Saturday, September 12, 2015

Church Pioneering in the Sportsman’s Paradise—Part I

The Story of Three Church Plants

By Robin G. Jordan

Since 2002 I have been involved in varying degrees in a number of church plants at various stages in their development. In 2002 I was involved in an unsuccessful Anglican Mission church plant that did not get off the ground and an Episcopal church plant that, while initially successful, fell casualty to the events of 2003. I also briefly worshiped with an Assemblies of God church plant and later in the year became involved in a United Methodist Church plant. I was involved with the UMC church plant for approximately two years until it moved into its first building. I then became involved in a Southern Baptist church plant. When I relocated to western Kentucky in 2007, I would become involved in a non-denominational church plant. The non-denominational church plant is celebrating its tenth year in existence this Sunday. It has launched a second campus in a nearby community and its future looks bright.

I would also try my own hand at church planting with the encouragement and support of the church planter/pastor of the Southern Baptist church plant and had reached the stage of gathering a core-group when Hurricane Katrina devastated the part of Louisiana in which I lived. The rising cost of living in the aftermath of Katrina would prompt my relocation to western Kentucky.

The past 13 odd years has been a learning experience for me. I am writing this article series to share what I learned with my readers.

As I wrote in my last article, “Church Pioneering in the Piney Woods,” I was involved in the planting of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the mid-1980s. When I was first licensed as a lay reader in the Diocese of Louisiana, one of the requirements was that lay readers, after they passed the written and oral examinations for licensure and were licensed, were to pursue a plan of self-study designed to increase their knowledge and to improve their skills, and to report annually to the bishop on what they had done during the year in this regard. The diocese offered quarterly seminars and workshops to help lay readers meet this requirement.

I adopted a more ambitious plan. The New Orleans Baptist Seminary Bookstore posted the required reading lists for the courses at the seminary and decided to read not only whatever the seminarians were required to read but also what their professors recommended that they read. The seminary also had a good selection of books by Anglican authors and a number of these titles were included on the required and recommended reading lists. The New Orleans Catholic Bookstore which served as the seminary book store for Notre Dame Seminary also posted the required and recommended reading lists for the seminarians. The two Episcopal Church Book Stores had good selections of books. My reading would kindle in me a strong interest in church growth, church planting, and evangelistic work as well as nourish and strengthen my interest in church history, liturgics, preaching, and theology. These interests would lead to my involvement in the planting of St. Michael’s.

I must add that I was no stranger to church plants. When I had not yet started school, my family began attending a Church of England church plant in the community where we lived. The new church first met in a Nissen hut and then in a multipurpose building. In my family mission was not only the subject of converstion at the dinner table but my grandparents and my mother did their part to support mission work. From a very early age I was instilled with a positive view of mission work and its importance. My reading would build on this foundation.

Among my motivations was that I had visited a new church plant in western Kentucky while vacationing in the region and had been inspired by its worship. It was the ill-fated St. Peter’s by the Lakes, the last Episcopal church plant in western Kentucky. At the time its worship blended “celebration songs,” then modern worship songs, from the hymnal supplement Songs for Celebration and a Eucharist setting from The People’s Mass Book sung to the accompaniment of the guitar with hymns from The Hymnal, 1940, played on the organ. I saw in what was then called the Mandeville Mission an opportunity to try new approaches to worship. The use of an eclectic blend of contemporary and traditional music in its worship would become a trademark of St. Michael’s during its first eight years. It would contribute to the growth of the new church. Betty Pulkingham’s Sing God A Simple Song: Exploring Music in Worship For the Eighties, the Fisherfolk’s weekend seminar, Come Celebrate: Integrating Contemporary Music in Traditional Worship, and correspondence with music leaders in the Community of Celebration were influences that helped to shape the worship music of the church.

A North America Missionary Board study of the survivability of church plants found that the survival rate of the churches that it studied was 68% after four years and this was similar in all denominations. It found no support for the frequently repeated statistic, “"80 percent of new churches fail in the first year." Church plants, however, do fail for a variety of reasons.

When a church plant fails, I believe that a post-mortem should be done so other church planters may learn from the failure. I must also point out that a church planter may be repeatedly unsuccessful in planting a new church, trying a different community each time, only to finally succeed. A church planter should not give up after one failure. It may not be in God’s plan for that church planter to successfully plant a new church in that community. God may be testing the church planter’s faithfulness. This knowledge should not keep the lead church planter, another launch team member, or the sponsoring church or judicatory from doing a post-mortem. I would recommend that it should be someone other than the lead church planter who puts together the final report since he may have blind spots and all launch team members, if possible, should be debriefed.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Hiving Off Model of church planting is that it enjoys a higher rate of success than other models. I examined a number of the drawbacks of this model in my previous article, “Church Pioneering in the Piney Woods.” All three church plants were ultimately unsuccessful. Only in one of the three church plants that I am about to examine was the Hiving Off Model used. In the other two plants the Pioneer Model was used. In that model a church planter typically relocates to new community and begins a new church from scratch. The major challenge is gathering people to begin the new church, particularly when gathering people is not a natural skill. How long it takes to gather a core-group will depend on the church planter, the community, and the ministry target group. It may take up to 12 to 18 months or longer to gather a large enough core-group to go public—to launch the first service of public worship. The size of the core-group for a successful launch will depend upon the community and the ministry target group. According to Ken Howard, “a church needs at least 50 adults to have a public worship service that is celebrative and attractive to new people.” The community and the ministry target group will be the deciding factor.

In the case of the Anglican Mission church plant the church planter and his sponsoring church may have had unrealistic expectations as to how long it would take gather a core-group in Mandeville and how challenging the task would be in that particular community. The church planter had been funded for a shorter period than 12 to 18 months.

