Really? Plant new churches… now?
By: The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, Staff Officer for Church Planting
So… why plant new churches? Why now?
As of today, Omicron is still tearing across the country. Three of the four out of town events I’d had on my calendar have been canceled, and my church is going virtual (again) this Sunday. Polls say that our clergy are burnt out, and news on the street is that many congregations will not survive the pandemic. Aren’t we all just feeling the energy right now to start something brand new?!!
The very mention of Church planting can feel daunting. It likely brings to mind massive amounts of fundraising, rallying a launch team, signing deeds on empty plots of land, and (hardest of all) preparing one’s heart for the high probability of failure. One might also hear it mentioned and wonder if they should be slightly suspicious – is this what the Holy Spirit is really calling us to, or is it merely a shiny new object that will eventually turn out to be fool’s gold? Surely we don’t need to be reaching for shiny things when our existing congregations are in desperate need of post-pandemic care.
However, I believe that this moment is an extraordinarily ripe time for planting new faith communities. We’ve learned so much over the last two years about the world we inhabit. We’ve been made painfully aware that the 21st century world isn’t immune from pandemic, that climate change is here, and that our nation is acutely divided. By vacating our church buildings, we’ve learned more about what those buildings mean to us, how God is at work outside of them, and what the value of healthy community really is in a culture of increased loneliness and alienation. We’ve also seen that there are powerful reasons to have hope for the future – including in the passion and activism of Gen Z.
Here are four reasons on my mind today about why the time is now for thinking about church planting:
Reason 1: Hospitality
A growing number of people will not show up at our existing churches, no matter what. Since I attend church in the afternoons, I go out with a long distance running group on most Sunday mornings. My running friends are spiritual, and most of them would say they follow Jesus. But they don’t connect these things to showing up for Sunday worship. New churches have the opportunity to invite people to co-create the worship and community life that they can say an enthusiastic “yes!” to.
On a similar theme, new churches are able to reach people who have been historically underrepresented in The Episcopal Church – particularly people of color and immigrants. Of course, we like to say (and rightly) that everyone is welcome at any of our churches. But I’ve come to recognize that it is a delusion to think our liturgy always transcends language and culture. People tend to need to see themselves reflected in the Divine, and in the gathered body of God’s people. As the United States moves swiftly toward becoming a majority non-white, new church plants can help us reach people who do not see themselves reflected in existing congregations.
Reason 2: Biodiversity is essential for life.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my friend Dave, who pastors a new house church, shrugged and said, “We were sort of made for this.” House churches aren’t “better” than traditional churches – but they have different structures, sizes, expectations and charisms that well suited them for the early days of Covid-19. In fact, these days, we are seeing fewer church plants that mimic (one might say “franchise”) existing models of church. Rather, new “hybrid” expressions are emerging that are particularly well adapted to their environment, and to the people they are hoping to reach. If we don’t plant new churches with particular “genetic mutations,” we risk an entire denomination that fails to evolve to meet the needs of its current context.
Let’s acknowledge that there are costs to producing a new hybrid. Some traits, even ones we loved, will disappear. A house church probably won’t help preserve the oft lauded theology of the 1982 hymnal, and Messy Church isn’t likely to provide quiet, contemplative prayer time before the service. That’s okay – other communities can do these things. Diversifying when, how and to who we proclaim the Good News is necessary for a healthy spiritual entity.
Reason 3: The 40 years in the wilderness
We hear regularly that the existing Church must change. In the Episcopal denomination, people who say this are often referring to our heavy clericalism, our dependence on traditional buildings, our denomination’s elite social standing in society, our lack of enthusiasm for evangelism and our over reliance on a dated prayer book and hymnal. Like a midwife turning a breech baby, many existing congregations are slowly (or sometimes, forcefully) adapting and changing.
AND!!! We need new faith communities that exhibit these new values and behaviors (collaborative leadership, flexible space, missional posture, etc.) from the beginning of their life cycle. God knew that, for the Children of Israel to fully enter the Promised Land in body, mind and spirit, they would have to cast off the baggage of Egypt. Otherwise, in times of hardship, they might be tempted to go back. Likewise, in our mixed ecology of churches, we need some who have never known another way of being.
Reason 4: Babies inspire hope.
I’m frequently told that the reason a diocese doesn’t have energy for church planting is because they have so many existing parishes that are on the precipice of deep trouble. This makes sense. It’s similar to the reason many people of child-bearing age say they plan not to have children – it’s irresponsible in an age of catastrophic climate change and economic and political insecurity. However valid, this response also begs the question that philosopher Mark Fischer heard asked in the film Children of Men: “How long can a culture persist without the new?”
Planting a faith community indicates that we believe our message of God’s persistent love is relevant for today’s world, even for people who don’t go to church. Planting can be a way of pouring out the abundance we have received from God, not foolheartedly but extravagantly, with the hopeful assurance that we will receive something in return.