Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/6 2017

5 Practical Considerations for the Church Planting Process

Church Planting ProcessIn my years as a church planter, I’ve learned a thing or two. Here are my five practical considerations for the church planting process:

1. Work on a team.

If there isn’t someone on your team who can tell you when you’re wrong without starting a fight, you’ll end up with an ineffective ministry. Your partners will help you edit your work, behavior, and foundation so that the community that grows from those norms is not adversely affected. Work with someone who has different skills and a different perspective on your shared vision. With at least two people collaborating on the vision others start to see and participate in the vision separate from the leadership, rather than seeing one charismatic leader as the only source of vision.

2. Church planting is not about you.

This is not about the music you like, the sermons you want to preach, the people you want to hang out with. This isn’t about how charming or not charming you are or how many people like you. And when someone hates your preaching, that isn’t about you either. You will constantly be representing other powers and principalities to people, and you will be regularly tripping over the triggers of people’s traumas. Try to walk gently, to listen, to apologize, to hear what people need you to hear. Continue to preach the Good News as it is given to you for the people you are called to.

3. When you see unhealthiness, address it.

Particularly early on you are building a communal DNA. People are building an implicit or explicit understanding of what it is that we do and don’t do here. Don’t let someone’s unaddressed inappropriate behavior confuse the forming community, or worse invite them to act in kind. Some people won’t appreciate their behavior being addressed—but the good news is there are likely plenty of churches in your local area that would be happy to welcome them and not address their bad behavior.

4. Explain who you are and what you do—everywhere.

Put it on your walls; as the Old Testament tells us, post it over your doors. People don’t know what church congregations do and people don’t know what they’re supposed to do upon entering a church. They feel nervous and insecure about their behavior, their clothes, their skills, their pasts. When you invite them to do or not do certain things, invite everyone together. Explain why we do whatever you are asking folks to do, and make it clear that you didn’t expect everyone walking in to just already know. It is the difference between these two scenarios: A new mom with a crying baby feels uncomfortable because she doesn’t know whether to wait it out or leave the service, and even if she were to leave, she has no idea where to go in a strange building. Or, a scenario wherein a pastoral leader or liturgist announces to the congregation, brand new visiting mom included, that one of our joys as a church is to worship together and that the laughter and crying and shifting of people of all ages reminds us that God is with us, that if anyone needs to step out or use the restroom it is down the hall to the left.

5. Be willing to do what you ask the children to do.

Children recognize when you respect them, and if you only offer them faith experiences that you would never undertake yourself, they learn pretty quickly that faith practices are something they will outgrow. Adults will follow your lead as well. When you are willing to be childish, communal vulnerability will grow from there. The same principle is true for answering the questions you ask in Bible study or around the table at dinner. People get their queues on the appropriate level of vulnerability from the leader in their midst. Be willing to be honest and be willing to seem silly.

 

The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world, and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.

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2/14 2017

The Parables of Church

church baptism

In the church planting program we talk about theory. The Church Planting Initiative cohort at Pittsburgh Seminary was recently discussing liturgy and the fact that it forms us. We were naming the ways people respond unexpectedly and how people handle being in community with those who are different from them. We talked a lot about the work and possibility of the church. And we came to realize that one of the most important things we do is tell church stories.

To plant a church you have to know what a church is. And a church as it works to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God can sometimes only really be known in snapshot stories—parables if you will. The upside of this is, if you spend any kind of time in a church, these parables start to find you.

As I came to this forum and to the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Seminary from a small, new church in Philadelphia—Beacon—I thought I might tell you about one such parable.

The Parable of Baptism

At the beginning of each worship service at my old church, we would pour water into the baptismal bowl and talk about what it meant to be welcomed into God’s family and how the water of baptism bore witness to the love God has for us. Every week since we started worshiping together five years ago, we would pour the water and talk about how, whether we had yet been baptized or not, the water meant we belonged to God, that God claimed us, that we belonged to each other, that we were clean and forgiven, and that God would bring us through all the water and bring us home.

Because the church welcomed people who had never been to church and people who had been hurt by the church and people who had been to church their whole lives, we explained the concept of baptism every single week. As a pastor, though, when you practice something like that, there does come a time when you wonder if anyone is still listening to your weekly best of re-runs marathon.

At Beacon there is a young woman in the congregation who is differently abled and has been there since we started. She has participated wholeheartedly in worship and worship leadership. She has loved the church and the church has loved her for as long as I have known the church and known her. Apparently, though, after five years of preacher repetition, a light bulb went on for her about baptism on one Sunday. She went right up to the baptismal bowl during passing of the peace and began to splash her fellow worshipers and declare them part of the family of God.

