership etc., yet, he says, “these are precisely the questions we need to ask about church planting.” Stetzer writes well of the changing world of postmoderns and how many “feel as if they are entering an alien culture when encountering evangelical Christianity.  It is not the job of the unchurched postmodern to enter our culture,” he says; rather, “it is our job to invade theirs.”

However, the later sections of the book, especially the fifth, on “starting off right,” are weighted heavily towards the programmatic and familiar worlds of direct mail, telemarketing, e-mail blitzes and “big launches”. He says, for example, that “statistical evidence supports that new churches utilizing a big-launch method are larger than those that do not.”

Similarly Sjogren and Lewin’s book is presented like a postmodern reader on church planting with its almost random collection of over one hundred principles and its claim to be approaching the subject from a much more relational and community-based perspective. However, notwithstanding its style, it still reflects much of the presuppositions of the earlier period in terms of the birthing process and the size of the plant. So, for example, although they do have a section entitled: “Be willing to start small,” in which they assert that “part of the reason size becomes an issue, is arrogance and pride;” nevertheless, they do seem to be bound to a paradigm where two hundred plus attendees, while not necessary at the beginning, should be the aspiration or, they claim, the church will struggle.

Reconfigure your expectations

Much more radical in its assessment of how churches may need to interact with postmodern culture is Hirsch and Frost’s analysis. In line with Murray’s post-Christendom thesis, they regard their “missional model” to be “the hope of the post-Christendom era. Many of the new Protestant church movements of recent years” they claim, “are simply variations on the old Christendom mode.”  Likewise, “the heart of the problem is that we have been planting churches that are (smaller) carbon copies of the already beleaguered, failing Christendom-style church.”  While they subscribe to Murray’s dichotomy (contra Chester/Timmis) “Don’t think church, think mission” they maintain a rigorous commitment to theological orthodoxy and the necessary future of the church, while being prepared to go to whatever lengths are necessary to engage with a fragmented and searching culture, encouraging postmodern planters to “hold fast to the core but experiment like wild with the expression.”  They say that: “in Paul’s writings he employed the term ekklesia in a way that can only refer to an actual gathering of people, not to some ethereal theological concept.”  They also speak of communities having the freedom to “self-theologize”, but deny that this means that doctrine is negotiable

The authors also draw attention to analysis conducted by Murray and Wilkinson-Hayes who suggested reasons why “church planting has gone bust”; not least the fact that “the dominance of personnel-intensive models of church planting have discouraged smaller churches from becoming involved.” Elsewhere, Murray has complained: “How does a small church planting team draw on training material that assumes far more resources and personnel than they have?”  There is, he believes, a need radically to reconfigure the expectations of planters and sending agencies/ denominations: “The formation of a distinct congregation that meets regularly in a designated place may be much further down the track than church planters have often assumed. It may also look very different from the expectations of those who deploy and support them.”

This is a crucial issue, and one that can cause tension from the outset. He believes: “Expectations of the planting agency may be expressed in terms of measurable outcomes within a specified time frame”  and recounts stories of those who are planting a new contextualized community but “their funding is under threat because their mission agency operates with attractional and short-term expectations.”

Be a Plant Not a Parasite!

Murray asserts that a close look at so-called “successful” plants will show that much growth was transfer and the new churches were often little more than clones of the sending churches: “Few seized the opportunity to engage in serious theological reflection on the culture in which they were planting and how to contextualize the gospel in the local community.”  Moynagh is also critical of the parasitic tendencies of mega-churches in relation to the wider Christian community and the disillusionment this can cause to pastors attempting to replicate an inappropriate model in their local situation: “They ignore how different their circumstances are, or how beacon churches often achieve growth by drawing Christians away from smaller churches.”  He then asks the searching question: “What will happen to these “successful” churches when their small-church feeder-systems dry up?”

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