Dealing with Failure
Stuart Murray discerns a new wave of planters “(who) are not operating within a “church growth” paradigm but a “cross-cultural mission” paradigm.” Nor are they “in thrall to imposed success criteria, goals and time frames.” This is especially important for those seeking to plant in “marginalized subcultures and networks” or “in neighborhoods suffering the effects of multiple forms of poverty and deprivation.”
The disillusionment arising from unrealized expectations as outlined by Murray, Snapper and others, led to a noticeable antipathy towards church planting in many denominational circles around the turn of the century. Murray begins Planting Churches by recognising this suspicion. In English circles this was due in part to the apparent failure of the DAWN initiative.
Murray claims the focus was on “speed and quantity rather than quality”– on how many churches to plant, rather than what kind of church to plant: “Many did not think it necessary to spend much time wondering what kind of church to plant. They assumed they knew what church was and concentrated on the planting process. Those who did ask questions about what kind of church to plant were generally interested in making adjustments to familiar models rather than exploring radically different possibilities.” Another report names “poor planning, leadership issues, inward-looking focus, cultural blindness, part-time leadership and lack of resources” and Murray also observes how, after a glut in the early 1990s, there were no significant inter-agency church-planting conferences in Britain from 1995 to 2006.
He observes a degree of opposition to any renewed planting initiative from across the ecclesiastical spectrum: disillusioned ex-church planters, denominational leaders unconvinced about its worth and wary of investing limited budgets, leaders whose sacramental or mega-church ideology revolted against anything informal or amateurish, and emergent pioneers with no desire to perpetuate the traditional and failed methodologies of yesterday.
In short, says Murray, “many planting churches had not anticipated the pain involved in the process.” Countering such disillusionment wasn’t helped by the fact that “Most books on church planting are out of print, out of date, or written for a different context than… post-Christendom Europe.” Even British books on the subject “were published during the first half of the 1990s and are out of print and rather dated.”
Rehabilitate the Language
However, he remains convinced that churches and agencies need to learn from the mistakes of the past, and that “church planting is a crucial component in any mission strategy in our post-Christendom Western societies.” Among the main failures he identifies are: superficial or non-existent research, inadequate training, serious leadership deficiencies, launching too early, relying on attractional evangelistic methods, unrealistic expectations, cultural insensitivity and lack of contextualization. Murray’s threefold vision is that leaders begin to discern forms of church planting that are “contextually sensitive, missionally attuned, and ecclesially imaginative.”
While recognizing that the church planting language fell out of favour for a while because some found it imperialistic and precluded reflection on what sort of churches today’s culture needs, he feels it is neceesary to rehabilitate the language of Church planting if the term is “again to convey images of adventure, exploration, provisionality, creativity, gentleness, and humility rather than imperialism, imposition, colonization, insensitivity, and marketing.”
Furthermore, cultural change will necessitate a complete reassessment of the contemporary usefulness of some of the treasured methodologies of the earlier literature, especially if the trans-Atlantic differences are ignored: “In British society, goals do not motivate people;in postmodern culture, goals seem modernistic and pretentious; in the cross-cultural planting context that predominates today and means each situation is different, goals often appear arbitrary.” While planning and having aims is important, goals should not become prescriptive or burdensome. Instead “a clear statement of purpose” should suffice.
Challenges and Questions for Emergents
Murray’s book engages robustly and critically with both traditional church planting thinking and emergent post-modern culture. He does not let the latter “off the hook”: For example, he argues that if evangelicals were criticized for not having a holistic view of mission, the emergentscould equally be criticized for having an irrational (and unbiblical) antipathy towards evangelism. As a result: “this opposite missional imbalance will mean they are parasitic on the evangelizing churches they criticize and may eventually lead to their demise.”