Perhaps the best part of the whole story is that our children’s minister—a young woman who two years ago didn’t go to church and didn’t want to, a young revolutionary who is working on a curriculum for children’s ministry, a young woman who is in seminary and who teaches the children of the church the story of Jesus with all the freshness of one on whom they have not lost their brilliance—gently tried to toe the establishment line and remind Sarah that generally pastors are the ones who do baptism.

Apparently, Sarah responded—“Yes, yes, I know! But this is what we do here!”

Indeed.

That is pretty much the clearest picture of church I’ve seen to date—church is when we get together, and a voice that people ignore everywhere else, tells us again that we are a part of God’s family. This is what we do here. Every single week.

The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world, and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so. 

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2/6 2017

Why I Start New Churches

Church planting happens when visionaries see a community in the middle of nothingWhile Presbyterians as a whole have become more adept at closing churches than opening them, there are a few of us crazy people who are absolutely passionate about giving birth to new churches. I am convinced that planting new churches is the best way of reaching new people for Christ. After all, if my beloved congregation has been ministering its head off for 200 years on the same street corner without reaching its neighbors, it probably isn’t going to start reaching them next week. However, something brand new in the community just might stand a chance. And I believe it’s a chance worth taking.

Planting New Churches is Hard Work

Anyone who has any experience with starting a new church knows the endless hours spent knocking on doors, writing sermons, creating PowerPoint presentations, practicing music, leading small groups, communicating a vision, drinking coffee with community leaders, starting prayer groups, setting up chairs in the local elementary school, creating a budget when you have no idea where the money will come from next year, serving spaghetti, putting up signs, training leaders, designing web sites . . . well, you know all the things that really should go on this list. As I said, it’s hard work.

One new worshiping community leader once said to me in a moment of total frustration, “There’s just so much nothing”—no building, no Sunday school teachers, no job descriptions, no Bibles, no chairs, no elders, no coffee pot, no one to buy the coffee pot or make the coffee, no musical instruments, or bulletins, or computer, or members. Sure, it’s exciting to start from scratch, build something from the ground up, create a brand new culture, but still – “there’s so much nothing.” It takes special people to start new churches. It takes people with vision and imagination to see a vital worshiping community in the midst of so much nothing. It takes people with perseverance to keep knocking on doors and drinking coffee with the right people when the nothingness threatens to overwhelm.

It also takes presbyteries and partner congregations and a denomination who share the commitment to a brand new kind of ministry. Faithful pastors and members of existing churches may look with suspicion on the idea of new churches in their back yards. After all, the suggestion of a new church means to some that what they are doing is unsuccessful or inadequate. It plants the seeds of misgiving that established churches will suffer in attendance and income when a newcomer invades the neighborhood. And don’t forget that planting new churches is an expensive form of ministry. At a time when presbyteries feel the pinch of declining resources, some spendthrift suggests squandering scarce resources on a risky business. Most presbyteries have a story of an expensive new church plant that failed to thrive. No wonder “we tried that once and it didn’t work” is a familiar refrain. Going into an existing church with the news that a new church is on the drawing board doesn’t always bring cheers of enthusiasm.

Why, then, do church planting pastors and leaders and presbytery staff people continue to do this hard and faithful work of planting new churches? First, I believe we are faithful to the Gospel when we are absolutely passionate about making new disciples. New churches are evangelistic at their very core. Their purpose is to engage people who are not presently involved in any worshiping community. Planting new churches is one very powerful response to the Great Commission.

New churches provide a unique opportunity of taking the unchanging gospel to an ever-changing culture. Unburdened by traditions and history, new churches are able to pare ministry down to its essential components and work on making the Gospel accessible to a new generation of believer that doesn’t know the words to the old hymns. New worshiping communities are always contextual. They are at their best when they align their ministry to the needs and gifts of a particular community.

Planting Churches is Teamwork

New church development is certainly not for everyone. Many faithful people find meaning and nurture in the traditions and rituals of the established church. But, there are a few courageous entrepreneurs who rise to the challenge of discovering a brand new way of worshiping God, relating to unchurched people, engaging the surrounding culture, and singing a new song. We do this best when we work together—presbyteries, congregations, and new worshiping community leaders. Unfortunately, we succumb too easily to the sins of distrust and blame and self-centeredness. We tend to forget that we are on the same team. We succeed when we love and trust and care for and challenge each other to new levels of faithfulness. There is no more exciting and challenging and important ministry than starting new worshiping communities. The work that happens in new worshiping communities infuses the whole church with new Holy Spirit energy. Both old and new churches are enriched when they follow Christ outside the church doors and into the neighborhoods around them.

Vera K. White is the coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has an office at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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