Genesis II: Re-Vision and Renew

Really? Plant new churches… now? (Addendum)

August 30, 2022

By: The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, Staff Officer for Church Planting

Back in January, I wrote a short post titled “Really?  Plant churches… now?”  At that time, with Omicron tearing through homes, churches and schools, I’d found myself talking to more than one church leader who apologetically explained that they “just didn’t have the bandwidth” to think about starting new churches right now.

It’s hard to blame anyone for such a response.  There seems to be a new fatigue settling into many churches and faith leaders – perhaps it’s akin to the crash after an intense adrenaline rush.

I don’t want to minimize the “bandwidth” needed to start new faith communities from scratch.  This work takes a ton of energy, time, faith, commitment and willingness to be disappointed.  What I want is to help leaders understand how re-energizing and lifegiving church planting can be for their whole diocese! 

So…I’d like to add two more compelling reasons to my original list of four.

  1. Church planting energizes “sending” congregations.  

In the 80s and 90s, many new Episcopal churches were born by sending a couple of families from each of the other local congregations out to a new suburb to jump start the new community.  (I realize this practice had its downsides, but that’s for another post.)  The point here is, when I talk to lay people who helped found a new church, planting was a profound and transformative experience for them.  They had left the comfort of their home church and gone on an epic adventure!  They lovingly tell stories of church in triple-wide trailers where you could hear the toilet flush from the sanctuary.  Church planting taught them something about what it means to “be church” and follow Jesus that they might not have learned otherwise.  

But the same is true for the church members who stayed behind.  “You know, WE planted Saint Thomas,” folks still like to tell me.  “We were afraid at first that planting a new church would split our congregation, but God just brought more people to us AND to them.”

I don’t hear of many church plants these days that are intentionally inviting people from legacy Episcopal churches to help them get started.  I think the “theology of scarcity” has something to do with it – the realization that our denomination is on the decline has even large congregations thinking they haven’t got any good people to spare.  I also think that some of our church planters might be assuming that “old” Episcopalians are too traditional and stuck in their ways to help start something new.  Neither of these assumptions are true.  We have many Spirit-filled lay people who are longing to send, and to be sent!  In a tired church, what better way to discover new energy than to follow the Holy Spirit into something new?

  1. Our shared vitality depends on having faith communities in all different stages of the life cycle.

My friend Nick Warnes recently wrote a book called Deconstructing Church Planting. (BTW… put in coupon code MZE39 for the special Episcopal discount he’s offering).  

In his book, Warnes describes the Universal Church as a living organism made of many individual congregations, each of which is carrying out its own life cycle.  In the nearly two millennia of Christian history, millions of individual churches have already lived out their life cycle and have died; these churches planted seeds and provided nutritious compost for subsequent generations.  Warnes is interested in “reproducing churches,” meaning churches that just reach a degree of size and stability (but no more!) that they are able to give birth to a new community. He says:

“As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, the ecclesial priority of growth needs to shift from an internal growth that does not prioritize reproduction, to a re-normalized practice of maximizing the length of relative homeostasis for the purposes of practicing reproduction.  This shift will provide a better foundation for the Church to be a more effective witness of Christ within the various cultures and subcultures that make up the tapestry of our world.”

So, Church Planting is necessary to the whole body of the Church because (just like humans!) our shared vitality depends on having faith communities in all different stages of the life cycle.  This is the process by which we most naturally grow and evolve to engage the people, cultures and challenges of each new generation.  

It seems that these two reasons are ultimately related.  Church planting, at its best and strongest, isn’t done by a single ordained leader.  It is a partnership among committed people who assume that stepping out in faith won’t diminish what they currently have, but will ultimately be a blessing to both the old and the new.  My prayer is that we realize we do, in fact, have the bandwidth for such a blessing.