Contextual awareness crucial to church planting success

May 18, 2004

Understanding the 'unchurched' and cultivating the ability to communicate in broad contexts are essential for the Episcopal Church to achieve its objectives to take seriously Jesus' command to "build my church" and to "spread the Gospel."

That was the message that 170 participants took home from the first annual Plant My Church conference, held in Lansdowne, Virginia, May 13-15.

The three-day training event, which focused on new church development, included special learning opportunities for bishops and diocesan staff members, 'launch team' members, new and experienced church planters, and those less experienced or exploring a call to church planting.

Hosted by the Episcopal Church's Office of Congregational Development under the leadership of the Rev. Charles N. Fulton and in partnership with the diocese of Virginia, more than 30 presenters held workshops designed to help participants gain expertise in church growth in various contexts and a chance to "capitalize on the experience of others' successes and failures."

Fulton expressed his encouragement at the comprehensiveness of the event, which not only focused on suburban contexts but also urban and rural environments. "It was certainly broad in scope, with particular focus on generational and racial issues," he said. "I was particularly inspired by the energy and connecting that shaped the conference."

'Removing obstacles'

In his address to the conference, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold spoke about the importance of removing obstacles to reconciliation for church planting to be successful. "Church planting is about establishing communities of reconciliation so that love can flow forth into the world," he said, expressing his gratitude for the people who are working in this field.

Griswold also identified the significance of the language that is used, pointing out that there are many different vocabularies centered on evangelization and mission within the church. "Some use a vocabulary of 'justice', others use a vocabulary of 'holiness,'" he said. "It is important that we make the effort to broaden our vocabularies so we can more effectively reach out to people."

Speaking about the "diverse center," which Griswold has previously described as "a many-membered body being shaped and formed by Christ," he said that one of the glories of Anglicanism is its ability to make room for difference. He added, "This group is very important in working for the 'mission energies' named by the 20/20 movement and in how they are being realized in the life of the church." The 20/20 movement--centered on doubling average Sunday attendance by the year 2020--is a goal that General Convention adopted in July 2000 to contribute to the growth and vitality of the church and its congregations.

Adapting to people's aesthetics

Guest speaker George Hunter, an author and leading authority on communicating the Gospel to secular people, identified the necessity for church planters to "begin with where people are, rather than where we would like them to be."

Hunter, who as a young seminary student spent eight weeks sharing his faith with "Muscle Beach" surfers, beatniks, and body builders, explained how culturally conventional people do not like traditional churches and urged the importance of understanding this when starting a "seeker church."

"Our churches are now placed in secular mission fields," he said. "For a long time the church had the luxury of Christendom. With the events of secularization the church was moved from the center of a culture's life to the periphery."

Mentioning the differences between message, mission, style and strategy, Hunter, who has led seminars for more than 30 denominations in more than 20 different countries, said, "Though we are not called to change the message, we are called to change the style; and though we are not called to change the mission, we are called to change the strategy."

Seeker churches are meant for contemporary worship, he added, and they are good at giving options to congregations that are indigenous to the culture of the present day. "Culture is the silent language," he said. "[If we] adapt to people's aesthetics, we are able to communicate meaning."

Reiterating his point about beginning with "where people are rather than where we would like them to be," Hunter implored the conference, "Don't try to change the traditional congregation you have inherited...love that congregation while building a second congregation on the edge."

Small churches--strategic assessment

The Rev. Ben Helmer, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for congregational development with expertise in rural and small communities, explained some of the strategies of the 20/20 initiative in responding to the needs of small congregations.

"We decided to develop a strategic assessment as a way to work with congregations that are small," he said. The result is a four-part plan entitled Expanding Mission and Vitality in Small Congregations, which divides into subcategories: self-assessment; discernment; local ownership; and congregational development [http://arc.episcopalchurch.org/congdev/Rural/scsc-bbrpt.htm].

Citing concern for places that have little concept of mission, Helmer emphasized the importance of the missioner as a person with the ability to explore the landscapes and identify what is needed for the church starts. "The missioner is a strategic principal for a rural church plant, and is a person who is not necessarily a rector or vicar," he said. "It is important to bring these people into the full life of the bishop's extended staff so that they get a sense of recognition and worth."

Helmer also noted how many rural contexts have changed demographically since the last census, with communities that are now much more ethnically diverse.

Understanding the 'unchurched'

In another workshop designed for bishops and diocesan staff responsible for overseeing new church development, a panel convened by Bishop Suffragan David Jones of Virginia addressed areas including development, planning, leadership, timing, coaching, supervision, and evaluation.

Tennessee's Bishop Bert Herlong spoke about targeting the "unchurched" and lapsed members of other churches, adding that "in this consumer culture you don't tell people what it is they can do for you, you ask them what it is you can do for them." Furthermore, Herlong explained, you need to have all the facts and figures in place as well as the vision and clear expectations.

Canon Victoria Heard, missioner for church planting from the Diocese of Virginia, emphasized the importance of knowing the sorts of questions the "unchurched" are asking. She described this skill as developing 'Eyes of the Fisherman.

"We can get so caught up in the inner workings of the church that we forget the unchurched," she said. "There are people out there who are hungry for God and we have to know how they think."

