What would it look like if we built church planters and leaders to join existing churches in the neighborhood regardless of affiliation?
*Originally posted in 2015, edited, and reposted.*
I remember when I started my first church plant in 2009. Within a couple of years a ton of new church plants poured into the same place (around a dozen). The eclectic inner-city neighborhood seemed to attract every white suburban church to the scene. Which was fine, the more the merrier. Sadly, something became apparent. Few of the planters had any interest in collaborating with a) other churches, b) other neighborhood groups. You can imagine the results.
Division soon became obvious. The plants from conservative denominations/planting networks only talked to each other. The hippie house churches only talked to each other. And the mainline churches that were present in the neighborhood all along stuck to themselves. I was honestly surprised what little collaboration, let alone conversation, was happening. During this time my small plant connected with two others and together we formed a church from three.
So who do you think lasted the longest?
All but one of the church plants who refused to talk to anybody outside of denomination closed within two years. All of the suburban parachuters went back home. The more progressive church plants collaborated a bit better but lacked neighborhood presence to stick around past five years. The mainline denominations? Most are dwindling to extinction, but one is thriving simply by doing their thing of loving the neighborhood.
My question is, why is traditional church planting disinterested in collaboration beyond network boundaries? And what can we learn to inform future church planting / new initiatives in predominantly post-Christian neighborhoods? I have a few observations.
First off, not all denominations church plant or do new things. The ones that do are traditionally evangelical who are usually conservative in ideology as well. Conservative theology tends to delineate who’s in and who’s out with precision. That means most ventures tend to attract the same kinds of people already in the fold. It’s a pursuit of sameness in race, income, thinking, and beliefs. To join community you must ultimately fit into the dominating culture.
Leaders in turn are tasked to replicate the sending institution. With regards to church planting, traditionally it’s a very expensive enterprise that only rich denominations can afford. For pragmatic reasons you’re not going to invest in a plant built to work against the internal culture. This, along with a general fear of outsiders, is why we rarely observe church planters connect with networks and people beyond their traditions.
Doctrine and dogma seems to be more important than place and the people within. This practice needs to stop.
Second, denominationalism is a differentiating factor but only to other denominations. There was a time, when my grandma went to church, when affiliation made all the difference. You may still experience this today. “If my mother ever found out I stepped foot in BAPTIST church….we’re Church of God people you know.” We are in an age where the growing soon-to-be majority have no understanding or care for what a denomination represents (it’s all the same to them). But that hasn’t stopped traditional church planters from maintaining dividing walls.
Third, I think denominations are used to operating within a culture that has them at the forefront. It’s partly why collaboration is rare. You want to collaborate? We’d prefer to own it and run it, that way we can hog all the glory. Perhaps that’s more nefarious than what’s really happening, but in the least leaders haven’t been formed in a way of thinking that values collaboration with like minds. Rather, they’re used to competing while expanding.
What are impediments to collaboration?
Is it time? Do we only have time to serve our congregations and denominations? Is it beliefs? Are we really unable to work with people who have a different theology than us? Or maybe it’s because we have such a low view of neighborhood and place that we don’t value ALL the participants working towards better.
Ultimately, as Christianity becomes de-centered from a place of domination in North American culture, collaboration will have be a primary way to merely survival for most new church initiatives. Barring the rich multi-site or church transplant with 200 people, most neighborhood plants will need to re-imagine the paradigm of collaboration and community.
Thankfully, things are changing, slowly.
The re-orientation towards place is unfolding through new networks like Parish Collective. New ways of training planters from a grassroots level is online with the V3 Movement. But those are American organizations. What’s Canada got to say? One of the last places innovators seem to gather is The New Leaf. There’s what I, along with others, are putting together in Southern Alberta called the Mosaic. There are often new house church movements re-imagining everything by throwing away everything too. But is it enough? (I’ve also obviously left out the largest planting organizations since they largely all look the same in terms of model, save for theological differences.)
As resources dry up for everyone, we’re going to have to get creative on new ventures. What happens if we, rather than drop-shipping foreigners into a new neighborhood, we built leaders to release them to join existing churches or church plants regardless of affiliation? Would a sending church be willing to part with their people to build a completely unrelated church body but in the same neighborhood? Why can’t declining churches (pretty much every single mainline denomination) with infrastructure become more open to accepting new ventures from completely different traditions ?
Today, in a post-Christian world, few care or even know the gospel story that resonates deeply with their core human longings. Ultimately, my hope is our pride is no longer an impediment to our imagination. We don’t have to own a church service that features our own preachers and our own paradigms. This may have worked when people were looking for answers to life’s questions in the church. Joining work already on the ground may mean losing control. But on the other side we stand to develop longevity and momentum for new initiatives doing kingdom work in their neghborhoods and cities. Work we’d otherwise not see, learn from, nor develop, if it was under the current methodology of church planting.