Wednesday, February 06, 2008

So How Many People Do You Have? 2

David Fitch has created a couple of posts on his blog on how church planting has changed over the years - especially in Canada. Although you can go over there to check it out, I want to post here a lot of what he is saying so to create some continuity with what I am thinking in terms of what church will look like over the next few decades. I will also tie some of this stuff into my DMin work.


Over the last three decades, I have watched church planting change dramatically in Canada and the Northern parts of the United States. Back in the sixties/seventies, we used to send fifteen or twenty people from one local church into another place several towns over that was "under-churched." We would hold worship services, teach Sunday school, have a children's ministry. We would set up shop. We would choose a pastor who had all the tools as "they would say." He (most often a male) would be young, energetic and able to work like crazy. We would send out announcements expecting many who were looking for a church to show up. And if we did the basic services well, then we assumed the little gathering would grow into a self-sustaining church in 3 years. We might call these churches franchises.

Church planting worked like this because there were still large numbers of Christians to draw from for a congregation. We were in the great post-WW2 expansion in North America. New towns and subdivisions were springing up left and right. And just as each town needed a supermarket, a library and public schools, it needed a church. One could assume that out of the many thousands moving here into these new habitats, some would be Christians and need a church. So we planted churches like franchised local grocery stores. This was still an era of Christendom.

In the Eighties, the focus on church planting changed. Post WW2 expansion had slowed. More and more of the suburban boomers had not returned to the churches of their youth. The focus of church planting shifted to recapturing these now unchurched people for Christ. Now when we went to plant a church we needed first to conduct marketing surveys. We asked what we could we do to make church more relevant and user friendly. These surveys focused on finding out what these unchurched people were looking for? What turns them off of church? How can we do church in a way that relates to these people?

How can we make church relevant so that the "unchurched" would want to come to our services. What could make church more attractive? We focused on delivering the services with "excellence" and "efficiency" characteristic of the marketplace. In this way we planted churches like Wal-marts. The seeker service and church growth methods were invented. Hundreds of boomer generation people came who had left the church a decade before. Many hundreds of people in traditional churches left as well for "the new and improved" big box churches. Today, hundreds of mega-churches exist across North America as a testimony to "the success" of this approach to church planting.

Church planting like this worked because there were still huge amounts of unchurched people who had once learned of Christ in the earliest years of their upbringing. These unchurched had some familiarity with "who Jesus was." Deep within their boomer psyches, Jesus still carried credibility, even authority, even if they did consider the church obsolete. We assumed therefore that if we could just make Jesus relevant and attractive (as opposed to their former experiences of church) they would come. If the Bible could be communicated in a way that was meaningful to people's everyday life and needs, these unchurched would surely listen. They did come. People making "decisions for Christ" multiplied.

Church-planting like this however, still depended upon what was left of the vestiges of North American Christendom. A majority of the conversions were former high-church catechumens "coming back to Jesus." They had never made a "personal" decision to follow the Jesus they had earlier been taught about (most often in catechetical rote fashion). In this way, the seeker church movement was built upon Christendom.

To most Christians living in Canada, the days of Christendom are fading fast. There has been a change in mindset of those who would plant churches. As the number of Christians without a church shrinks, as the number of unchurched who once were catechumens of Christianity grows extinct, I have witnessed first hand the new wave of church planters who think of church planting in completely different ways. They are not interested in competing for the leftovers of Christendom. They resist the notion that the church is in need of just one more innovation. They are interested in nothing less than becoming missionaries, to plant churches cross culturally, across the barriers to people who have no knowledge or language about Jesus.

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