Repost: Church Planting and Mainline Church

I wrote this post back in 2006.  A lot has changed since this post was written.  Sadly,  how Progressive Christians view church planting isn’t one of them.


I sometimes wonder if mainline Protestant churches really have a passion for new churches. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of the situation with Community of Grace ,but I get this sense that for many people, a new church is not high on the priority list.

Case in point. I was having a conversation a few months ago with a friend of mine. He is also a pastor and recently came out as a gay man after three decades of marriage. He’s coming to terms with being gay and with how society and the church deal with his sexuality. The whole “gay debates” have not hit the Disciples with the same ferocity that it has other denominations, but we do have some issues. He railed about the homophobia in the church. It was obvious he was angry and mad, about the injustice and rightly so. At some point though, I tried to talk about working for change and why Community of Grace exists; to be a place where everyone is welcome regardless of who they are (including sexual orientation). His retort was that I had to go and start a church to be a pastor; no other church would hire me because of my sexual orientation.

I was a little hurt. Yes, there might be some churches that might not call me because I’m gay. But, there might be some churches that don’t care, either. But what really bothered me was the assertion that since Community of Grace kind of started without the Region’s permission, it was not real. I had to start a church to be a pastor because no one would want me.

I didn’t decide to plant a church simply because I was not accepted by the larger church. That might have been a small part, but the larger part was a desire to plant a church, even though I didn’t want to. I truly believe God wanted me to plant a church, a church that was welcoming of gay people and so I went about doing that.

But my friend’s retort reminded me of how new churches are met by mainline Christians with a collective shrug at times. It’s not that people or church authorities are trying to stifle new churches, but at times I sense people are not as passionate about new churches.

Ron Robinson talks about how mainline Christians tend to be so wrapped up in the next big thing or cause, that they tend to ignore the present context. He writes:

We are so busy investing ourselves in the next big thing, or the new and improved thing, the cause around the corner that we don’t realize how this keeps us from being grounded where we are and to hear the calling of our context. Progressives love progression, I think, because it keeps us in the life of the mind–the future will come to us as an idea, we think. Not sure I want to blame this most recently on Whitehead, blessed be his name, and Process Thought, but there is something to how the Creator as Creativity comes to us Cultural Creatives, and becomes something like a mind-hit, an addiction to the next idea and the next, etc. (you will no doubt remind me to read my James Luther Adams and my F.H. Hedge and my George Huntston Williams on Hedge to know this is nothing new but of course the predictable failing; I am just wondering if we have forgotten it)…

…Maybe this is a reason why there is so little concern or conversation about church planting among us? We, progressives in many religious affiliations, are focused on getting our existing churches to catch up with us and our enlightenments, and spend much energy on transforming the old wineskins to handle the new wine of various causes. We stay attached to the “churches that are” in order to have a place for us to continually reinforce and act out our identity as progressives.

If we worried equally about how the ancient would be incarnated in the future, as we do about how the present can be transformed to better fit our current ideologies/theologies, then we would have church planting perpetually on our agenda. It would be one of our reasons for being. Ancient Christian faith has the Great Commandment and Great Commission at its core (two liberal commandments by the way) and so it compels us to be so committed. The committment to plant and relate to new people comes first–the particular kind of church planting, or relationship-creating, will come afterwards. Our progressive understanding of right relationships comes afterwards and answers the question of how we plant. The why and the must comes first.

For me, I’ve wanted to be about creating inclusive churches. Many of my fellow friends in the mainlne Protestant church are involved in “the church that are,” as Ron calls them. They want them to share whatever view people have, be it being more inclusive of gays and lesbians or women in the church. It’s an important task, but it blinds them to the ability to be evangelists, bringing God’s liberating word to people who desparately need it.

This questions comes up when I talk to some of my Lutheran friends. Many are rightfully upset that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American can still bar “practiciing” gays and lesbians from being ministers. Many of them have worked for inclusion and time and again, they come up short. I’ve heard people comment that these moves make gays and lesbians feel unwelcome in the church. That might be the case on one level, but then I look at the many inclusive Lutheran churches in the Twin Cities area. People who were once not going church because of their sexual orientation, are now part of a Christian community. Some of these churches have even went as far as to call gay ministers in defiance of the ban.

The fact is justice is proceeding even if the official church still has its head in the sand. And yet, many of my friends ignore what God is going despite the efforts to stifle the Spirit. They are so focused on what the national body will or won’t do that they ignore what is going on at the local level.

In the Disciples, I remember being involved with a group at another church in the Twin Cities that wants to become Open and Affirming. Every few years they meet and try to get somewhere, but the effort is stymied by the some of the old guard. A few years back I finally asked about starting a church that is already open and affirming. The idea was poo-poohed. In fact, none of those involved have supported Community of Grace.

The funny thing is that Community of Grace is living out what they desire. We have gays in leadership, and we have helped bring people who were estranged from the church because of their sexual orientation, back into fellowship with other Christians and with God. Others are talking about change, butI feel CoG is doing something.

I think that it is the new churches that could lead the mainline church in the coming decades, taking us in new directions in being church. But that is only going to happen if mainline Christians give a damn about these new communities. Continually placing new wine in old wineskins while leaving those new wineskins unused isn’t a sound strategy. It’s way past time to use those news wineskins and let them grow into what God wants them to be.


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