Thursday, September 10, 2015

Church Pioneering in the Piney Woods

The Story of a Church Plant

By Robin G. Jordan

The hiving off model is one of the most common and most successful methods of planting a new church. The pastor of the mother church recruits the core-group for a new church from the congregation of the mother church and starts a daughter church in a community that is a short distance from the community in which the mother church is located. The core group normally consists of members of the congregation that live in the nearby community. It may include members who do not live in that community but who have a connection to the community, for example, have friends and relatives living in the community, work in the community, or do business in the community. It may also include members who possess a particular skill that the new church needs in its early stages.

In recruiting the core-group for a new church, the pastor of the mother church should exercise care in whom he enlists. If the church plant is to succeed, the large part of this nucleus should come from the nearby community and have relationship networks within that community. The formation of a core-group for a new church may attract members of the congregation who, while they live in the nearby community, are socially-isolated. They may have negligible relationship networks within that community. While a new church cannot rely entirely on the relationship networks of its core-group for new members, these relationship networks are in the initial stages of the church plant an important source of new members.

A recognized drawback of the hiving off model is that it creates “a false sense of success” in regards to numbers in attendance. The pastor of the new church “automatically has a church complete with all the pastoral needs and problems of any other existing church.” His attention may be taken away from reaching and engaging the unchurched population of the community to ministering to the needs of existing Christians who became a part of the new church from the mother church. Frank Herron makes an important point in Expanding God’s Kingdom through Church Planting.
“Some churches started by this method never become evangelistically effective. They merely shuffle the deck by the means of transfer growth for example.”
To counter this tendency, the pastor of the mother church or the launch team leader should enlist for the core-group only members of the congregation with a missionary mindset. The same leader should meet with the core-group over a period of several weeks and make sure that they clearly understand that they will be serving missionaries to the community where the new church is being started and the purpose of the new church is to reach and engage the unchurched population of that community.

Before starting any services of public worship in the target community, all the members of the core-group should evidence a clear commitment to this purpose. Once services of public worship are started, the core-group and the new congregation will need to be reminded of the purpose of the new church on a frequent and regular basis.

During the same time period the core-group should receive orientation in regard to what will be the core values, vision, and beliefs after which the new church will be patterned as well as the new church’s purpose. It should also undergo training in relationship evangelism and other needed skills. By the conclusion of these sessions everyone in the core-group should be on the same page. Those who are not should not be a part of the core-group.

Another recognized drawback of this model of church planting is that every member of the core-group will have his own share of “baggage”—pre-conceived notions of the way to do church. It is best to deal with this baggage before the launch of the first service of public worship. Otherwise, the pastor of the new church will be fielding a constant stream of ideas and suggestions related to the worship and other aspects of the life and ministry of the new church, all of which will be traceable to how the mother church or another church did church. Here again, the importance of everyone in the core-group being on the same page cannot be overemphasized.

One of the dangers of church planting is that a group within a new church may attempt to hijack the vision of the church and to substitute their own vision for the original vision.

A second danger is that the new church goes public without doing the necessary vision work beforehand and the new congregation has no common vision for the church. Different groups in the new congregation may have conflicting visions and may seek to make their own vision that of the church.

The outcome in both cases may be a disastrous church split. I have experienced a church split over the vision of the church. It tore a growing parish apart and left it seriously weakened. It significantly reduced the parish’s ability to weather other crises that came along.

A third danger is that the new church may have no vision at all. When questioned as to what is the strategic direction of the new church and what it hopes to achieve in the future, the members will either be unable to answer or will offer a vague explanation—something to the effect of being a traditional Anglican church, worshiping with the 1928 Prayer Book and the 1940 Hymnal, etc. The lack of a definite vision has been a major contributing factor to the decline of a number of Continuing Anglican churches.  

A third recognized drawback is the tendency to duplicate the mother church’s ministry methods in detail. The new church basically becomes a clone of the mother church. The result may be a serious mismatch between the new church and its community that negatively affects the growth of the new church. As Craig Ott and Gene Wilson point out in Global Church Planting: Biblical Principals and Best Practices for Multiplication, a daughter church “needs to develop new approaches to ministry by adapting to the particular needs of its community.” If it is not sensitive to the needs of the community, its prevailing culture, any subcultures, and other factors, it will lack a vital connection with the community. Churches that are not connected with their communities do not grow. Before going public the launch team needs to size up the community and tailor the new church’s ministry approaches to what this exegesis of the community uncovers. This includes its choice of music and its style of worship.

It is important to bear in mind that Christians as missionaries are called to spread the gospel and to make disciples. The Great Commission is our first priority. We are not called to promote a particular approach to ministry, kind of music, or style of worship. Any preferences in these areas should always be subordinated to the principal task of the Church.

Christ Episcopal Church, Covington, a parish in the Diocese of Louisiana, used the hiving off model when it planted what would become St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Mandeville in the mid-1980s. The planting of St. Michael’s was a part of a long range strategy that included the establishment of a Episcopal day school and an Episcopal assisted living facility and retirement community in western St. Tammany Parish. 

