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.

March 17, 2011

Turning Up The Spiritual Volume

An updated post from something originally appearing in March, 2009…



Lately, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it means to expect God’s presence in all that we do “at church.” I’ve heard people talk about being at a fairly typical church meeting thing, and “then God showed up.” This may assume that he wasn’t “showing up” at previous meetings, or it may mean that he was there all along but an awareness of his presence finally broke in on the assembly.

When leading worship, I have often — though not every time — begun by following the traditional concept of invocation; inviting God’s presence into our time together. Or at least, sort of. I take it as a given that God is already among us, especially on Sunday morning. He never misses our church service, right?

So I’ll begin with something like,

“Lord, we don’t presume to invite your presence because after all, you said you would never leave us nor forsake us. Furthermore, we sometimes say that this building is your house, a place set apart for your worship, so we know if you’re omnipresent, you’re everywhere, then certainly of all places you are here. No, instead, we ask you to help us have an awareness of your presence, an awareness of a presence that already exists, but we’re too distracted to realize. Open our hearts. Meet with us today in a special way. Amen.”

The fact of the matter is however, that some things the church — as opposed to The Church — does are purely perfunctory. And I think a church business meeting, or a church clean-up day are good examples of that. Unless of course, you are committed from the beginning that this business meeting is open to the possibility of God breaking in and doing something greater.

Basically, the question I want to ask is, “What if we spiritualized church?” Yeah, seriously. What if we decided there were no task-only, business-only events, but lived out each time we gathered together as moments full of eternal possibilities? What if…

  • What if every item run through the church photocopier had to have a ministry value, even if it was just a verse tacked on at the end?
  • What if every church spring cleaning day was seen as a teachable moment, the way Jesus taught as he walked along the road with his disciples?
  • What if every mail-out and every church newspaper advertisement kept its seeker appeal, but still contained the DNA of the gospel?
  • What if every church business meeting was more like a town hall forum where old men (and women) could prophesy and young men (and women) dream dreams?
  • What if every time there were announcements, they were viewed not as commercials, but as opportunities for greater fellowship, greater teaching, greater service?
  • What if every time there was a collection or offering, it was truly viewed as an act of worship?
  • What if your tax receipt for those donations was accompanied by a note of thanksgiving, or a teaching on how God delights and will reward our cheerful giving?  (Update: Saw this done recently, and it was awesome!)
  • What if every pot-luck lunch was actually more like the upper-room meal Jesus shared with his disciples?
  • What if every salesman, tradesman, public sector worker, etc., who came in the front door of your church was told, “It’s no accident that you came in just now…” and then heard a piece of the particular good news that he/she needed that day?
  • What are the “What ifs” that your heart longs for?

That’s what I mean by “spiritualizing Church.” Yes, God is there with us all along, but we need to leave him a place to break into our program.


Quick example. Before we got married, I was a performing Christian solo artist in southern Ontario. I worked alone. One time, a friend of mine who was a professional, recording-studio quality jazz bass player offered to do a concert engagement with me for free at a local church. To maximize his talents and contribution, we rehearsed the songs with some instrumental ‘bridges’ in them so he could do a few improvised bass solos.

But when we actually got out before the audience, I got distracted and started playing the songs the way I normally do, moving quickly from verse to chorus to verse. At the end of the first set, I realized this and told him, and his reply was, “I was trying to find an opening, but I couldn’t find a place to jump in.”

I think that’s how the Holy Spirit would say it to us today. I was there, but you didn’t leave me any room in the program. (See this post, Blocking Peoples’ View from exactly three years ago, for another way of describing this.)

Nobody is saying that God isn’t with us. But we need to see the spiritual possibilities each time we get together, even if it’s just to rake the leaves on the church lawn or clean the church kitchen. And just think, if we were really focused on doing this, we could actually invite our neighbors to “help out” in our church clean-up day, and they might actually see Christ in the most seeker friendly of all possible environments.

It would also revolutionize the way we do things outside of church. We would be spiritualizing or God-focusing our entire lives. Nah. That’s way too radical.

…After committing to write this piece a few days ago, I came across this today from Kaybee, a regular visitor here, on her blog Important to Me. She looks at the way we approach our local church as a sign of what our expectations are. Do we expect that God is really waiting to meet with us?

December 13, 2010

How Not To Run a Youth Banquet

When it came time to sign up for bringing food to the youth Christmas banquet, there was no need for my youngest son to deliberate.   He loves Caesar salad, and loves it done right.   Furthermore, he’s taken a culinary course, he’s worked a paying job in the food services industry, and he also comes by his kitchen talents through hereditary factors, given that when I met his mother she was the food services director of a Christian camp.

So when he was preparing to take his salad to the church, he was very careful to pack the ingredients individually — the bacon bits, the croutons, the lemon wedges and the dressing — to be tossed just before the banquet began.

Instead, he found the kitchen occupied by some older women he didn’t know who assured him that they knew what to do with a salad, and told him to, “Get out of the kitchen.”

Strike one.

