The Apostle Paul’s provisions came from tentmaking and from the hospitality of people along his journey. But they also came from the partnership of existing churches who wanted to see the spread of the gospel and the birth of new communities.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes this: I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now (Philippians 1:3-5).
I’ve been reflecting on the early church growth movement because I talk often with church planters who are struggling to develop partnerships with existing churches – and it is discouraging work. This is what they hear:
- We are just trying to survive. We don’t have the resources to be able to help a new church start up.
- Why would we support a new church when we need to focus on getting more people to come here?
- Our mission dollars are already spoken for.
I recently intersected with a church planter who for several years has been doing a new ministry out of his own pocket and his own home, but is sensing that this growing community needs to be more intentionally developing into a weekly rhythm of gathering in worship and serving the neighborhood. This ministry has received PC(USA) new worshiping community grants, but still needs additional partners to share meeting space, to share musicians, and to help support a budget for this growing ministry. Yet this is his experience after proactively seeking partnership with existing churches: “We’ve gotten one yes, some polite maybes, some we’ll schedule you in the spring to talk to the mission committee, and a lot of unreturned emails and phone calls. The mission budgets are out there certainly… we are talking to a church with a $100,000 mission budget, but the cause of new worshiping community is not on their radar. This is a new and foreign (and slightly suspicious) idea. We have quite a mountain to climb in the coming years.”
What he articulates is not surprising. But it is discouraging. Because if churches don’t partner to start churches, who will? Government entities? The Red Cross?
Now don’t get me wrong, many church mission budgets are supporting many wonderful things. Food banks, women’s shelters, ESL programs, preschools… the list could go on and on. But for some reason, there has developed a sense of competition when in comes to new church. Many would rather not have a church plant anywhere near their existing congregation because they may be “competition for members.”
Friends, let me be frank here. The people that most of these new worshiping communities are trying to engage are people who are never going to come to your church doors. These ministries are not being started for cradle Presbyterians who love to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” or are looking for a good children’s program. These new ministries are seeking to connect with those who are indifferent to church, hostile to church, wounded by the church. And they need partners who will support the work of taking the message of grace out into a very secular world.
But here’s the crazy part of the gospel. Whoever loses their life for the sake of the gospel will find it. Churches that partner with new churches discover that the sharing in the gospel not only helps release new ministry into the world, but it also releases new energy back into the partnering church. Statistics show that churches that partner with new expressions of church find a new season of vitality as they are “infected” by working alongside new projects that are intentionally invitational, intentionally contextual, and desperately trusting in God’s promises.
There will never be a time when an existing church is perfectly positioned to partner with a new worshiping community. If I had waited for the perfect time in my life and finances to give birth to a baby, I would still be childless. The same is true for giving birth to new worshiping communities. But the Spirit seems to be stirring right now in new ways. As we grapple with the reality of church in a post-Christendom culture, it seems that the time is ripe to start new expressions of faith communities in our cities and neighborhoods.
What that is going to take is passionate leaders and existing church partners. I pray that the Spirit will find some of both in the PC(USA).
Shannon Kiser is the director of the East Coast Presbyterian Center of New Church Innovation based out of northern Virginia. She is field staff for the Office of Church Growth, and parish associate at Riverside Presbyterian Church, a church planting church in Sterling, VA. She is involved in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement, and works with presbyteries, existing churches, and potential planters to fan the flames of new, creative ministries. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband and two daughters.