Western St. Tammany Parish is a rapidly growing area 30 miles north of New Orleans, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It incorporates six communities—Abita Springs, Covington, Folsom, , Madisonville, Mandeville, and Waldheim. At the time St. Michael’s was planted, Christ Church was the only Episcopal church in western St. Tammany Parish.

Before the outbreak of the Civil War Mandeville had its own Episcopal church—All Souls. However, the Civil War and the yellow fever epidemics that followed in its aftermath had forced the church to close its doors. Christ Church, which is the oldest Episcopal church in the area, would absorb the remnants of its congregation. For 110 odd years Christ Church would serve all six communities.

As the area grew, Christ Church also grew. Both the vestry of Christ Church and the bishop of the diocese came to the conclusion that a second Episcopal church was needed in the area. 

Even if Christ Church went to three Sunday services, which it eventually did, it would not be able to reach and engage the large number of the new families moving to the area. Christ Church’s location placed a ceiling on its growth. It had limited off-the-street parking and the owners of the property that it had hoped to purchase for additional parking space had asked too high a price for that property.

The church plant was a collaborative effort of the Christ Church and the diocese. Christ Church agreed to launch a satellite congregation in Mandeville and the diocese agreed to sponsor a diocese-wide fund raising campaign for the new work. 

My own involvement in the start-up was threefold. I served as a member of the steering committee for the new work and as a ministry team leader on the launch team. I was the worship coordinator and headed its worship team. I also served as the new congregation’s senior lay reader in which capacity I was involved in an eight-year collaboration with its music director in the selection of the music for its services and the development of its music program.

Within six to eight months after it was launched, the satellite congregation would petition the diocese to become a mission of the diocese. The diocese would accept the petition and appoint a pastor for the new mission.

The pastor was a deacon—barely a year out of seminary with no church planting experience and no gift mix for church planting. The diocese had a deacon in need of a placement and the new mission needed a vicar. The pastor was ordained a priest shortly after his appointment and became the vicar of the mission with his ordination to the priesthood.

The new vicar had served as a lay reader in an Episcopal parish in eastern St. Tammany Parish. The parish was stagnant—not growing even though it was located in an area of St. Tammany Parish that was experiencing rapid growth and should have been growing with the area. The church was in a hard-to-find location but its parish leaders made no effort to make the church easier to find for newcomers such as posting signs giving directions to the church or buying an ad in the Yellow Pages giving directions. 

When the new bishop launched a church planting initiative in the late 1990s, its parish leaders would ask the bishop not to authorize the planting of a new Episcopal church in eastern St. Tammany Parish, fearing it that it would not only attract newcomers to the area but also its own members.

The new vicar had also served as a transitional deacon in one of the older downtown parishes in New Orleans.

The new vicar by his own admission had not shared his fellow seminarians’ interest in church growth, church planting, and evangelistic work and had not read the literature. He had avoided taking the courses his seminary had offered on these subjects. He was what Ed Stetzer refers to as a “planted pastor” in Planting Missional Churches—a pastor whose ministerial gifts and skills are more suited to an established church and who comes along after a church startup is launched.

The new church was launched shortly before the Decade of Evangelism in the Episcopal Church in the 1990s. The Decade of Evangelism would reveal that the new vicar’s attitude toward church growth, church planting, and evangelistic work was not that unusual in the clergy of the Episcopal Church. Indeed it was quite common.

During the initial stages of the new work we took a number of steps to overcome the recognized drawbacks of the hiving off model. I wish that I could say that all of these steps were intentional—a part of a careful planning process—but the fact is a number of them were required by the circumstances in which we found ourselves.

We recognized from the outset that if the new church was to attract its share of newcomers to the area and to reach and engage other segments of the area’s unchurched population, it would need to have its own distinct identity—one different from that of its mother church.

We did not attempt to imitate the worship of a large, established church like Christ Church nor did we try to recreate the ambiance of a conventional Episcopal church in the various non-traditional settings in which we worshipped—a clubhouse, rented office space, a storefront, an old high school gymnasium, and eventually our own multipurpose building. Rather we tailored the new church’s worship to its resources and circumstances. 

We made use of insights gleaned from books like Howard Hanchey’s Church Growth and the Power of Evangelism, Michael Marshall’s Renewal of Worship, and other sources. We focused on what a small but growing congregation could do well with its particular resources in its particular circumstances.

We purchased stacking chairs rather pews, enabling us to make maximum use of the space in which we worshipped. 

We used a movable lectern rather than a pulpit. The lessons were read from the same lectern from which the sermon was preached. 

The husband of a church member would handcraft a wooden communion table, using specifications that were provided him. This table was light and moveable. 

We arranged the seating in a semi-circle with the communion table and the lectern as the focus of the semi-circle. 

We experimented with hassocks, or kneeling cushions, but found them impractical. Instead of kneeling to pray, we stood. We bowed our heads during the confession and the parting blessing.

We kept our celebrations of the Holy Eucharist fairly simple. The vicar wore a cassock-alb and stole on most Sundays, donning a chasuble only on major festivals and during the Easter Season. We used Rite II Eucharistic Prayer A and Prayers of the People Form C on most occasions. We used Rite II Eucharistic Prayer B and a different form for the Prayers of the People on major festivals and during the Easter Season.

