Thinking Out Loud

June 24, 2020

In the 1970s and 80s, Church Planting, Wasn’t Always “Churches”

In 1987, I wrote an 8-page document entitled, “Proposal for a New Kind of Church in Metro Toronto;” went to a copy store and had 200 copies printed to younger Evangelical leaders. The particular church itself didn’t happen — perhaps it was ahead of its time or perhaps God knew that I just wasn’t ready to lead something that significant — but it’s with some regrets I consider that I could have been known today as the founder of _______ Church. I’d like to think that because the recipients of that document were especially hand-picked that its distribution had some impact.

By 2007, I was part of a cohort of people from different cities who met monthly to discuss what had become a boom in church planting. People who didn’t quite know how to spell ecclesiology were talking about it. Lay people. Not clergy. The term was well-traveled.

This was reflected on the blogs, and I started one myself on a now-defunct religion forum at USAToday, and it was also the subject of many, many books that were published, many of which I carried at a small chain of Christian bookstores I owned. Our small group met every six weeks in a city chosen because it was somewhere in the middle. We continued to have some contact when the group disbanded. The phrase “a different kind of church” was on everyone’s lips and alternative churches were becoming mainstream.

I’ve had a lot of opinions on this subject, but a key word search this morning showed that not all of them have landed here at Thinking Out Loud. I would have thought they had, because this subject is something close to me.

Someone once put it this way,

“Church planting is the extreme sport of ministry.”

In 2004, I started a church of my own. Transformation Church was located in downtown Cobourg, a small town about 70 minutes east of Toronto, Canada. Our first series was 17 weeks entitled, “Ground Zero: Where Everything Ends and Everything Begins.” Just four years out from the World Trade Towers falling in New York City, the series name had more resonance then than it does now. That church ran until March of 2006. (It’s a long story.)

I was reminded then that while it’s probably a good idea to be theologically trained to administer a church, you don’t need a degree to start a church. Of two significant ones in our town, one was founded by a woman they simply refer to as Grandma Caffin. Another came out of a meeting of five families at a picnic table in the park. Most of the people attending those churches — Baptist and Alliance respectively — probably have no idea as to their inauspicious beginnings.

But today, in June 2020, I want to return to the title of today’s piece, but to do so involves one more time travel.

Back in 2008, I wrote an article about a weekly Saturday night event in Toronto called Reach Out.

The setting:  The first Reach Out took place in a Lutheran (I think) church that was built overlooking a large river valley parkland. The front of the church was all glass, so when you looked towards the front, you looked out on a beautiful view. (A later incarnation of Reach Out took place in a downtown church. I only attended that once, and it was so packed I had to sit on the stairs.)

The motto:  “Everyone Gives, Everyone Receives.”  Reach Out was based in I Cor. 14:26 which says, “When you gather together everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”  (NIVMOL – stands for NIV more or less) So people would jump up — sometimes suddenly — and say, “I have a Psalm;” and then read it; and other would jump up and say, “I have a teaching;” and would give a 60-second teaching; etc. They always said at the outset what it was they were going to say. That way nobody could jump up and say, “I have a cute story about my dog!”

The format:  People gathering talking, mostly in their teens, 20s and 30s; then they would sit down; and then — I don’t know how else to say this — a holy hush would fall over everyone.  What a moment! There would be silence for a minute or two, and then someone would start playing their guitar.   There was blended worship.  This is where I first learned “Oh, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” and I had never heard younger people sing classical hymns with such passion. Then there was an extended prayer time. I can’t remember if we broke up into groups of 3 or 4 — I’ve got this part confused with another group I belonged to — but there was plenty of opportunity for people to share requests. Then a teaching.  Then some worship.

I don’t know if we considered it church or not. The test would be to go back in time and ask the people attending if they also had a connection on Sunday mornings. It was just an event that happened and we didn’t try to over analyze. The problem with dissecting a cat is that once you’ve got it all figured out how it works, the cat is dead. Today, Twitter provides us with far too much dissection.

There were other similar things in Toronto. A Christian Church on A Hill, Catacombs, Shekinah. Sadly, I never made it those. I did frequent Christian coffee houses — there were so many in Toronto that several people undertook to publish directories — and a monthly camp reunion (for a camp I’d never attended) called Power and Praise.

Part of what got me thinking about this was watching a YouTube documentary this week about Love Inn, a ministry in Ithica, New York founded in the 1970s by Christian radio personality Scott Ross and part of the Jesus People revolution which was taking place at the time. Watching the 8mm film footage reminded me of the whole vibe.

I know what you’re thinking. When are you going to get to the title of today’s article?

The point I want to make is that on reflection, those early events were created in lieu of church planting. The people who today might be scouting for community centers and high schools to hold weekend service were back then content to put together Tuesday night or Friday night events. They were interdenominational which means the people who attended, often under 30, were part of other fellowships on the weekend, including some who were mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic.

These days, the energy that might go into promoting something like this at a local level is often put toward conferences. They have the advantage of reminding everyone that ‘it’s a big tent’ and that we’re part of a larger family, as well as being able to bring top name speakers and musicians, but they do get expensive and unwieldy.

What about where you live? Is there a weekly Christian event that’s not church your city is known for? Or do people simply attend the megachurch for one service and then go to their own smaller church for connection to family and longtime friends?

I think that gatherings like the ones I described are still needed and hopefully — after the pandemic — we might see new expressions of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

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