Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Reflection on Church Planting

In the 1990s I planted a church in a small suburban town near Dallas. At the beginning we had a small start-up group from another local parish. Within a year we had a congregation of around 75 people, and in the next few years we had one of the fastest growing congregations in the Dallas area. It was by intentional design that 90% of our people were previously unchurched, many of them recruited through a telephone evangelism approach. [That worked in the early 1990s, but wouldn’t work today.]

At the beginning we had very little internal conflict; and the presence of God the Father, God the Son, and delight in the Holy Spirit claimed the center of our attention. For a couple of years, we held Sunday worship in a school cafeteria. When we moved to a location in a nearby shopping mall the congregation continued to grow. Our new Mission began to draw not only previously unchurched people, but also a number of people who began to transfer in from other parishes in our denomination. Be aware that Church Growth is not the same thing as transferring already churched people from one congregation to another.

As the number of previously churched people increased; internal conflict began to increase. Characteristic of that was an incident at a baptism. In lieu of a baptismal fount we were baptizing adults in the swimming pool of one of our members. Our music at that time was contemporary gospel music accompanied by guitars [I must say that is not my first preference, but it is what we had, and what was available. I prefer a balanced music program ranging from contemporary to classical, with a good proportion of traditional hymns.]

In The Book of Common Prayer there is blessing of the baptismal water. A new member who had transferred in from a larger congregation was serving on the Altar Guild took me aside and objected, “Now what are we going to do with all the Holy Water?” I was impressed with her lack of empathy with the newly reborn Christian who had just been baptized. Then she asked, “Why can’t we make them sing our kind of music?” By that she meant the kind of music she sang in her previous church. That was the first note of problems yet to come; and it was to be followed up with other similar critiques of our common life as a new congregation. Those conflicts arose almost completely from the previously churched people, and their attitude was going to infect others in the congregation.

As we began to make plans for a new church building our percentage of previously churched people increased, and we had to deal with more serious conflicts. Nothing brings out conflict in a congregation faster than what kind of floor we should have in the worship area, among a hundred other similar details. Some, but not all, of the previously churched people wanted a building just like the building they had in their previous church, after all that is the true architectural representation of what evokes worship. [Make no mistake, my favorite church building is Canterbury Cathedral in Kent where I have attended Evensong a number of times, but that won’t do for America.]

What was the source of the infection that the previously churched brought with them into our mission congregation? The previously churched people brought with them a critical spirit. They were the only authority; their traditions, their presuppositions about the nature of church, and in most of them, their lack of personal faith. What was the source from which this poison arose? The source of the poison was the ineffectively evangelized congregations from which they came. The solution is the evangelization of the Church itself.

What was it that I was missing? I failed to recognize, and speak consistently, to the effect of the critical attitude of previously churched people on our new congregation. Yet even though it aggravated me [and it should have], I brought many of them to faith. Still I had failed to address the presenting problem of their critical attitudes that sprang from their presuppositions about the nature of the church and its ambience. That was going to result in ongoing problems as the congregation continued to grow.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Robin P. Smith, Oblate OSB

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