The vicar experimented with using Rite I and Rite II on alternate Sundays but this experiment was a failure. He then switched to using Rite II at all services except during Lent. Christ Church’s early Sunday morning service and Sunday evening service both were Rite I.

We sought to create a family-friendly atmosphere. We involved as many people as possible in the liturgy as lectors, leaders of the intercessions, oblation bearers, and eucharistic ministers. We recruited older children and youth as well as adults.

As the new church grew, it would attract an increasingly larger number of people with a charismatic or evangelical spirituality or leanings in that direction. This was partially attributable to the eclectic blend of contemporary and traditional music used in its services. Hands uplifted in praise and prayer would become a common sight in the services. 

As this segment of the congregation grew, an increasingly larger number of people would attend Cursillo, Life-in-the-Spirit seminars, and renewal weekends. We invited speakers to give talks on prayer and healing ministry and organized our own prayer and healing ministry. This ministry included intercessory prayer teams that ministered to anyone needing prayer after Communion on Sunday mornings. 

We launched a midweek praise and prayer service. We also started a number of home groups on weeknights as well as conducted Bible study groups on Sunday mornings.

The vicar himself played a minimal role in the church’s music program, hiring the music director whom the launch team’s worship coordinator had recruited and expressing his preferences in regard to what music should be used at particular junctures of the service—specifically the singing of the Doxology during the presentation of the people’s offerings. While attending seminary, he had decided to leave the selection of the music for the services to whoever was the music director wherever he was pastor. 

The musician who had agreed to become the new church’s music director had done so on the condition that the launch team’s worship coordinator would collaborate with her in the selection of the music for the services and in the development of the church’s music program. 

This collaboration would greatly benefit the church. It would permit the application of principles culled from the literature on all-age worship and small churches, as well as church growth, church planting, and evangelistic work, to the selection of music for the services and to the development of the church’s music program. We set as our goal making the worship music guest-and-family friendly as well as musically-appealing, Scriptural and theologically-sound, and worshipful.

While the church’s music program included a traditional choir and the performance of anthems, it was, like the selection of music for the services, not targeted at unaffiliated Episcopalians residing in the area but at the larger unchurched population. Unaffiliated Episcopalians formed a tiny segment of the area’s unchurched population and tying the music selection and music program to their preferences would have resulted in a church with a very limited appeal and a very small population base.

We adopted a policy of using hymns and hymns tunes that were familiar to unchurched families and individuals from a variety of denominational backgrounds, Roman Catholic as well as Protestant, using the ecumenical hymn list as a guide in our selection of these hymns and tunes. 

We recognized that substantial number of hymn tunes that were used in The Hymnal 1940 were unfamiliar to non-Episcopalians. Their use was a Episcopalian peculiarity. We therefore used the more widely-used and familiar hymn tunes.

We adopted a policy of selecting only hymns in the 1940 hymnal that were also in The Hymnal 1982, using the recently-published index to that hymnal as a guide in their selection. We added to the congregation’s hymn repertoire new hymns that were included in The Hymnal 1982. This was intended to facilitate the congregation’s transition to the new hymnal as well as to expand its repertoire.

We made extensive use of worship songs from a variety of sources, selecting those whose popularity crossed denominational lines. The number of worship songs used in our worship typically exceeded the number of hymns.

We made a point of selecting hymns and worship songs with refrains and repetitions in which young children could participate. We also selected simple hymns and songs with easy-to-remember words and tunes.

We were deliberate in introducing new music to the congregation, exposing the congregation to new tunes as instrumental pieces and new hymns and worship songs as choir pieces. We also conducted pre-service congregational rehearsals and had weeknight hymn sings.

Rather than an organ, we used an upright piano—the preferred musical instrument for teaching new music to congregations and supporting congregational singing in a small church. Congregations are able to follow the notes of the melody much better when played on the piano than on the organ.

When a guitar is used to teach a new hymn or worship song to the congregation, the guitarist must also be a vocalist with a strong clear voice since the congregation learns the melody from hearing the guitarist sing the hymn or worship song, not from the chords played on the guitar.

The new church would become a self-supporting parish in a space of eight years. Among the factors that contributed to its growth was the friendliness and warmth of the congregation and its openness to newcomers, its eclectic blend of contemporary and traditional music, the familiarity of the hymns and hymn tunes to visitors from other denominational backgrounds, the enthusiasm of the congregation’s singing, the contemporary language and simplicity of its services, and the clear Biblical teaching of the pastor’s sermons.

Most of the new church’s growth was largely transfer growth. We experienced very little conversion growth. 

The church did not reproduce itself even though the area’s population continued to grow and new churches were popping up everywhere. The vicar who had become its rector had no interest in sponsoring new works.

 The church would eventually grow to the point that it outgrew the rector’s leadership capacity. It would experience a major church split, which greatly weakened the church. After the split its character changed completely. While it would remain a parish in the aftermath of the Robinson consecration which took its toll in the Diocese of Louisiana, four years later it would become a mission again. The rector would become the vicar of another mission in the diocese and would eventually leave the state. 

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