Building off a previous post on church planting comparing old and new paradigms of church planting, here is an anecdote about two types of church planters. One will fail and one will succeed. The context? My city of Calgary.
Housing is really expensive here, most of the recent plants start in the very deep suburbs because that’s where you can afford a house (especially if you have a family). For context, Calgary is a city where we have non-stop suburbs. We’re not made up for connecting counties, we’re just one big land mass. You need a car to get anywhere, particularly if you’re in the suburbs, where services are minimal, but space and housing affordability is available.
The first church planter arrives in the city. It’s their first time. They are essentially a missionary, but what kind of missionary is important. They are imports into a new culture they have no connection with. They may speak the same language but that’s it. This missionary arrives having done little contextual analysis. Instead, they rely on a few selected stats about the city’s need for denominational churches. There are an increased number of Americans coming to plant here, and that’s the kind of reasoning they use to justify their calling.
It’s true. Compared to Bible Belt America, Bible Belt Canada has fewer churches per capita. Yet we still have about 2/3 of Canadians self-identifying as Christians. Of course, that number is declining; today only about 8% of Canadians would consider themselves evangelicals and regular churchgoers. Is there a need for church plants in this context? Certainly. But what kind of plant is crucial.
The first planter arrives on the scene informed by old paradigms of church planting, a kind that relies on building gimmick events to start relationships with an ultimate goal of building a Sunday service featuring 30-45 minutes of preaching.
Do we need more of these kinds of churches? I’d say no.
Old paradigms assume, “have it and they will come” still works. (It used to be, “build it and they will come,” but we can’t afford buildings anymore.) A key milestone to success is when the service starts because we equate the Sunday gatherings as “church”. The focus isn’t discipleship or relationships, although they remain at the forefront.
When I look back over the past ten years, church plants that have operated within old paradigm, complete wit the significant capital required to launch, failed within two years. Not every old paradigm church plant failed, however. The plants that succeeded were the church transplants. The ones that launched with a contingent of 20+ families or around 100 people.
Which brings up another critical observation: the classic sending of the Lone Ranger planter operating under the assumption of “have a service and you’ll get a church,” will fail in a post-Christian context. You might stick around longer than two years, make a few good relationships, but the church itself will meander around 20 people, incapable of breaking through the invisible barrier of church success from yesteryear. What’s the problem? When a new church planter spends most of his time on administrative duties around traditional church components like a service, you ignore what’s needed most–discipleship.
What’s the problem? Partly, when a new church planter spends most of his time on administrative duties around traditional church components like a service, you ignore what’s needed most–discipleship. (As an aside, a church plant that’s 20 solid people isn’t a fail, but it’s not sustainable if that leader needs full-time salary.)
That doesn’t mean people are not looking for a spiritual connection in a church service, but we simply can’t have everyone trying to launch the same thing, especially when larger churches do a way better job putting on polished services. If you believe a church service is the foundation of the church, you’re in for a rough surprise. Only Christians really care about church services.
We DO need more pioneers planting. But it’s a different kind of church planter that’s will succeed in a post-Christian world. We need to re-write what success looks like too.
The second missionary/church planter arrives on scene and knows, probably because she’s lived in the city for some time, a model suited for longevity, not services, is required. They don’t have a safety net to go back home because they are home. A church plant that launches with the understanding discipling others will be the main engine behind growth (and having those new discples know right off the bat they disciple too). This planter will seek to gather like-minded people, and demonstrate incarnate ministry in the neighborhood they serve as others learn to do the same. She won’t launch by herself, and doesn’t consider her sending body or denomination enough to guarantee longevity.
God’s kingdom unfolds everywhere, not restricted to Sunday morning services, and it’s our job to participate in every way we can. The second planter stands a chance to survive and thrive in the Canadian landscape if she can stick around.
Currently, established churches are feeling pressure under the Sunday service model of church (have a service and hope disintegration will stop), why would a new church plant find success? We don’t need more of the same. We don’t need to be spending considerable capital and trying to figure out how we can launch services with fixtures and sounds and polished sermon. Rather we need more attention to the small and local. We need people who are gathered together intentionally around place.
There will always be exceptions to the stories, the exceptional church plant that somehow made it, but there’s enough evidence to suggest the amount of resources to do traditional church planting is astronomical and it doesn’t work. We should think it as an astronomical waste. Good intentions are not enough and eventually that first planter will lose his spirit because it doesn’t matter where your heart is if you get the landscape wrong. God’s doesn’t work illogically. If you have no concept of local culture, and don’t treat relationships as paramount; if you treat services as your foundation, you’re likely to fail.
Luckily these are only stories.
Moving forward we need vision that fits the Canadian landscape. We need forward thinkers and practitioners.
As an aside if you are in fact looking a church plant or you were looking at already church planting within the landscape here in Alberta, might I encourage you to reach beyond your existing networks and collaborate with local practitioners. In Calgary we have an emerging local practitioners cohort I encourage you to connect in. Here we have Mosaic Network to connect into. Nationally, New Leaf Network is starting to emerge as well. Both worth your attention.