By Peter Meier | July 15, 2019
A recent Pinetops Foundation independent report, The Great Opportunity: The American Church in 2050, reveals that the United States faces staggering population growth and increasing numbers of people unaffiliated with a local church. Combined with a rapid increase in dying or declining churches, the report details a critical need for thousands of more churches in America.
This report also points out that we are at a pivotal moment in the life of the church in America, and suggests that we face the greatest mission opportunity ever in American history. If we act now, we can introduce tens of millions of young people to Jesus over the next 30 years.
While digging through some files of “old” papers, I recently came across a presentation prepared by then Associate Executive Director of National Mission, Dr. Robert Scudieri, entitled The Challenge- What’s Possible: Church Planting or Antioch Redux. He presented his topic at an Ablaze! International Summit in St. Louis in 2004. As I read his paper again, comparing it with recent research, I realize how timely his topic still is 15 years later.
Dr. Scudieri emphasized the importance of new starts, or planting new churches, as a vital part of our mission work. “New church development,” he states, “should be at the heart and core of what we are about.” This is a truth that should not need to be stated! Yet, our congregations and leaders need to be reminded of it again and again.
Here are five reasons why this thinking is still true today:
1. New churches are the most effective way to reach the unchurched. New churches who are willing to do mission work in non-traditional ways will connect with men and women and families who may not otherwise even think about coming to an existing, traditional church. New churches are the most effective means of evangelizing and discipling those who will not feel welcome or comfortable in existing churches.
2. New churches are the most effective ways of reaching new ethnic groups. We have found this to be true for many immigrant groups new to the United States (see https://missionnationpublishing.com/the-missionaries-to-america/). Today, we see the need to think in terms of second generation, millennial, inter-ethnic church planting.
3. Important innovations come from new church development. Existing churches tend to prefer the status quo, the comfortable norms to which they have become accustomed. New churches are willing to engage in new ways to reach new people.
4. Existing churches involved in new church planting benefit spiritually. The energy and excitement of a new church start which is reaching new people is contagious. Existing churches who launch or partner with a new start gain a sense of the power and promise of Jesus in real life, real time as He builds His church. Innovations from the new start may be incorporated into the life of existing churches who see these innovations modeled and come to realize that they do not dilute orthodox doctrine or practice.
5. Churches have life cycles. 20% of an association’s or district’s congregations should be under 25 years old. Do the math for your own district or circuit. See my recent post on why new church starts are vital to the life of a denomination.
Dr. Scudieri offered seven suggestions for the future of new mission development. I believe they are worthy of a “redux” in our day. Consider his suggestions, and my own observations:
1. The biggest mission resource is not money; it is the Holy Spirit. While true 15 years ago, we find these words even more true today. Money is not the primary resource for starting new. The primary resource is dependence on the Holy Spirit to raise up missionaries who will use local resources to get the job done. Today, we see missionaries who are co-vocational. Their “day job” earns income while it is used to build relationships and strategic connections for mission. There is no urgency to buy land or build buildings. Homes and public places are used for gathering spaces. Church development is not buildings – it is the Holy Spirit developing disciples for His mission.
2. The most important factor in the development of a new mission is, from a human point of view, the missionary. This is why we assess church planters – while someone may be a great missional pastor or an active lay leader, that does not necessarily mean they have the characteristics of a church planter. Everyone is a missionary by virtue of her/his baptism, but not everyone is a church developer. We look for planters who have specific characteristics – who are entrepreneurs, evangelists, and leaders among other qualities.
3. Building Christian Community is more important and a higher priority than buildings and land, but is more difficult. The goal of church planting is to gather disciples into a faith community, and to equip them to make more disciples, rather than to get into a building. Gathering people around Word and Sacrament, discipling and deploying them as disciple-makers is what church planting is about. The building is never the end, but may be a means or a tool to assist with faith community development.
4. We must understand the scriptural and confessional meaning of being “faithful.” Faithful is so much more than preserving orthodox teaching, or holding on to traditions, as valuable as they may be. Faithfulness is using our orthodox teaching and our traditions (or new innovative traditions) to invite others into the Kingdom. Faithfulness is focusing on the Lord’s “ends” – making and multiplying disciples, while using the means the Lord has given us to accomplish His goals. What does God want? Faithfulness is aligning our wants and desires with His, and using the means He gives to accomplish His end goals.
5. The most effective and efficient base for new mission development is the local congregation. Antioch is our model for new church development. Antioch, Acts 13, is a sending church. Local congregations are wise to focus more on sending capacity than on seating capacity. Local congregations can be the best stewards of God’s gifts when they use them to multiply disciples and deploy those disciples to new places to reach new people. As a mother nourishes and nurtures her newborn child, so the local church is in the best position to launch and then to nourish and nurture her new starts. If some object that local churches are not healthy enough, the response must be, “What will it take to get healthy so that we can do what God designed us to do?” This is the work of pastors and congregation leaders and must not be abdicated.
6. Innovation is essential, but is not valued or planned for. We must see innovation as essential in new church development. Dr. Scudieri notes that the best place to find innovation is on the fringes, not at the center. The fringes are where mission takes place, where the messiness of life is real and raises questions that have no easy answers. The fringes require the mission developer to think and act “on the run,” innovating to meet the needs of a culture that is foreign to the center. While the Gospel message never changes, how we deliver and share the Good News requires innovation and change. Organizations, like Lutheran congregations, tend to prefer status quo, conformity, comfort. Start-ups thrive on innovation to meet new challenges.
7. Seminaries in partnership with mission boards need to intentionally teach students to be missionaries, as well as pastors. There is a difference between thinking like a pastor and thinking like a missionary. When I graduated from the seminary, I thought like a pastor. I was diligent in preaching, leading worship, visiting members, loving my flock, guarding orthodox doctrine. Real life experience taught me to think like a missionary, to see others through Jesus’ eyes, to notice the hurting and lost, to see my community as my mission field. Distance education programs of our seminaries are exceptional training programs because they help seminarians to integrate learning with real life ministry. We can’t model missionary behavior for those we disciple if we don’t think and act like missionaries ourselves.
I encourage you to read the Pinetops Foundation Report, and especially Dr. Scudieri’s original presentation and accompanying study guide. Download them here. While written fifteen years ago, they provide us with a solid gut-check on where we are as a denomination, as districts and congregations today in our mission thinking, planning and action.
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