AT WHAT LEVEL SHOULD DENOMINATIONS BE INVOLVED IN STARTING NEW CONGREGATIONS?
By George W. Bullard, Jr.
The executive director of a regional denominational organization felt proud of the work his executive leaders did over the past year. They had identified and implemented three key leverage strategies that should significantly increase their ability to help their affiliated congregations reach their Kingdom potential.
These three key leverage strategies were to (1) help innovative and effective congregations take the next steps in reaching their full Kingdom potential; (2) develop Rapid Readiness Response Teams to respond to critical, timely needs in congregations; and (3) clearly define and focus “pay the rent” activities with congregations to keep these activities from consuming the denominational organization’s resources. [For more details on these three strategies see the June, July and August 1999 editions of Net Results.]
The executive director was a good friend of a nationally known consultant and coach to religious organizations. He send his friend a copy of the strategies to look over, a few weeks before they would see each other at a national religious leadership seminar. He wondered what his friend thought about these strategies and if they would be sufficient to transform his denominational organization.
At the leadership seminar, the executive director sought out his consultant friend and said, “Well, what did you think about it?” The consultant stared at him for a moment and then said, “You blew it! You left out the most important strategy of all – the one that stands head and shoulders above any of the others.”
“What do you mean?” The executive director could feel a huge anxiety attack coming on.
“You left out the most significant means of evangelism, Kingdom growth, connecting with younger generations and the postmodern culture, and transforming denominational organizations,” replied the consultant. “You need a strategy for starting new congregations!”
“Oh, we only do one of those every four or five years,” the denominational executive said with obvious frustration, but also relief.
His friend did not let up. “Then you are dead in the water and the rest of your strategy won’t create long-term, sustainable transformation.”
What Makes Starting New Congregations So Crucial?
1. New congregations form the basic building block of a Great Commission strategy focused on sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
2. New congregations afford the best vehicles for helping individuals and faith communities onto effective and meaningful spiritual journeys.
3. New congregations – those positioned to attract people who are pre-Christians, unchurched, dechurched, or seeking to transfer to a congregation near a new place of residence – can provide the most effective means of evangelism and new member recruitment. Even when new congregations locate in a redeveloping city or neighborhood or as a franchised congregation in a suburban community, they can help build the spiritual values of their communities. They also provide a place for new residents to connect with a community of faith near their homes and schools.
4. New congregations can, more effectively than existing congregations, reach a target group of people different from the people connected with the existing congregations. For example, new congregations may be better able to reach GenXers and people with a postmodern cultural mindset. New congregations can definitely more effectively reach people of a significantly different lifestyle or socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic group.
New congregations do not have to worry about the long-term cultural values and traditions of an established congregation. They have the opportunity to establish their own worship, fellowship, disciple-making, and decision-making patterns. They build their own leadership and management practices. They can take action faster because they have few, if any, layers of decision-making.
New congregations tend to grow both qualitatively and quantitatively. Numerical growth seems obvious. A new congregation that does not experience numerical growth won’t survive. Growth in quality has to do with what happens spiritually to the people involved in starting new congregations. Many people find that the activities in which they get involved cause them to rethink their basic faith and understanding of the Church’s character and nature. The end result for most people: Their faith strengthens, and their loyalty to a community of faith deepens.
When starting new congregations occurs not simply as an event that happens occasionally but as a movement that happens continually, it creates a driving force within a denominational organization for Kingdom growth, congregational innovation, and effectiveness. New congregations also offer the side benefit of bringing new income and leadership into the denominational family.
Why Aren’t New Congregations Started More Often?
Many times no one in a denominational organization, particularly among the staff, has a vision for starting new congregations. Sometimes this has happened because the social and cultural transformation of North American society during the past forty years has refocused denominational efforts on social justice issues or on the plight of plateaued and declining congregations.
Perhaps in the past a denominational organization started many congregations but now has gotten out of the habit. Inertia, fear of failure, lack of skills, apathy, or resistance from existing congregations may keep a denominational organization from starting new congregations.
Finances pose an issue with some denominations. They see the starting of new congregations as costing them a lot of money. Denominational finances have suffered, and new congregations have been cut out of the budget.
Some denominations have started congregations in an outmoded manner (this also relates to finances). They primarily used a franchise approach that involved buying land, building a first-unit building, employing a pastor, and then launching the congregation. This is the way to start a fast-food restaurant, but not the way to start a congregation.
Few pastors coming out of seminary express that they feel called to start new congregations and to willingly take the risks associated with this type of entrepreneurial venture. Too few seminaries have a ministry preparation track focused on starting new congregations.
Some Anglo-American-dominated denominations see starting new congregations as something primarily done among non-Anglo or non-English-language groups. As a result, they miss great opportunities to make Kingdom progress in many communities. Also, they may be found guilty of carrying out a new congregation strategy laced with prejudice, because they feel they can put a little bit of money into new non-Anglo, non-English congregations as compared to the money they put into new Anglo congregations.
How Should Denominations Be Involved?
Denominational organizations must take a lead role in starting new congregations. This holds true even if the correct polity or discipline within a given denomination calls for existing congregations rather than the denomination to actually sponsor new congregations.
Denominational organizations can create a climate for new congregations. Both mainline and evangelical denominations must work to help clergy and laity understand the value of a strategy for starting new congregations.
Strategic frameworks for starting new congregations need to be developed. Strategic frameworks discuss the type, number, and general location of potential new congregations. Specific strategies for each new congregation need to be developed when a spiritual movement for starting the new congregation begins to emerge. New congregations will do better when actually born out of spiritual vision and values, rather than out of task-oriented plans.
Goal setting is one of the roles of denominational organizations. Existing congregations need goals to challenge them.
Lyle Schaller has said for years that the goal for starting new congregations within established denominations should equal at least 3 to 4 percent of the total number of congregations affiliated with that denomination. Three percent provides an acceptable goal if the denomination wants to avoid long-term membership decline. Four percent presents a challenge goal for denominations that want to see steady growth in membership.
Denominational organizations need to raise significant amounts of money to support the starting of new congregations. Revenue coming to the denomination through its normal funding streams will not likely be enough to handle the large amount of money that starting enough new congregations will demand. Also, denominations will need to partner with multiple sponsoring congregations to start many of the new congregations needed for the future.
The core groups that start new congregations will need training to help them understand the process of starting a new congregation, what they can expect, and the affirmations and challenges that will characterize that process.
Denominations can discover men and women who, as pastors and staff ministers, will lead these new congregations. Discovering pastors for new congregations who have the right mix of spiritual gifts and ministry skills is tough and risky. Probably no other part of the launching process emerges as more important.