The church planter was able to gather a small core-group. However, most of its members lived outside the community that the church planter was targeting. One family was lived in a nearby community and was socially-isolated; another family lived in another nearby community and were new to that community. Both families had no relationship networks that might include prospective members. I lived in the community and had a network of friends and relatives within the community. They were, however, involved in an existing church, settling into a new church, or not interested in attending a church.

The church planter, while he met individually with the members of the core-group was reluctant to meet with them as a group, fearing that they might push for a premature launch. This is a very real issue in the core-group gathering stage of a church plant. Meeting as a group is also an important step in the development of a core-group.

The church planter also encountered a barrier which may be described as brand unfamiliarity. The Episcopal bishop who had withheld his permission from a group seeking to start a new church in the area changed his mind out of fear that the group might abandon the Episcopal Church for the Anglican Mission. The bishop had not given his permission because while he supported the planting of new churches, he thought that a new church in the area would further weaken St. Michael’s which had been weakened by a major church split. The group that wished to start the new church was former members of St. Michael’s prayer and healing ministry and their friends. This group would choose the familiar brand of the Episcopal Church over the unfamiliar brand of the Anglican Mission. A year later it would prove an unwise choice.

The events that followed the joint decision of the sponsoring church and the church planter to discontinue the new work show that God was testing the faithfulness of the young pastor. He received with a very short period of time an offer from a large Anglican Mission church to become its associate rector—a church that he and his wife had always dreamed of being a part. Their house was sold before it went on the market. Clearly God had other plans for him. The young pastor is now the lead pastor of a thriving ACNA church.

What happened to the group that decided to stick with the Episcopal Church? They would launch a house church which met first in Mandeville and then in Covington. The church would become a preaching station of a charismatic parish in Baton Rouge—a parish associated with the Anglican Communion Network. Baton Rouge is more than a hour’s drive from Mandeville and Covington. The priests who served the congregation came from the Baton Rouge deanery and even from outside of the Episcopal Church. The rector of that church, a charismatic assistant rector of a second church, and a charismatic Continuing Anglican bishop would take turns preaching and presiding at its weekly celebrations of the Holy Eucharist. When the core-group had tapped out their relationship networks within the area, the new church successfully used the Alpha Course to attract new members. Its future looked promising.

The new church was something of a step-child. It did not receive the publicity in the diocesan newspaper that the other startup in the diocese received. The clergy in the deanery in which the house church was started refused to recognize the existence of a new church in their deanery. The diocese did not try to raise funds for the new church which has been the practice in the diocese. Some Episcopalians in the area derisively referred to the members of the new church as “holy rollers” because they were charismatic. Only after the bishop lost his bid to become Presiding Bishop did he give more attention to the new church. For a while it met in a hotel conference room for worship, instead of a private home.

The election, confirmation, and consecration of an openly gay bishop in Episcopal Church in 2003 would deal a blow to the new church from which it never fully recovered. Western St. Tammany parish is politically and socially conservative. The elevation of Gene Robinson to its episcopate would significantly damage the public image of the Episcopal Church in the area’s communities. The church lost not only its new members but also a large part of its original nucleus.

Elsewhere in the Diocese of Louisiana a church that had become a parish lost so many members that it became a mission again. The other startup, a thriving church plant in another rapidly growing area of the state, was forced to shut down.

When I last checked on the church, the remainder of that nucleus was meeting in a Lutheran church on the outskirts of Covington on Sunday evenings. It was a shadow of its former self. The charismatic assistant rector who had become the priest in charge of the Episcopal church in the eastern part of St. Parish was preaching and presiding at its Eucharist celebrations. He would become the rector of the charismatic parish in Baton Rouge. Upon his retirement he and most of the congregation left the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican Church in North America. I do not know what happened to that tiny remnant that was meeting in the Lutheran church. The deacon who had played a very active role in the congregation in its early days and who lived in the area is no longer listed in the clergy directory of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

What happened to this church plant show how church plants may be subject to the vagaries of denominational and judicatorial politics. It also shows how the public image of a denomination may impact a church plant. One of the crucial tasks of a new church is to create its own public image, one which will weather any changes in the public image of the denomination with which it is associated. Existing churches in a denomination in what they teach and practice may also create public image problems for new churches that do not subscribe to their teaching and practices.

The third church was affiliated with the Assemblies of God and rented part of an office building in Covington. It had reached its third year in existence, which is a major milestone in the life of a new church. It hit a major bump in the road when its founding pastor was accused of misappropriation of funds and other improprieties. Whether these allegations were true, they seriously affected his leadership of the new church. He chose to resign since he had lost the confidence of the congregation. The assistant pastor became the church’s lead pastor. The allegations and the founding pastor’s resignation would damage the church’s reputation in the community and the church began hemorrhaging members. The new lead pastor attempted a relaunch. Whether the relaunch was successful, I have been unable to ascertain. The church would drop off the radar. The office building was vacated.

A Google search reveals the existence of an Assembly of God church in the Covington area using the same name as the relaunch. Its Facebook page dates to 2009. Whether it is the same church or a different church that appropriated the name I cannot determine.

What may be learned from the experience of this church plant is that anything that compromises the leadership of a church plant will have a negative impact upon its growth. Church planters and launch teams need to identify potential areas of risk and develop and implement necessary safeguards.

The devil and his minions will exploit any weakness to impede the spread of the gospel and the expansion of God’s kingdom. Where the Holy Spirit is at work so will be the powers of darkness. They will not only seek to cause the fall of an effective church leader but also tempt a church into adopting teaching and practices that are not grounded in God’s Word and which create barriers between a new church and the ministry target group that it is seeking to reach and engage.  They will encourage a new church to put its preferences before the needs of its ministry target group. They will also encourage a new church to dilute the gospel or to preach a different gospel. 

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