Planting Church

Screen shot 2013-12-06 at 9.39.35 AMLiving Stream is blessed to be a new church through the Pacific Northwest District and Peace Church of the Brethren.  But what it means to be a new church is a big conversation – one that you are invited into!

Below, Pastor Audrey answers some of the big questions about this work.  (Keeping in mind that all of this is serious but also FUN.)  This reflection was prompted from an on-air conversation with NuDunkers in December 2013.

What’s a “church planter?”

Is it some sort of vessel for liturgical shrubs? 

Is it a secret agent sent by some Christian cabal conspiring to take over the world? 

Well, no and no.  And perhaps we need a better term for this.  But bear with me, and embrace this odd little phrase for a moment.

A Church Planter is someone who starts a new church. The metaphor we draw from is that one Paul used in I Corinthians, that a new church is like a little sprout of vegetation: while people might plant the seeds of a new organization, and help manage its first steps, in the end, it is God’s bounty that allows that church to grow. We who start churches are gardeners!

I end up really liking this image, even if it sounds confusing at first.  We may work and work at starting these new churches, but it’s not all up to us (and life never really is).  At some point, we really do get to sit back and watch this little church “plant” grow: break through the topsoil and emerge into the sunlight.  It grows and grows, reaching toward the sky, pointing our gaze upwards toward the sunny heavens that nourish its life, and ours.  It starts in the muddy, messy realities of daily life, rooted firmly in this world. And yet, growing and growing, what started as a little plant can reach up to the stars.

A new church? That sounds hard!

You’re right, it is. As church planters can tell you, starting a new church is hard work.  It can be lonely and discouraging.  You are setting a course for territories uncharted, day to day and year to year.  Many folks spend a lot of time on their church, and get paid very little. (Speaking of which, feel free to water this little church plant of ours over here … and thanks!)

What keeps us hanging in here is the mission we’re called to, and the people who catch fire at the work we’re doing.  So thank you for being part of this Living Stream – and sharing this work of making a new thing come into being.  Sharing the work of ministry moves mountains. We understand that no one person makes the new church: it is made by all of us, members of this Body of Christ far beyond any borders we might set.

So what’s wrong with church as we know it, huh?

There are lots of misconceptions about church planting – and there is a lot that is true, that is pretty revolutionary. New churches rarely look just like existing, traditional churches.  Maybe this is, in a way, a challenge to the existing models of church.  But the point of church plants are not to draw members away from other congregations: it is to fill a need for community that may not be met.

A sometimes painful conversation emerges between the existing church and the new church, which can often leave both feeling defensive and threatened.   On the one hand, it can be easy to scrutinize new churches for not matching a standard of what church is supposed to look like or act like.  Yet these are often comparisons with an ideal of church, not the real practice; the same scrutiny is rarely applied to existing congregations!  On the other hand, the energy and creativity needed to launch a new church can feel like a rebuke to older, established churches, like they aren’t doing their jobs well enough.  I would hope that we can name this tension but not be too distracted by it, and instead move into collaborative partnership, where both newer and older churches can learn from one another.

You? Starting a church?

Church planters don’t always look like traditional ideas of a pastor, but sometimes they do. I often wonder if it is easier for a new church to take shape if its pastor looks and seems more like what people *expect* a pastor to be (by gender, age, race, language, ability, sexual orientation, marital status, etc.). There is so much without clear form when you are starting a new church, that having a pastor who embodies that part of what people expect of church might be an asset.

On the other hand, new churches are almost by definition seeking to fill a need for community for folks on the margins – who aren’t fed by the ‘center’ of the existing church world – so it may be a gift also for a church planter to not fit the traditional mold. That person may perceive needs of communities on the outside all the better.

Rev. Dana Cassell offers helpful context about the diversity and contextuality of church planters in her blog – it’s worth a read!

How can you do church online?

Worship with us Sunday evenings and find out!

This is an adventure we are on, creating a faithful worship community, that uses online media as our primary form of connecting with one another.  We are figuring out what this means as we go.

But part of what is most amazing about planting a church online is that it has generated new conversation that doesn’t happen often enough in traditional churches.  Specifically, doing this work of making church online raises important questions about what makes church church, what makes worship worship, and what makes community community.  One of the most exciting things about this process has been finding out what diverse answers people have.  (You can just ask your Episcopal friends if they consider it a real worship services without Eucharist every Sunday!)  For some, it’s not worship without group singing – others don’t like to sing!

For some, it’s the social aspects: coffee hour!  And for others, deeper spiritual practice and more authentic personal sharing can happen online, without the distractions of social norms.  Here’s one thing that has emerged as we explore these questions: the assumption that people are so close when they are in the same room with each other; that isn’t actually true for everyone.  We so easily forget that the traditional form of worship is really suited for certain personality and community types more than others.  There is some level of sharing that is possible in a more informal sort of worship, like ours, rather than the formalities of traditional churches, with particular social expectations.  Both are valuable, just for different sorts of folks.

For many people, meeting together in person in one place is essential to it feeling like ‘church.’  We also know that our spiritual experience of God’s love is not limited to any particular space, or any particular set of people.  How can our worship deepen people’s relationship to God, through whatever ways we have to connect?

Jesus told us that He was present, wherever two or three gather in His name.  “Wherever” we gather… does that include also “however” we gather?  What is “gathering,” anyway?

The reality is that for many of our Living Streamers, there is not the option of going to a Church of the Brethren every week for worship.  Our online gatherings allow us to stay in contact with one another when we might otherwise feel lonely, or isolated from our denomination.  It meets a real need for many people of our Brethren diaspora.

Online church responds to some of the new conditions of the Internet era.  One of these is that persons have multiple communities and identities – today, for many people, “the” church (i.e. their one congregation) is not their entire or even primary community for daily living.    Online worship does demand a higher level of personal responsibility for individuals joining us, to carve out the sacred time and space needed to make our time together holy.  But this also conveys a level of trust in individuals’ responsibility to get their needs met, using church as one of those community tools.

As pastor, I get phone calls and emails from folks needing support, and our prayer team connects us heart to heart across the country. There are many tools at our disposal, from social media to snail mail to prayer, to meeting at conferences and taking worship on the road to stream around the country; building church online allows us to embrace these many ways of connecting in spirit as well as in body.  We also hope to launch our live gatherings, for a chance for our worshipers to connect in the flesh on an annual basis, deepening relationships that are then maintained throughout the year online.

Is this what all church is going to look like in the future?

Probably not – but it’s one of the ways church will look.  The future of church development seems likely to follow the long-tail model: that we will develop more, different, smaller communities that reach unique groups, as opposed to replicating the one norm of church organization and identity.  We are not all identical, so there is no one way of being church that is best for all people. This long-tail model of church will allow us as a denomination to be much more sustainable and adaptable, too, as well as reach the diversity of our people more authentically, where their spiritual needs are.

And, of course, we don’t know what the future holds for any of our churches.  Our institutions will not last forever – they are human-made vessels that God has breathed Spirit into for whatever time they are needed.  God’s work will continue through the generations, in whatever new and changing forms are needed.  Remembering this grants me great peace!

Thanks be to God for this abundant love, flowing through our ministry and our life together!