His table was the third one called up to the serving table, and it was at that moment he was horrified to discover that instead of mixing the bacon bits, croutons and dressing, they had simply placed them randomly on the table; but the lemon wedges were scattered throughout the greens, making the whole thing look like a lemon salad.

Strike two.

At that point, I would have set my own plate down and done what needed doing, but he was so devastated by what he saw that, like a deer caught in the proverbial headlights, he didn’t quite know what the etiquette was for a moment like the one he was experiencing.

So…his salad was not received with the enthusiasm he expected, and this is a kid whose feelings can be somewhat fragile.  But he decided to just carry on as if it wasn’t happening and enjoy the rest of the meal.   When it came time for desert, he discovered his bacon bits were still being offered, and in fact were experiencing a new-found popularity.   Apparently the kitchen crew didn’t know what they were.

Strike three.

When he went into the kitchen to gather up his left0ver salad, he discovered that they had thrown everything in the garbage.   Good, edible food; prepared in love and submitted — in addition to a $10 admittance charge — by a family that buys 90% of everything we eat from the discount food shelves because we don’t actually have a normal food budget.   By this point he was mortified.

Strike four?

We’ll come back to this story in a minute.   Believe me.

The rest of the banquet had some good moments.   Kid Two (aka Kid, Too) has a great attitude and can always find the full half of the glass.   But when he got in the car he had to vent his frustration and anger, and so that the night didn’t end with just ugly memories, we went for a drive to the town park where they had a number of Christmas lights set up, and walked around the display for about ten minutes.     Yes, I know; great parenting move.

Now then, back to the banquet.

How is that people who lack basic interpersonal skills (“Get out of the kitchen”) and lack basic culinary skills (not knowing how to toss or serve a salad), and lack basic Christian stewardship (throwing good food in the trash) come to be in charge of the kitchen at the youth banquet?   Did nobody else volunteer?   Could the youth not have staged their own banquet without adult supervision?

This sort of crap happens far too often in local churches.

Sunday after Sunday, Mrs. Green sits at the organ with two hands and one foot playing what sounds like entirely different sounds.

Week after week, Mr. Black makes a display of ushering on the west side in a manner that is totally distracting, seating people in the front row during solos and prayers and the sermon, and totally distracting people from the act of worship in the process.

Service after service, Mrs. Jones puts up the lyrics to the wrong songs on the PowerPoint screen, or worse, seems to inexplicably fall asleep (or something)  in the middle of a song leaving the screen locked on the second part of the second verse, and the audience standing with shrugged shoulders and nothing to sing.

Does nobody care to give their best to God?

(Let me add, parenthetically, that errors do happen.   I spent the better part of the week of November 28th beating myself up over missing a cue on an instrumental part in a Sunday worship service; and there are two errors in our music video which nobody else would notice, but they drive me nuts.)

There has to be allowance for the fact that people aren’t perfect, and the church has to be a place of grace, and God’s people agents of grace.   However…

It’s time to consider the need for confrontation.   So I have provided here, for your use, some phrases you can cut and paste and send off to Mr. X or Mrs. Y. in the hope of reclaiming the pursuit of excellence:

Dear __________,    It has come to our attention that you can’t really sing.   Your pitch is terrible, your song selection is most often totally inappropriate, but most important, the world has changed and the musical and lyrical expectations for church music have shifted somewhat as well.  Thank you for your help in the past, but now we’re going to move on.

Dear __________,    It’s true that gas was once 49 cents a gallon, there were only three television stations, and you actually shared your phone line with another family through a ‘party line’ system, but this is now and the junior highs are tired of these stories, and don’t quite get the point.   We’ve hired a part-time youth worker who will be taking over the group next week.

Dear __________,   It’s not easy being the church sound engineer, especially when people keep craning their necks and looking back every time there’s a glitch, but in fact there’s been a lot of glitches and a lot of neck craning lately; the mics are never turned on in time, or it’s too loud, or you can only hear the alto and tenor parts when the trio sings, never the melody.   We’re going to offer this job to someone else in next week’s bulletin.

Dear __________,  For twenty years our children’s ministry has been defined by your presence in the Toddler room, but with the passing of time we think that what was once a labor of love has become a bit of a chore; especially given our recent insight that all the children in the room are totally frightened of you.     So if you don’t mind, we’d like to pass the baton to a series of helpers and invite you to simply enjoy the service in the main auditorium next week.

Dear __________,   There’s nothing worse than going to church and then leaving and in between nobody spoke to you; so we appreciate your years of frontline ministry as a door greeter.    But as the first person people meet when they attend church for the first time, the job unfortunately carries with it a responsibility for setting the tone for the whole image of the church.   We’d like to change that image up a bit in the weeks to come.

Okay, maybe these don’t sound very nice.   Maybe they can be improved on.   Maybe they can’t.  Or maybe there isn’t a nice way to deal with musicians who can’t play, Sunday School workers who scare the kids, or kitchen help that can’t keep the banquet dinner rolls warm without burning them.

I just hated to see my son in the situation of being hurt, horrified, mortified, devastated and having his favorite food insulted.    Hurting feelings is dumb, and as I’ve written here before, the things done in church kitchens matter more than anyone realizes.

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