I have joined six church plants, and been a part of a seventh, in two of which I was a church-planting pastor.
A bit of advice a church planting pastor, who had been to church planting boot camp in the Southern Baptist denomination, and who modeled his church after Saddleback, gave me: “Church planting is about Nickels and Noses. If you don’t have the finances or you don’t have the numbers, then you can’t start a church.”
The last church plant I joined was a church for urban single 20 somethings (I was 20 years too old for that demographic, but they welcomed me anyway.) The goals of the church were to be hip (tables and candles instead of pews), encourage questions and discussion, to do something practical about the way food production is destroying the environment, and to approach relationships gently. The church was evangelical, modeled after Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan, though from an emerging church point of view, not confessing the basics of evangelicalism, but subscribing to much of what N. T. Wright and Frederick Buechner have written.
The church was pastored by aan ex- Young Life leader. (Young Life, the largest parachurch ministry in the United States, gives annual seminars on fund raising to its volunteer boards all over the world. In fact the boards serve only as fund raisers, nothing else. They are not boards.) He and his wife had decided to leave Young Life and study at a progressive evangelical seminary (which had a female professor who had published extensively on Biblical Equality for women). The musically gifted pastor and his wife, a professional, were from a state that is a cultural mixture of New England and Bible belt. They decided to plant their church in the part of New England that is least Christian, and definitely not evangelical.
The church was an inviting place and quickly developed a tight knit feeling with 20 to 30 urban young people attending. The new church left the question of gayness undecided. The young pastor was an avid writer of fiction, and he organized a writers’ and artists’ retreat where about 12 people met one long weekend per year. The retreat was a place to write, but also a place to bond with one another. Christians and non-Christians were invited. Discussions arose spontaneously. We read our material to each other around a campfire at night.
Fast forward to three years later: 20 somethings don’t give money, so the Nickels weren’t working. The church expanded to families and ditched the tables, candles and discussions. The pastor appointed a small board that was not elected by the church, now close to 80 people. The pastor sold his house and built a new house 20 minutes out of town, with two toddlers in tow. He became exhausted, as 80% of pastors do. Was he exhausted because he realized his dream (and the evangelical promise) of converting the lost was never going to happen?
I asked the pastor how many people in this church were born and raised in this portion of non-Christian New England. He said maybe two (out of 80). The attenders were almost all people who moved here from the Bible belt for jobs or colleges in the area, and most of them had previously attended other evangelical churches in the area. So the church plant’s goal of planting a church for the least churched people in this nation, and to grapple with our culture, was not realized. There were two new believers in five years, both of whom were claimed in reports to contributors by the new church, and a college ministry, Campus Crusade. Church planting is mostly starting up a church for people who move in from the Bible belt, or starting a church that draws disaffected members from other congregations in the area. The people who give money to church plants are not aware of this, and church planters are not about to enlighten them.
The pastor found a best friend, another exhausted church planter from out west, now located three miles away. They came up with the idea of merging their two churches into one, thus half the work for each pastor. Only problem was that the research says church mergers (and denomination mergers) never work. And the second church wasn’t as hip. Yes, they had cool music and they wore skinny jeans and beards, but in almost all other ways it was the opposite of hip. Solidly Republican, the bi-vocational pastor worked for what hip New Englanders consider the enemy of American democracy: the NSA. The members of the two churches said they didn’t want to merge, but would merge if the pastors insisted. The exhausted pastors insisted.
The church took a year to merge. During that year the energy in our congregation plummeted. People grumbled and complained, but the pastor and board excitedly barreled forward with the merge. After the merge the new church set up Meet ‘n’ Greets in people’s homes. Some of the members from the other church belonged to the NRA or served in the military, which concerned those who heard Jesus calling us in a pacifist direction. Everyone, regardless of how long they had been members, was pressured to take a membership class (in which they were told that gayness was definitely wrong). I am a relational person and l found the church lonelier and lonelier. I floundered around trying to fit in, and serve, but I couldn’t function in the church: I couldn’t worship, couldn’t make friends at the Meet ‘n’ Greets, my volunteer service wasn’t wanted, the prayer group felt unsafe, and the sermons left me frustrated; there wasn’t a grappling with our culture that I had seen at the beginning of the church plant, instead there was a postmodern do-what-you-were-created-to-do theology that I found one-sided.
Fast forward to two years later: Only 20 of the 80 people from our congregation remained in the new merged church, exactly what the research literature on mergers predicted. The last straw for me was that the writers’ retreat changed. Previously we had brought our spirituality to the retreat spontaneously and relationally. But suddenly the pastor decided we needed to schedule structured meeting times for Christian-faith-meets-art discussion times and prayer times that were voluntary (not required). One of my atheist friends opted out of the retreat immediately. Another secular Jewish friend considered dropping out.
[Side Note: I have found that people who score highly on the Feeling/Relational portion of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are highly allergic to phoniness, whereas those who score high on the Thinking/Logic end of the scale don’t agree with me about the phony relationship aspect of assigned relationships in church. In Bill Hybel’s Bible study workbook on evangelism he says that my personality type is strong on relationship evangelism, but weak when it comes to the uncomfortable part of talking about people’s need to convert to Jesus. My argument to those who score higher on the Thinking/Logic end of the scale (this means you, Bill) is that if relationships are not your strong point, then maybe you should rely on someone who is more relational to let you know when phoniness is interfering with real relationships.]
To be fair, a new church plant is an intimate small group for the first year, so those who join are those who love small groups. But the pastor is pressured to grow the church (Noses) in order to support the pastor after the mission money stops (Nickels) in five years. Church Planting Boot Camp Research indicates that none of the original members will be with the church in three years. The original members wanted a small group, not a medium sized traditional church.
Nickels and Noses: is it Christian? When Jesus was starting his community, was he concerned with Nickels and Noses? I do not believe Jesus or his disciples did any fund raising activities at all (though the apostle Paul did).
Meet ‘n’ Greets: are they Christian? That’s like asking, “Is McDonald’s a place where you get nutrition?” Morgan Spurlock demonstrated you can survive on fast food, but the levels of fat, additives, sugar and calories will kill you in the long run. And mass food production was what our church was trying to change. But somehow it was good to do Meet ‘n’ Greets: phony get togethers that were not spontaneous relational activities, hoping that real relationships would develop from the forced GMO Meet ‘n’ Greets. If left to ourselves we would not have formed relationships naturally.
So to call these Nickels-and-Noses-church-plants real churches is a scam or at least a little bit deceitful. These “churches” are not formed the way Jesus formed his community, but somehow we look the other way, hoping that eventually with enough contrived programs we will eventually have the same relationships that Jesus’ disciples had. We are mystified as to how Jesus started his community with no contrived Meet ‘n’ Greets.