Church planting in the United States and Canada has been traditionally all about gathering a large crowd, making a big splash in a community and building a building. Success is measured by how big and how fast.
Though I recognize there is some legitimacy in gathering converts quickly, this often happens within the Christendom parts of America.
In these enclaves, what we’re doing in church planting is “upgrading” church and making it more relevant for the children of Christian parents who have lost interest in their parents’ form of church.
This, I suggest, still has some validity, but in most parts of America and Canada, we are no longer converting the children of Christian parents. There are fewer and fewer people left who are interested in Christianity.
We are, therefore, left to plant communities in mission. The goal is not making Christianity more relevant to dormant Christians or children of Christians. It is to be a new witness to the kingdom in a place that lacks such an expression.
This “shift” fundamentally changes our expectations for what a church plant should look like.
In this regard, I find John Howard Yoder’s statement in “Theology of Mission” helpful. “We do not start by assuming the church must take over the place. We start by assuming the number of believers will be modest and the decision to follow Christ will be a costly one, therefore a decision that not many will make.”
“This does not mean an a priori decision that there should never be a mass movement,” Yoder said. “It means we do not hang our hopes on strategies of effectiveness of the message getting a wide hearing quickly or gaining support from powerful people.”
This humble “minority” posture lies deep within the Anabaptist impulse. It must capture our imagination for a new kind of church planting which the post Christendom parts of North America are in sore need of.
It says that church planters:
1. Shall patiently cultivate relationships as part of our everyday life.
We will move to a new place and do what we do: eating together, raising children together, reconciling conflict together, spending meaningful time with the hurting in our neighborhoods together, praying for our lives and the community around us together.
We shall do all this not in secret. In so doing, we shall be witnesses to the hope that God has come in Christ to restore and reconcile the world to himself. Out of this, we simply share who we are with all the people we come to know.
This also means we shall not barrage the neighborhood with an overhyped, excessively produced program that we bring from somewhere else with a lot of money we’ve raised from somewhere else that we then invite the neighborhood into on our terms.
2. Shall learn and listen carefully to our neighbors learning their stories, their hurts and what their greatest victories and assets are before we proclaim the gospel.
It will take us at least a year of doing this before we even know what words make sense to proclaim gospel in this community by the spirit.
We shall not then set up an evangelism program or a video screen to pipe in a version of the gospel that does not arise from this place.
We will not assume the way we have received the gospel makes immediate sense to our new neighbors.
We want to know them deeply so that the spirit can give us the words in that space between listener and the “other” to proclaim the gospel afresh and anew and faithfully.
3. Shall expect growth but this growth will most probably happen over a very prolonged period of time.
This growth will be on God’s terms. It shall be a work of the spirit, not our work. It means we shall be committed to this place for a minimum of 10 years.
We shall not then assume a cause-effect church growth algorithm, which predicts if we do “a,” we will always get “b.” I have always joked that such church growth strategies are functional atheism – not needing God for them to work.
We shall look at success in terms of how many relationships we have been part of in a neighborhood, how has God used us to form a “space” of his working for the kingdom in this place.
These are just a few of the ways expectations change when you view church planting in this way. Let’s work to change and expand imagination for planting fresh expressions of the gospel in North America.
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.