I first heard about Mission Alive as it was beginning to form in 2004 and 2005 when helping plant the first church. My wife and I were blessed to have breakfast with Gailyn Van Rheenen and his wife, Becky, at a restaurant in Memphis. Little did I know then how much I didn’t know about church planting in North America or the way that my life would be involved with Mission Alive and even church planting.
For most of my years serving as a vocational minister, I have worked with established congregations in the role of the preaching minister/pastor. However, between serving with churches, I helped a friend who was planting a church in the Denver Metro area. That was in 2010. Now 2022 is almost here and I am working with a young minister who, after having completed a ministry apprenticeship with the Newark Church of Christ, is attending seminary and seeking to plant a church in southeastern New Jersey. In twelve years since then and now, I’ve learned a little more, my theological awareness and leadership abilities are more developed, which hopefully makes me a better mentor and coach.
I share all this in response to a picture of a tweet from David E. Fitch quoting from Alan Kreider about the transformative life of the early church, which you can see in the picture. The quote comes from Kreider’s book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, 2016 and is found on page 73. If you’ve not read this book, I highly recommend you do so. Fitch, in his tweet, categorized this quote as “CHURCH PLANTING 101” and rightfully so but ten years ago I would not have understood why this is such important wisdom for those planting new churches, campus missions, etc.
Frankly speaking as a critique of my younger self, I didn’t have the imagination for any kind of church planting beyond the Field of Dreams model. That is, my understanding was that when planting a church, developing a seeker-friendly worship gathering would begin to draw in enough people that the new church could become self-sustaining within a few years. So without dumbing down Christian doctrine or compromising the gospel, I thought that engaging worship and preaching would yield to a thriving church and thought so because that approach has worked in the past. However, I don’t have the time to explain every reason but I now believe this was a rather myopic vision of church planting.
The cultural landscape of North America is so rapidly changing. It’s nearly twenty-two years since Eddie Gibbs pointed out how the church growth movement had yet to reverse the decline we see taking place among Christianity (Church Next, p. 18). Yet the downward trend of Christianity in North America continues. Although the reasons for such decline vary, one implication is the challenge of launching new churches and campus missions who mission is to reach communities of people who don’t “go to church” and don’t have any reason to do so. In many of these communities, there are challenging issues that need to be addressed if people are to hear the gospel as good news rather than just more noise to tune out.
My point is that while some new churches or campus ministries may still experience significant numerical growth over a short period of time, I anticipate that growth for most new communities of disciples will happen slowly. So to expect a new church to be completely self-sustaining and able to fully financially support any ministry staff within a couple of years is likely unrealistic. Both established churches as a collective body and individual Christians should be prepared to help support the planters for more than just a few years but those planting may also need to consider bi-vocational as an option.
The implication I am describing will require patience on both the part of the planters as well as the churches who send and support the planters. Besides, if we are going to do the mission work of planting churches and campus ministries that have a lasting impact, then the focus needs to shift from numerical growth to maturative growth. That is a focus on making disciples and cultivating communities whose theological praxes reflect their formation in the way of Christ. Kreider describes the early church as having a “theology of patience” which understood that when their habits were healthy, their churches would grow (p. 74). Launching new churches and campus missions in North America will require a theology of patience of us too.
I wish that I would have had the theological imagination to understand this back in 2005 and 2010. I didn’t and though I can’t change the past, I can gladly see new possibilities for the future. As I do, my hope is that I might help us all expand our imaginations for the challenges we face today.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.