Thinking Out Loud

January 21, 2013

Where Have All The Church Planters Gone?

Recently C. Michael Patton at the blog Parchment and Pen wrote about the decline of the Emerging church.

…[T]oday things have changed. No one blogs about it. No one claims the name anymore. No publisher would dare accept a book about the emerging “thing” that happened in the forgotten past. Why? because around the year 2009, the identity of the emerging church went silent and many (some, enthusiastically) put up gravestone over its assigned plot. In fact, I even paid my respects.

I want to look at something else that I believe is running parallel to the decline of the Emergents or Emergings: The decline of the church planters.

Church Plant

Church Plant

If Patton’s analysis is right, visibility of all things Emerging ran from 1994 to 2009.  That’s 15 years. One thing I really liked about this was the number of people who suddenly took an interest in ecclesiology. The number of lay people who were willing to step out and plant. The number of young(er) clergy who were willing to resign from secure positions and take church to the inner city or to new suburban housing tracts.

Patton is right to mention publishing. An explosion of new books issued forth from major evangelical publishing houses which were studied by people who had heretofore never taken an interest in how the local church functions, with the result that both clergy and laity created a host of new models many of which were customized for unique local needs and situations.

And at the same time as new churches were popping up in gymnasiums, restaurant meeting rooms and private houses, a movement for greater awareness of social justice issues was impacting the Evangelical community at large, with many of the new upstart churches leading the charge.

We had some friends over on the weekend. Remember, even though I live in the shadow of Toronto, Canada; our hometown’s population is only about 17,000. And yet, as we caught our friends up on the recent issue of alternative church movements in our location, we counted about nine different bodies which sprang up between 2000 and 2010 — including one each for both my wife and I — some of which are still going.

But lately not so much planting has been taking place.

Right now, the dominant model is to simply become a satellite campus for a much larger church. Rent a theater with a 10-foot (3 meter) dish for down-linking live sports and entertainment events. Or pop in the DVD or flash drive with the recording of last week’s sermon at the mother church.  No wonder some people — slightly tongue in cheek I suspect — suggest that in 20 years there will only be a hundred pastors in the U.S. with everyone else picking up a live or recorded feed from the host churches. (And by host church, that doesn’t mean megachurch, since technically, the messages could be recorded in a studio with no live audience.)

I miss the days of rogue church planting. Part one of the gospel is “taste and see.” Part two is “go and tell.” I miss the wild stories Michael Frost told of churches planted in west-coast shoe stores, among water-skiers on the Pine River, and over red-wine-and-pizza discussion groups hashing out religion, philosophy, politics and the latest books; groups which possessed more solid orthodoxy than you might suspect. I miss the emphasis on candle-lighting versus darkness-cursing. I miss the whole, “Hey, let’s start a church” mentality.

Patton might argue the many of the plants never fully ‘took.’

There was no runway on which to land and the emerging plane did not even have landing gear. The deconstruction happened with no plans of reconstructing. The emerging journey became an endless flight that did not have any intention on setting down anywhere. Many people jumped out, skydiving back home. The rest, I suppose, remained on the plane until it ran out of gas.

But then he concedes — and I’ll give him the last word on this — that the movement is forgotten but not gone:

But certain aspects of the ethos of the emerging church should be within all of us. We should never be satisfied with the status quo. We should always be asking questions and bringing into account our most fundamental beliefs. We need to identify with the culture at the same time as holding on to the past. I believe that Robert Webber, though never really called an emerger, was a great example of our continued need to reform. His Ancient-Future Faith was a great example of how we can hold on to, respect, learn from, and identify with our past, yet push forward into an exciting future.

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