Magazine article The Christian Century

What to Know before You Plant

Magazine article The Christian Century

What to Know before You Plant

Article excerpt

Five years ago my husband, Brian, and I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, so that he could start a new ministry. The denominational committee overseeing the project wanted something completely different. Brian, who was bursting with creative energy, eagerly obliged by bringing together artists, activists, musicians, animal rescuers, and community organizers. Now, the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center bustles with people at all hours of the day and night as it extends hospitality to visitors and works for the dream of God in our city.

That's the edition of the story we often hear in new church development work-- how the committee and pastor met and the new ministry flourished. It's like the Facebook edition of a marriage, sharing the happy photos and anniversary celebrations that highlight the lovely and happy aspects of marriage while glossing over the challenges and the rough realities. But like any long-term relationship, the new church and governing body experience highs and lows.

As the years go by, people lose the honeymoon glow and begin to ask more pointed questions about money, members, and metrics. Trust may sour and criticism increase. To make things more complicated, the denominational committee that oversees the new ministry regularly rotates in new members, and they may have a completely different vision of the development. For all of these reasons, it's vital that each party understand what it's committing to and that each ministers to and supports the other.

I talked with a group of innovative pastors and members of governing bodies who support new churches. My question for all of them was, "What do we all need to know before entering into this work?"

First, they said, the committee and minister need to know that church cannot be a franchise operation that sets worship styles, ministry goals, and sustainability timelines and imposes them on every context. There was a time when the mainline church looked like an extension of a country club: white, educated, and economically secure members worshiped with a shared cultural understanding of decency and order.

New churches rarely look like cookie-cutter organizations, however. A church planter needs time to become familiar with the context. The liturgy and music, for example, may take on rhythms that might seem foreign to some who grew up in denominational churches. And instead of "reaching out" to the homeless and hungry, these congregations grow their own gardens and feed one another around their own tables. …

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