Mainline Churches Don’t Give a Rip About Church Planting.

As 2012 draws to a close, I’m taking some time to reflect on the new church ministry in the Christian Church in the Upper Midwest and the hopes for 2013 and church planting in within Mainline Protestantism as a whole.

Earlier this year, I kind of fell into leading a ministry team of people interested in planting and sustaining new faith communities in my Region.  In some ways, I don’t know how wise it was to have me leading this, since I’m not a great leader, or at least have some traits that make it difficult to provide visionary leadership.  But I have stepped into the role and did the best I could with what I have.

This past year has been both uplifting and frustrating.  Uplifting because I see people who are called to plant new church communities accross the Region.  Frustrating, because it seems that such work brings shrugs from the larger church.

In my talking and meeting with people, I’ve encountered folks who tend to not care so much about new church when they hear the phrase.  Some have said it is a waste of money while others remain quiet or change the conversation to focus on justice issues or practical tips to help churches.

For someone like me who has a passion for new church,wants to support new church pastors and wants to tell the world about it, this apathy/hostility just makes me mad.

This is not just a problem among the Disciples.  Accross the mainline denominations church planting is viewed as the red-headed stepchild, if that.  Within the bodies of these denominations, there have been campaign after campaign to trumpet the need for planting churches and time after time again, those campaigns peter out and are forgotten.  The Presbyterians latest push is 1001 New Worshipping Communities and while it looks promising , there’s a part of me that thinks this push will fall by the wayside like so many other campaigns.

The thing is, while new church campaigns come and go, mainline churches are declining at a fast pace.  Earlier this year, Presbyterian pastor John Vest wrote a post related to his work on the Mid-Council Commission, which was an attempt by the PC(USA) to restructure the church for the current age.  In that post, Vest shares the sad news:

It is well known that practically every mainline Protestant denomination—and increasingly, many of the evangelical denominations—has experienced a significant decline in membership and overall strength since the middle of the 20th century. The experience of the PC(USA) is consistent with this overall trend. The membership of the PC(USA) is now half of what its predecessor denominations were in 1965, a loss of over 2,000,000 members. (emphasis mine)

In 2008, as the PC(USA) celebrated the 25th anniversary of Reunion, the denomination had experienced a net loss of almost 1,000,000 members since the 1983 merger, from 3,131,228 to 2,140,165. By 2010, our membership had further dropped to 2,016,091—a decrease of almost 36% over the course of 27 years. Though the rate of decline is less severe, the number of PC(USA) congregations has also dropped from 11,662 in 1983 to 10,560 in 2010, a loss of nearly 9.5%. In every year since Reunion, we have lost more congregations than we have gained.

For the congregations that remain, the situation is often dire. We are an increasingly aging denomination, with a median age of 61. The average size of PC(USA) congregations has been significantly reduced over the past quarter century. It is now the case that half of all congregations have a membership of 100 or less. During this same time, average worship attendance has also dropped significantly. The percentage of these shrinking congregations that can afford to employ an installed pastor has decreased dramatically. In 2010, 44% of PC(USA) congregations had no installed pastor…

Most significantly, however, is the reality that we are not reaching out to newcomers or investing in new church development. As a denomination, across all geographic areas, we are not planting enough new faith communities. Between 2000 and 2010, only 226 new churches were chartered. This is simply not sustainable. (emphasis mine) The Presbyterian Church of the 21st century must be a denomination that encourages and nurtures new church development.

I’m not trying to dump on the Presbyterians (they do, after all, keep me employed).  But the Presbyterians do show what’s going on in the wider mainline church.  Most mainline denominations are closing churches faster than they are planting them.  But why is this?

I’m beginning to think that the problem here is baked into the modern mainline Protestant church.  I think in some ways what has happened is that many mainline churches have become places where the folks in the pews are nothing more than customers and we really don’t know what the church is for, let alone why it matters to be a Christian.  I think the problem here is that the mainline church has forgotten who it is and who it belongs to.  Until pastors and the laity know why being a Christian matters and how it changes us, until we know what they church is for and about, until we see a life of faith as less about being affirmed and more about taking up our crosses, until we realize that we are called, gathered and sent, then church planting will be a losing proposition.

Episcopal priest Robert Hendrickson notes that many liberal Protestant churches are places that have become devoid of the mystery of the Christian faith, let alone stressing the fact that being a follower of Jesus changes us:

Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.

The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.

I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.

The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.

The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.

I agree.  Too much of liberal Protestantism is all about affirmation and to little about invitation.  There is an important place for being affirmed and reminded we are loved by God, but our faith, our churches can’t simply be places where we come to feel good about ourselves.  They also have to be places where people are discipled in the ways of Jesus. They have to be places where the folks in the pews realized that they are called to share the good news as much as any clergyperson.

I think I and others have our work cut out for us.  While I will still advocate for new churches, I am realizing that the mainline church needs to be re-planted; because I think it has been uprooted for a long, long time and needs to the good soil and water of Christ to grow again.


4 thoughts on “Mainline Churches Don’t Give a Rip About Church Planting.

Add yours

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Dennis. I agree somewhat, especially that people in the pews can easily become consumers, losing sight of deeper faith. Consumers often find that little follows the initial buy-in, after all. One challenge for new church is “I like it how it always was.” Because it always was just perfect, right? (no) My years as pastor were spent, sadly, building up an institution rather than building the kingdom of God. Frustrating. When I pushed my particular institution to reach out, it pushed back. New church requires ‘old church’ to give, to let go of the blessings it holds so others can share. That is a struggle for churches. Not just mainline, liberal protestant ones, either. Thankfully, the spirit of the risen Christ is always at work. And the strategies of church-planters won’t get in the way; not too much.

  2. Keep writing, Dennis. The church of the contented has always felt it has arrived. Many seem to equate faith with a head trip acknowledgement that they agree with… sorta. Maybe we have lost the sense of mystery, or even the sense that we are on a journey of exploration and discovery… o – wait a moment – that was Star Trek intro. Possibly, state and federal laws have made us self concious as an institution… and not as a people being changed or changing, dying or living?
    So keep on writting, friend. What new manifestations of faith communities is yet to come? New churches have much to teach and give… if we can park the fear of change long enough to listen and receive.
    Keep writing.

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