Heard added that all of the church plants she has seen fail have done so because of their choices in leadership. "Pick the right planter and you have a successful church, pick the wrong planter and you won't plant again in the same place for a very long time," she said, offering a number of guidelines for choosing successful leadership: expand your search beyond the people you already have; look for people who are happy doing what they are doing, especially young assistants; look for the best and brightest and those who want a challenge; look for someone who wants the fun of planting a church.

Other positive factors, she said, are people with a business background--especially small businesses--and excellent preaching skills.

Jones agreed that if there is anything that really matters, it is the assessment and choice of the leadership, noting that those who are engaged in the kind of thinking that leads to church planting are likely to run into resistance from more traditional and well-meaning Episcopalians.

The workshop concluded with Jones highlighting the need to call people who have the strength of character to cast a vision and then be able to say goodbye to one's own best friend if it's not working out. "That hurts and that's why it's important for us bishops to stay close to the church planters," he said. "We've not learned a lot from success, but we have from reflecting on failure."

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Starting rural churches

During a workshop addressing rural and small 'new starts,' the Rev. Frank Logue, rector of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia, explained that church planting in smaller contexts requires an entirely different approach from that used in more urban and suburban environments. "[You have to understand] the context and incarnate the gospel in that context," he said. "Learning about the place and setting things to that context is very important."

Logue's target number for a church opening was 40 members. He said he had to begin in such a way that would inspire people to return. Dealing with such a small number, he couldn't afford for half of the congregation to decide, after the first service, that they weren't coming back. "Learning the context here really helped," he said, "as I understood what it would take in my community to be regarded as successful."

The Rev. Canon Dennis Campbell, a congregational development officer from the diocese of Arkansas, spoke about the historical transformation that church planting had experienced. "In the last 20 years the Episcopal Church has become more intentional," he said. "Now we're really getting our feet wet."

The Episcopal Church is renowned for doing well in affluent suburbs, but that is not the case in rural contexts, Campbell explained. "That challenges us to find different ways," he said. "In rural Arkansas, you are not going to repeat what has happened in urban centers."

Campbell mentioned a congregation in Mena, Arkansas, as one of the healthiest churches he knows and one that voluntarily commits 20 percent of its budget to the diocese--eight points higher than the diocesan average. "They are at the forefront of mission and they are only twenty people," he said. "Why wouldn't we want more of those churches?"

Renewed faith community

The Rev. Dr. Mac Collins, rector of St Mark's, City Heights in San Diego, hosted a separate workshop to tell the story of his ethnically diverse parish, located in a neighborhood where more than 105 dialects are spoken.

The old site of St. Mark's, which began in 1913, was used by the City of San Diego to build a new "Urban Village." Through community-based meetings attended by neighborhood leaders, business people, educators and government officials, the needs for adult literacy, enriched programs for children, and a place for community gatherings became clear.

The new St. Mark's, constructed to meet these needs, comprises a worship area which seats 140, a hallway with a library on one side and a classroom on the other, a large computer center and classroom, an office and a smaller classroom, and three apartments which house social programs of Episcopal Community Services.

Collins described St. Mark's as "a renewed faith community in a neighborhood of hope," adding that his mission over the next 14 years is to get as many minorities as possible into the church. "We are trying to figure how to raise up the indigenous people in our society," he said. "We need to think about community partnership...[and] collaboration with all people."

Shaping diocesan leaders

In a workshop directed at diocesan leaders, Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts described a lack of urgency in his diocese to start new churches. "So you have to really believe that God is calling you to this kind of ministry and keeping pushing against the prevailing opinion and passion of clergy and laity," he said. "[It] means being able to take criticism and anger...and make all sorts of personal sacrifices."

Urging all church planters to be clear about why they think God is calling them, Scruton stressed the need to be open to emergent design. "[Often when] we think we are getting somewhere, something changes," he said. "So you need to know to adjust to how the spirit might call you."

A well-known preacher, teacher, author, and consultant throughout the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Kevin Martin is also founder and executive director of Vital Church Ministries, an outreach ministry of Christ Church in Plano, Texas. Martin drew attention to the practical questions that need to be asked when engaged in church planting and congregational development. "Once you have a clear assessment of the size, number of people, ethnic identity, multicultural identity, for example, it's easier to gauge what you're really trying to do," he said. "There are not a hundred new ways to start a church, no matter how creative we are. There are 5 or 6 proven methods so you can sit down and work out the integral steps depending on which church you are trying to build."

Martin urged the workshop to think about church planting as a partnership between people of the diocese and the planters, as it is critical to know what local people will bring to the formula.

Knowing how to budget and sustain the finances of a new church can be challenging and a number of suggestions were made to ease the pressure on a new church's pocketbooks. Herlong suggested asking parishioners in other churches to give a dollar a day over the season of Easter, for example, in thanks for the people who planted their church.

"Developing partnerships between congregations can be productive," he said "Other congregations, when they see the fruit of their money, will begin to take ownership with prayer."

With regard to timing, Jones explained, there is always pressure for a new church plant to go live as soon as possible. "We have learned that that is not an effective way to start a new congregation," he said. "Work away from public worship in creating and cultivating."

Warning of the dangers that new starts can encounter when buying land, Heard emphasized the importance of being advised by engineers and attorneys before going to settlement. She added that real problems will usually be encountered within the first three years and a coach can save the new church planter and the diocese 'a lot of heartburn.'