Elsewhere, he says: “Dogmatic iconoclasm is no more attractive than dogmatic traditionalism… Church planters need a more nuanced, self-aware, and humble stance, courageously pioneering creative possibilities without denigrating what has gone before or depriving themselves of potent resources.” He also warns of the self-indulgence that can be a danger in a micro-analysis of church and culture: “I know of situations where a beautiful, radical, and culturally cool church never got off the drawing board because there was no energy left actually to plant it.”
In dealing with location, Murray has an interesting take on the post-modern tendency to reuse old defunct buildings because of an understanding of “sacred space”; what some have poignantly called: ”reopening the old wells”. At one level, he says, this may be a “rejection of the functionality of modernity and sensitivity to the emerging spirituality of a postmodern culture” (i.e. such people will not be attracted to plastic chairs in soul-less community centers). On the other hand it may also be “a return to Christendom or even to pagan notions that designate holy places.”
In dealing with time-frame he is convinced that most plants fail because they are launched too quickly rather than too slowly: “church-planting ventures are damaged or jeopardized by precipitate action, rushing ahead without adequate preparation or consultation.”
Challenges and Questions for Mainstream Denominations
This feeling of potential dislocation which the church could so easily feel amidst such change is taken up by Alan Roxburgh in a seminal essay “Reframing Denominations from a Missional Perspective” He refers to the beginning of the 21st century as a period of “liminality” and says that even our vocabulary of “postmodernism” and “emergent” displays “a tentative language for a liminal time.” He observes how much denominational energy is directed at structural reorganization, policy and procedure; programs to address growth, evangelism or new church development; leadership development and role redefinition; and personnel reductions because of falling budgets. He concludes that: “such responses simply do not address the issues of legitimacy, identity, and transformation in an environment of discontinuous change.”
A Kairos Moment
But the situation is not without hope. Following David Bosch, he believes that “the Spirit continually disrupts the settled assumptions and structures of God’s people when these assumptions and structures come to define the extent and shape of God’s kingdom.” Ian Coffey and Eddie Gibbs similarly believe the church at the beginning of this century is at, what they call, a “strategic inflection point” or, more theologically, “a kairos moment, which is a special God-appointed time when significant factors converge to provoke the need for decisive action.” Like Roxburgh they refer to the liminality of the current era, but see it positively as “a state not of limbo but of dynamic transition.”
Of the cultural changes presented to the church by postmodernity, Moynagh isolates three for consideration as “epoch-making”: a new consumerism, option paralysis (a world typified by ‘hyper-choice’), and the contradictory worlds of work and leisure. This last one, he feels, offers particular opportunities to the church: ones which we could find ourselves well-equipped to meet:
“Becoming sensitive to the different mindsets of work and leisure would be a step away from a one-size-fits-all approach to evangelism…. Instead of dragging people at work to us, church would start going to them. It would be church that fits – not just those who’ve come in, but those who are currently outside.”
Moynagh believes that the worlds of faith and work have been pulled apart in the minds of Christians because the concerns of full-time ministers, which are inevitably church-based, take precedence over lay concerns. He also sees how the church has become “trapped by the domestic agenda” because “organized church has been left to minister to people at home but not at work, and so inevitably family-type issues dominate its thinking.”
Moynagh paints a picture of a “fragmented but connected” church which he believes to be not that different from what we see in Acts: “connected fragments were the essence of the New Testament church.” Unlike most current church models which are based around where people live rather than work, Moynagh proposes smaller networks based around work and leisure, with a hub acting as a central reosurce and “doing traditional church” for those for whom that is still a valid and preferred expression.
This is in part inspired by his conviction that “people have not abandoned groups, they have fled particular types of group – and church is one of those groups.” moynagh deliberately sees his proposed networks as churches,not as ministry groups: “A number of the congregations are small, some are quite large and several are transient. The congregation for single parents, for instance, tends to be a staging post.” The essential transience of this displays a lack of permanence which is beyond the imagination of many traditional churchgoers whose families perhaps have had an affiliation with a parish for centuries, but it fits well with a postmodern context and need not be a threat.