Part VII. Developments 1990-2000

Pioneers & Administrators: an unholy alliance?

During the rest of the 1990s the literature essentially built on or adapted the methodologies of earlier works. In the United States, Kevin Mannoia sought to take it to the next level and outline how an agency or denomination could not just plant congregations but become, in essence, a church planting movement. He firmly believes that denominations have a future: “I do not support the oft-repeated statement that the church is moving into a post-denominational era. Conversely, more and more people, pastors and churches are asking for the kind of support, accountability and multi-generational stability available only through some type of denominational connection.”

He also proposes the need for a new genre of leader, the “strategic mobilizer”, and advocates an alliance between pioneers and administrators: “Bureaucrats without entrepreneurs will wind up in a vicious cycle of self-preservation and protectionism. Entrepreneurs without bureaucrats will find themselves with shallow, disorganized, flash-in-the-pan programs. We really are one body with many parts.”

Handbooks and Toolkits

Harvie Conn became a strong advocate for a rigorous and theologically reasoned urban planting movement, fearing that much of what was happening was restricted to “Middle America”. In this he was an acknowledged influence on fellow-reformed urban spokesman Tim Keller who succeeded in putting planting firmly on the agenda of many Presbyterian communities.

In the 1990s a number of practical handbooks or toolkits emerged, similar to the one published by Logan & Ogne in 1991, with outlines, checklists and action planning lists. Peter Nodding and Harry Weatherley were both writing within the British Baptist scene, while Martin Robinson (mentioned earlier) produced one in conjunction with David Spriggs.

Weatherley’s book helpfully begins with a quote from Lewis Misslebrook that is as clear and comprehensive a definition of planting as one is likely to find in the literature:

“To gather, under the hand of God, a body of people committed to Christ, worshipping together and working together to become educated, trained, and equipped to be Christ’s people in the community in which they are set, seeking and pursuing the meanings and purposes of Christ in every part of their lives both personally and corporately.”

Nodding’s book is full of wisdom on how this might be realized and is helpful in that it majors on the relational aspects more than the methodological minutiae. He emphasizes the relational qualities needed in the planter, and gives advice on how good relationships with other neighboring existing churches can be maintained.  While discouraging a competitive independency in attitude, he still favors one group taking responsibility for the plant, in that ecumenical experiments often come at the expense of clarity and fruitfulness: “Although an ecumenical approach appears to be right, because it demonstrates our unity in diversity, I remain to be convinced that it encourages the most fruitful evangelism… Indeed, often the emphasis is firmly placed on the unity of Christians and not on reaching those who are unchurched.”

Church Planting for the many or the few?

Stuart Murray – missiologist, planter, author and founder of a church planting network in Britain – has been one of the foremost influences in this field over the past two decades. In 1998 he published the first of his major works on the subject: Church Planting: Laying Foundations. Tim Chester, who challenges Murray on a few of his major themes, nevertheless described the theological, non-mechanistic approach of this book as “a breath of fresh air”.  The early part of the book looks at the theological and biblical framework for planting, and progresses to look at the type of Christian community envisaged (an omission from many American books which often assume a given model) and the structures and leadership required for each (including bivocational leadership), before outlining the multitude of options and models open to a planter at the turn of the 21st Century.

Murray proposes that the surest way that churches can be encouraged to reproduce is to work with the cultural mindset of whole communities rather than resourcing a few activists:

The determination to plant so many churches so quickly may be at the expense of seemingly less exciting, but potentially more fruitful, attempts to transform the mentality of churches and denominations, so that church planting is recovered as a natural activity of all churches, rather than the hobby of enthusiasts.

Although Murray believes that radical rethinking is inevitable before real growth can occur, he recognizes that it is the process of re-evaluation and asking the fundamental questions that is valuable in itself rather than change for its own sake: “Asking radical structural questions does not always result in the rejection of tried and tested answers.”

Asking Questions and Refining Expectations

Murray asks a lot of questions, rather than being prescriptive, and this is helpful in showing that there are numerous options available, not just in terms of how the plant begins (mother/daughter, ecumenical, colonization, team, satellite)  – which is actually his final section – but more importantly what is being planted (a missionary community, mega-church, multi-site church, postmodern church). His seventh chapter on the ethos of the church draws a lot on his oft-repeated convictions regarding “post-Christendom” and as such offers for consideration various types of communities from the fringes who would not sit easily with the general evangelical milieu presupposed by most church planting literature.

However, regardless of the churchmanship of those involved, Murray is adamant that the denomination and planter must clarify their objectives and expectations. Competing or conflicting expectations can lead to friction and a real or apparent sense of failure. This had already been documented by David Snapper in an analysis of new church developments (NCDs) in the Christian Reformed Church USA. He critiqued the imposition of inappropriate church-growth paradigms to all new church developments regardless of context and lamented the “untested, reductionistic theology of Church Growth based on what I believe is an Arminian soteriology and failed sociology.”

He argued that the Church Growth movement’s tendency to define success narrowly led to unrealistic expectations of planters: “American church planting began to focus on quantifiability (numbers) and accountability (technique),” while the words of Donald McGavran and others “ignited the tinder of American pragmatism.”

For the purposes of this study, Snapper’s research is important in that the CRC and Irish Prsbyterians share more similarities in terms of theology and organization than the Anabaptist or Pentecostal communities which constitute the majority of modern church planting examples. Like the PCI, the CRC experienced an overall membership slump at the time of writing, and yet had invested over nine million dollars in church planting in one year alone in the mid 1990s. In spite of Snapper’s mixed report on their success, their commitment to planting is worth noting.

The church planting literature often differentiates between “cold plants” (those planted from outside through denominational or other funding, where no similar church previously existed nearby) and “sponsored plants” (those planted from a nearby congregation). Snapper shows how virtually all of the plants supervised from a central mission board struggled, while many that were planted and supervised by a stronger local church fared better. He also shows how geographical proximity to denominational headquarters increased the statistical likelihood of the NCD’s success. He concludes that rarely can NCDs be “established successfully without the nurture of a nearby CRC community.”

These are findings that may have application in the Irish context.

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