by Aaron Klinefelter
In part 1 of this series we explored the cultural and institutional barriers to church planting in the Episcopal Church. In this second installment, we delve into why churches undertake church planting in the first place and how these might or might not fit into the ethos of the Episcopal Church.
Why is Church Planting Important?
In order to chart a way forward for pioneering and generative new Christian communities in the Episcopal Church we first must consider the motivation behind church planting. We must address a fundamental question: Why plant churches, anyway? We will consider how this work has developed throughout history and in contemporary contexts. Ultimately, this will lead us to a renewed understanding of what it might look like to faithfully start new communities as the Episcopal Church.
Why plant churches?
Stefan Paas lays out a three-fold outline of motivations for why churches are planted in his book Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience:
- Confessional purity: church planting is necessary to plant purer churches than the existing ones. …
- Growth: planting new churches will lead to numerical growth of the whole church. …
- Innovation: church planting is a source of reflection on church and mission, and will therefore lead to necessary innovations of the church in post-Christian societies.
His shorthand for these are, respectively, Plant better churches, Plant more churches, and Plant new churches. We will briefly review each of these in turn, but it is important to note that these motives for church planting do not exist independently from one another. In practice, church planters, denominational leaders, and lay members of new churches may express their rationale for starting a new community of faith that incorporates elements of one or more of these motivations.
Plant better churches
The goal of planting better churches is a motivation out of confessional and doctrinal purity. Paas writes; “The basic idea is that the task of mission can only be done by churches that take certain theological doctrines seriously, either in critique of existing churches or in addition to them.” This has been the basic and most common rationale for growth and spread of the church since at least the Reformation, both in its magisterial and radical forms, and up until the mid-twentieth century in Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches. Planting better churches often means starting new churches where other Christian traditions or faith practices once held sway. In the Episcopal Church context this is made manifest most recently in the growth of the Anglican Church in North America and its aggressive church planting program. But lest one assume this is primarily the modus operandi of conservative churches, there can be progressive or liturgical purists who seek to launch new ministries and churches that align more clearly with a progressive theological and social agenda or a particular liturgical expression.
Plant more churches
Planting better churches may not have been the driving force from the Reformation, but planting more churches has become the overwhelming preoccupation of Protestant churches from the mid-twentieth century. The assumption is that more churches means reaching more people. And reaching more people has become the unassailable goal of church planting across almost every stream of church tradition.
Planting more churches as an evangelistic strategy has not always been the way the church has grown, however. Stefan Paas explains, “One of the most popular arguments for church planting in modern times is that it adds people to the church. This is so widely believed that it has assumed the status of evangelical doctrine.” As the church in large parts of the West continues to decline in size, relevance, and influence, the increasingly common strategic and pragmatic solution is to plant more churches in order to reach more people.
Church Growth has become a doctrinal tenet of the modern American church. Certainly, this has long been the case for church traditions that identify as evangelical. But as mainline, established denominations continue to lose religious market share they very often adopt, sometimes in whole cloth, strategies and practices from Church Growth theory. Paas continues, “In this approach, churches are planted not because a number of people have been reached, but to reach them in the first place. Many evangelicals consider church planting as a proven method, strategy, or means to numerical church growth”(emphasis in original). The growth of the church becomes the prime driver of church planting. Stefan Paas lays out the logic of church planting in this mode:
- Theological premise: the purpose of mission is church growth.
- Practical premise: church planting is the best method of church growth.
- Strategic conclusion: we should plant many new churches.
Paas notes that Peter Wagner’s oft-quoted line, “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches” has taken on the character of a doctrinal truism in this mode of church planting.
Plant new churches
The third motivation for church planting that Stefan Paas highlights is the drive to plant new types of churches. This is, essentially, an argument for innovation. Paas’ primary critique of the Church Growth model of planting more churches is that it conflates evangelism with church planting. He advocates for both, but is clear that the process by which they unfold matters. “It is important to maintain the right order: gospel proclamation as the strategy, and church formation as the desired and expected result of this proclamation.” Both are essential to the Christian project, but they are not the same thing.
The move to start new churches is a missiological response to the apostolic nature of God. If no church exists for a community then starting one that is contextually appropriate for this community makes the most sense. If a church exists that can embrace and welcome new followers of Jesus then partnerships and mutual ministry can develop. As Paas notes, “First, church planting must be flexible enough to allow innovation to happen. Second, it must become more ecumenically sensitive, so as to invite more Christians than just evangelicals to embrace it as one of the strategies towards renewal.” Church plants are strengthened as they understand their position in the ecology of faith communities in a geographic region. Established churches are enlivened by the innovating, ground-breaking work of church plants.
In this third motivation for why churches are planted, Paas advocates a turn to the contextual that neither ignores creedal affirmations nor discipleship.
Each new Christian community, by concentrating on this task in its own context, will find itself in a steep learning curve toward innovation. The concrete execution of this task includes a new appreciation of ecclesiology, the adoption of simple communal practices, a thorough engagement with non-Christians, and continuing relationships of mutual accountability with other churches. Out of this, a new and innovative Christian church may grow in time.
This kind of deep contextual embeddedness should come as no surprise to the Episcopal Church and the churches of the Anglican Communion. These churches stand in a tradition whose prayers are voiced in the vernacular, with locally adaptable practices that put a premium on the incarnation and the sacramentality of all things.
How does our ecclesiology and our missiology connect?
The way forward for the Episcopal Church that addresses the challenges of conflicted authority, insecurity in risk-taking, and malformed discipleship is to embrace a missional theology that is grounded in our baptismal covenant. This missional turn also speaks to the historical and cultural narratives of church planting that Stefan Paas has explained.
When the Episcopal Church baptizes, we pledge with God’s help to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers,” to resist evil, proclaim the Good News, love our neighbors, and “strive for justice and peace.”
This is the default operational mode for all followers of Christ, or as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is fond of saying, The Jesus Movement. If we, the Episcopal branch of that Jesus Movement, take this Baptismal Covenant to heart then our missional engagement with the world – specifically how we do the work of evangelism and church planting – would look less like competing for religious market share, or a fever dream for doctrinal or liturgical purity, and much more like the innovative, missionary God we follow and revere.
Our baptism is our commissioning into the mission of God. J. G. Davies expounds in his book Worship and Mission, “baptism is to be understood as ordination to the royal priesthood, which is to be exercised in mission for the whole world, and that it effects inclusion within the covenant, which is itself a commission.” This is reaffirmed each time we participate in the Eucharist. As Ruth Meyers explains in Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission, “mission is rooted in God’s identity and purpose – that is, God’s love for the world and God’s desire to restore all creation to wholeness and integrity. Rather than having its own mission, the church engages in God’s mission (sometimes referred to with the Latin phrase missio Dei).”
And yet, the Episcopal Church has been sadly adept at sidestepping the missional implications of our baptismal covenant. While there is more explicit baptismal ecclesiology in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the implications of these changes have not been fully explored. It takes time and intention for these changes to become fully expressed throughout the church. And yet, simply changing our official documents does not translate unbidden throughout the system that is the Episcopal Church.
We need to continue the patient work of cultivating the implications of a baptismal ecclesiology as it corresponds to mission. This may be an opportunity to explore mystagogy and the catechumenate in new ways for new contexts. We are called to a more full and robust embrace of a radically open sacramentality, that envisions baptism as ordination into the mission of God, and understands itself to be constitutive of an evangelical fervor to share the good news of God’s love. This is essentially the work of Christian formation and discipleship.
Part 3: Formation, Mission, and Evangelism
How do we understand the mission of God, in which we participate via our baptismal covenant, in the work of church planting?