by Aaron Klinefelter
We wrap up our series on church planting in this fifth installment peering ahead to see where all this leave us as we assess the challenges and opportunities for church planting in the Episcopal Church?
In part 1 of this series we explored the cultural and institutional barriers to church planting in the Episcopal Church.
In part 2 we delved 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.
In part 3, we looked at the theology of mission and the importance of context
In part 4 we visited the diocese of London, in the Church of England to understand their astounding growth and discern what might the lessons be that could be transferred to our contexts here
Missional theology, as enacted and embodied in our local context and supported by our corporate structures, empowered leaders, and conviction to share the good news, points a clear way forward. To counter the paradox of authority within the institutional church we have the opportunity to work in the neighborhoods which we and our parishes inhabit.
We would do well to partner with our ecumenical companions in the neighborhood and seek the support and blessing of the diocese as needed. This implies a kind of embodied spirituality that resonates well with the commons of the Book of Common Prayer and our baptismal covenant.
We also need to address the idea and grammar of church planting. Is the language of “church planting” even the best terminology for starting new Christian communities for the Episcopal Church? Too often, we can become tangled in the implications of church planting – When will it become sustainable and self-funding? Do we have the bishop’s permission? Are we crossing our often ill-defined parish boundaries? Who should get paid? Where does the money come from? When, where, and how do sacraments play a role? These are excellent and essential questions that do need to be addressed, but if they prevent us from even starting, and I believe that they do, then the Episcopal Church will continue to decline.
Michael Moynagh and the Fresh Expressions team in the UK have begun to use the language of “new witnessing communities.” He explains,
“These communities will love and serve new groups of people and invite some of them into the faith. As individuals respond, the number of disciples will multiply, and some of them in turn will form further communities. As with the early church, there will be a constant multiplication of new Christian gatherings. Your witnessing community will contribute not just to an institution, but to a movement.”
Some of these communities will blossom into fully realized church congregations in full connection with their diocesan bishop with funded clergy and the like. Others will serve particular constituencies for a short period of time and then dissolve. Some might find life-giving rhythms as new monastic or intentional Christian communities. Still others might multiply in workplaces, playgrounds, dorm rooms, or coffee shops.
At the same time these are not endlessly fluid or amorphous groups that have no defined identities. Moynagh notes, these witnessing communities have four distinct features,
- Missional – they work mainly with people who do not attend church.
- Contextual – they find culturally appropriate ways of reaching people.
- Formational – they aim to form disciples.
- Ecclesial – they provide a taste of church for people involved.
He contends that, “they become church for those who attend.” Local parish priests and vestries, bishops and diocesan staff, and even trans-local networks within the church can foster and support these new Christian communities. It is essential for church leaders to create permission-giving structures and strategies for allowing these generative communities to begin and flourish. We need leaders, and training for leaders, to learn the rhythms of starting new things and guiding them along their life-cycle. All of these moves can exist within the framework of a baptismal ecclesiology that respects the dignity of every human being.
Along the way, it will become necessary that the Episcopal Church make changes in our canons. We may need to commission missionary bishops or dioceses which transverse geographic boundaries, dispersing the DNA of missional church in far-flung and surprising places. Most assuredly, funding will have to be allocated and distributed with view toward the horizon of experimentation and iterative design. The process cannot be controlled from the top of a bureaucratic heap, but it can be resourced and supported. We will need a strategy that nurtures both organizational and pioneering mindsets.
These new witnessing communities, then, might bubble up from below as well as be initiated from the bishop. This is especially the case if the bishop begins to think of herself as a missionary bishop instead of a middle manager in a vast institution. Neither grassroots church emergence nor regional church planting strategy is inconsistent with missional theology and both can be advantageous for a diocese and the established parishes therein.
The embrace of a missional theology also confronts and convicts our propensity for risk-aversion. The call of the gospel is not a move into safety or certainty. If we embrace the reality that God is a missionary God, always moving and sending and actively crossing boundaries, then we might not be so reticent to move with that God. The Spirit is already there ahead of us and we are invited to join in this work of reconciliation of all things.
Finally, this missional work of church planting will not happen if we do not fully live into our baptismal covenant. As Episcopalians we believe deeply in the power of liturgy to shape us, lex orandi lex credendi, the way of prayer is the way of faith or belief. We would do well to include, lex vivendi, the way of life. As we allow our way of prayer to shape our faith and our living, then the baptismal covenant that is enacted and affirmed each week when we gather for Eucharist will overflow into faithful gospel practice – in a word, discipleship. This will necessitate a conversion of the heart and the mind. As we follow an incarnate God “who became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14) but “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6) we too will live gospel embodied and kenotic lives.
Evangelism, then, will cease to become a program or strategy or a technique of church planting, it will be the overflow of a very good, life-giving story that we live out in our neighborhoods with radical hospitality and generosity. This is the process of evangelism that Bishop Clark invites us as baptized and baptizing Christian. As this happens, the church will begin to be planted anew.
Aaron Klinefelter has been a House Church planter and pastor, a youth minister, a university campus minister, and presently serves as the Assistant to the Rector and Associate for Children and Families at Trinity Church in Menlo Park, CA. He also is a postulant from the Diocese of Southern Ohio. But most of the time you can find him driving his kids around in a minivan.