Move New Church Development to the Top of Your List

Wordle: johnvest.com

This evening is the conclusion of a stimulating new church development training conference I have been attending for the past few days. I must say that I’m pretty exhausted yet filled up with ideas, questions, inspiration, and energy.

I have my fingers in a variety of different Presbyterian pots these days, each of which challenge, stretch, and inspire me in different ways. I serve one of the denomination’s largest churches, which has just begun a major building project and is moving closer and closer to a significant pastoral transition when our pastor retires in less than a year. My job at this growing and transitioning church is to develop and nurture a sustainable youth ministry. I am very involved in a presbytery that has been struggling to address some tremendous financial challenges and a lumbering bureaucracy. I have served on the oversight committee of our presbytery’s camp, which has been on the brink of being sold for the past several years and now I’m on a committee that will envision what camping ministry in this presbytery will look like if we do in fact sell the camp. I was a commissioner to the most recent General Assembly and now I serve on the Middle Governing Bodies Commission. I have been involved in both Presbymergent and NEXT Church conversations.

Being involved in Presbyterianism in these various ways means my mind is often swirling with thoughts about our church. I have a mind that naturally draws connections between things, so it is often the case that being in one context generates a variety of thoughts about other contexts and situations. This has been true for me at this NCD conference.

Just over a month ago I wrote about a book I read on the state of the American church and the critical need for church planting. After this NCD conference, I’m more convinced than ever that church planting needs to be a priority for the PC(USA) if we want to survive as a denomination in the 21st century.

I am also convinced that the very process of thinking about new church development is a crucial one for the church at every level of our organization because the ideas and concepts that arise impact many different aspects of our life and mission together.

First Principles
Two days ago I wrote about the first principles church planting teams are asked to think about. Open and honest discussion of these fundamental questions should move to the top of the agenda for every congregation, presbytery, synod, General Assembly office, and the General Assembly itself.

Church Revitalization
The entire process of visioning and planning for new church development can be just as valuable for any congregation trying to redevelop, revitalize, or recast its vision and mission. For example, yesterday we made site visits to various communities in the local area that are potential locations for new church developments to practice what it is like to go out into communities with eyes attuned to community needs and church possibilities. In addition to asking the fundamental questions of first principles, can you imagine if all of our congregations hit the pause button and took these kinds of site visits in their own communities?

Middle Governing Bodies
Thinking through the process of new church development raises all sorts of questions about the role of middle governing bodies, both in terms of ideals and realities. How many of our presbyteries are actually healthy and functional enough to engage in new church development? Should new church development come from congregations, presbyteries, or both?

Tentmaking and Bi-Vocational Ministry
How many seminary trained pastors do you know that can’t find a call? All of the talk about tentmaking gets pretty real once you start thinking about new church development. Is this the future of ministry in our post-Christendom culture?

Training Pastors and Missionaries
For over 300 years the Presbyterian Church in America has been biased toward highly educated and professionalized religious leadership. Again, will we need to change this bias in the 21st century? To do that, how will we need to change our attitudes about things like commissioned lay pastors? How will our institutions—seminaries and governing bodies chief among them—need to adapt to this new reality? How should we be training church leaders for this new frontier?

These are just some of the issues that this new church development training has raised for me, not to mention church planting itself. I think it would be a creative and beneficial catalyst for the church—at all levels of organization—to start thinking both broadly and quite specifically about new church development.

Comments

  1. Jeff Lipschultz says:

    Looking at Google Maps, it seems that there are a lot of Presbyterian churches in our presbytery’s geographic area, and they’re distributed pretty well. Admittedly, I don’t know the suburbs very well, especially the ones outside Cook County (not the most accessible area to those of us who cannot drive cars), but I am having a hard time seeing where NCDs are needed right now. If anything, I wonder if we should be looking more at church combinations to create larger, more sustainable communities of faith.

    As for the question of ministers having trouble finding work, perhaps the solution to that is to tighten admissions standards at the seminaries or for candidacy with presbyteries if there is an oversupply of qualified candidates.

  2. Craig Williams says:

    John,

    Thanks for your postings! Just a question, any change of mind on your post from the 16th of March and the conclusion of the training event? Enjoyed meeting you. Our mutual friend Tod Bolsinger says hi!

    Jeff,

    Let me ask you to consider a different way of looking at your demography. You can look at the distribution of church buildings, but now ask “Who do those buildings represent?” Then again, “Are they reaching the unreached peoples of their community?” If you have a building with 25 people in worship and 15K people in the neighborhood, do you have a ministry to that neighborhood? Most of the questions are not about distribution of buildings but the effectiveness of those who are supposed to be reaching the neighborhood. It’s not all about numbers either. We can have significant ministries that win hard fought battles to reach a few and they are worth the effort and learnings that we all gain. But I do believe that when churches say they want to reach their neighbors but show no evidence of it that they really don’t want to reach their neighbors – if they did they would.
    The next question to ask, particularly in high-density urban environments is “Who are the unreached people groups in our neighborhoods?” Then the question is, “Are we the ones to reach these folks?” Third question, “Who is going to go for us?” If it’s not those who are already present – and a good indicator is that they have been given years to do it – then a new church is needed. Not one with buildings and the like, but a new missional community of faith to reach a new people. Maybe they’ll take over an existing building, maybe they’ll inhabit a bar, maybe they will never have facility, but will they reach the unreached people?”
    Keep asking your questions and making observations. At some point we’ll hit on what we’re supposed to do.

    • Great to hear that we have a connection in Tod Bolsinger. He has become one of my favorite people in the church.

      Have I changed my mind about this? Yes and no. I still think like-mindedness is overrated when it comes to our denomination. I still don’t think that we need to get on the same page about every aspect of theology in order to be an effective missional church.

      But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a church planting team should probably share a common theology and that congregations will generally tend toward like-mindedness. The more I think about this, the more I think our denomination should hold together diverse congregations. Of course, very diverse congregations are possible too.

      In many ways, you represented a more nuanced—or at least gentler—approach to this on the second day than Brian did on the first evening. When you said that this about “what Jesus means to you” and that you weren’t trying to tell people what the answer is, that made more sense to me. I guess I was feeling the vibe from Brian that we all need to agree with his understanding of those foundational statements in order to be a part of this. I just don’t think this movement will work if that is the case. Our foundational statements need to be contextual.

      I also want to lift up what Nanette Sawyer is doing with Wicker Park Grace regarding these issues. The DNA of that congregation is that it is a place that intentionally brings together people from a very wide spectrum of theology and church experience. Aimed at a young adult population that is un-churched, de-churched, or ex-churched, it wouldn’t work if there was a set foundational statement of theology that people needed to subscribe to. But, I think their approach can be mapped on to your approach as long as it was understood that their foundational statement is intentionally open-ended.

      Thanks for your leadership in this important endeavor.

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