a fun movement

While I was in theological school, I studied the history of church growth and evangelism within the General Church of the New Jerusalem. I found that there had been several periods in which major evangelistic efforts had been made, with varying—but at best minor—success. Naturally, I found this disheartening, and began to question whether the current rise in interest in New Church evangelism that I was sensing within the General Church would fair any better.

One thing became clear to me: in past evangelistic periods, it was generally a few clergy members that carried the bulk of the weight. There was very little evidence that evangelism had become a mainstream activity of the laity, beyond a few enthusiastic individuals. I immediately realized that outreach would have to become an interest of a much larger percentage of the laity before the church would ever grow beyond just a few of the few.

I later also realized something else: our culture distinctively limits who will feel welcome joining our communities. We in the General Church of the New Jerusalem have somehow developed a culture that is primarily focused on hypereducated white middle and upper class Americans. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this demographic finding and joining the church. But what about the rest of the world? Or the country, even?

Yes, we have societies (congregations) in other parts of the world, and made up of other types of people, but the predominate culture of our membership—and so of our decision-making bodies—is pretty unicultural. When the church first took root in west Africa, the first pastor we trained here and sent over there struggled as he tried to implement a style of worship modeled after what was standard in the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. (Which, by the way, is essentially high Anglican with a lot of distinctively thought out yet sometimes arbitrary twists that make reference to various New Church teachings about representatives and correspondences.) Only after more distinctly Ghanaian forms of worship were instituted did things really take off, there.

We have congregations, and groups within congregations, that have worked hard to establish cultural alternatives to the “mainstream” General Church way of doing things, but such cultures (e.g., the Jesus-movement style folk worship from the Laurel camps, the Christian praise-based approach in Boulder, the laid-back emergent conversation style of Bryn Athyn’s “Sunday Night Thing”) are still viewed as “alternative” within the overall body of the church membership. Now, the international church (a convenient provincial way of saying “everyone outside the United States”) is a source of cultural diversity, at least in the non-European nations, but I’m not satisfied.

How many cultures are there? On Earth? Or even just in the United States? Every time our church (like any organization, really) successfully crosses a cultural boundary, it is the result of great effort and/or a highly unusual individual missionary or bridge-builder. And so we have crossed very, very few boundaries. And sometimes, rather than resulting in a new cultural expression of the church, we have instead culturally colonized a group, requiring them to adopt our funny ways in order to belong.

Why does this happen? A big part of it, I think, is that people have a hard time separating tradition from doctrine, and so culture from church. I think, also, the particular culture—the times and people—in which the General Church got its start was naturally inclined toward a certain mechanistic absolutism when it came to interpreting the world around them, and this included how they read the Writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. They saw that the Writings gave concrete explanations of what every character, place and object in the Bible really meant, but missed that the Writings say such meanings are context sensitive and fluid. They set out to “solve” such issues as worship/liturgics, church structure/government, homiletics, church architecture, etc., and somehow missed all the teachings about the beauty of variety. Founders like Benade and Pendleton spoke dogmatically in terms of “the one right way”, but missed the implications throughout the Arcana (a.k.a. Secrets of Heaven) that a single spiritual internal truth or good can be expressed in the natural world by multiple and varying external symbols, practices and people. (For instance, the Lord needed some people to be a representative Church when the Ancient Church fell, but it did not necessarily have to have been the Israelites. He could just as easily have worked with some other people, which would have produced a different style of worship, a different culture, and a different Old Testament; and yet the internal meaning of that Church and of the Sacred Scriptures it would have produced would have been the same as what He actually produced through the Hebrew people.) So we have inherited a worldview that sees the Word as a body of law, to be parsed and interpreted and logic-puzzled out the way American lawyers are trained to split hairs with the overlapping convolutions of federal, state and local legal codes. And so we have an unconscious inclination to believe that there is a “right” culture for the church.

And yet, a lot of our culture—like the Hebrew cultural oddities of the Israelites—is just that: culture. What’s up, for instance, with those weird little red yarn balls we give out to children? And with having an interlude break up every service so by the time the minister starts preaching half the congregation (the ADD half, of course) can’t remember what he read from the Word? And with all the nineteenth century upper class drinking songs? I’m not saying these things are bad, just that they are not church. They are culture.

And culture, like clothing, like economic policy, and like styles of ritualistic worship, can (and must!) change to suit the circumstances of time, place and people.

Wow. So what question am I answering? Ah, yes: why do I want to start a church planting movement? The short answer: to change our culture.

I mean this in two ways. First, I believe that our existing culture has gotten stuck, comfortable, ingrown, and complacent, especially with regard to how we respond to the Great Commission. In general, it has been shown in the Christian world that the best evangelists are the people who have just joined the church. This makes sense; these are the people who are most immediately aware of the ways in which their lives are changed by the church. The same is true within the New Church; I spend a lot of time with new members, and they are hands-down over the top enthusiastic about sharing their new discovery with the world, in a way that is very rare among those who have been in the church for a long time, to say nothing of those who were born to it.

Studies have shown that the greatest amount of growth through invitation among Christian church congregations occurs in the first five to seven years of a congregation’s existence. In the beginning, everyone is new to the church, and so everyone is enthusiastic about inviting their friends and neighbors. But over time, the original members run out of non-church friends, partially because they have already invited many of them, partially because they begin to spend more and more time socializing only within the context of their church community. So a point comes some time after the fifth year in which the dead weight of socially “saturated” members is too great for the thin stream of enthusiastic newcomers to overcome, numerically, and the evangelistic enthusiasm chokes.

Now, this isn’t a totally bad thing. Churches are meant to be in the human form, and human beings (like all organisms) go through an initial growth spurt, and then settle into a mature size for a long time, before eventually shrinking a bit and then dying. I think it is perfectly normal for congregations to follow the same pattern. (Of course, different congregations may find radically different mature size plateaus, but that’s a topic for a different FAQ.) But this means that a church denomination (like the General Church) that stops launching new congregations will inevitably stagnate and stall out. So it is no wonder that the General Church’s culture is not evangelistic. If we want to change that culture, we have to start adding lots of new people, so that the attitudes of the new people surpass those of the longstanding members. And the hands-down statistically-proven most effective way of adding new people is by starting new congregations.

So the first way a church planting movement will change our culture is by changing the balance of new to old members. The second way this will change our culture is by bringing in far more diversity.

Each new cultural take on the church enriches and enlivens the existing culture(s) and the overall well-being of the church. Today, the General Church is delightfully strengthened by the participation of a handful of cultures from across the world. Just think how much better it will be with not dozens but hundreds, or even thousands of different cultural takes on what the New Church can be? Right now, the vast majority of our membership represents just a couple of closely related cultures. I don’t want to do away with those cultures, but rather add additional groups of people each with their own cultures, so that when we act as a whole, we do so under a balanced influence of many, many diverse cultures.

And when we have congregations representing hundreds or thousands of different cultures, we will have hundreds and thousands of different places that people of all sorts can plug into and feel immediately welcome and at home. And we will no longer have people worshiping alongside us who for their entire lives feel like outsiders, forced to sacrifice cultural comfort for the sake of the church. (And I have met many of those people.)

Just so I am clear, here are some cultures I would like to see represented in the church. We need churches for: the intensely high-paced single living in Manhattan, the high-school educated factory worker in Ohio, parents disparately trying to keep their kids safe from gangs and drugs while living in downtown Detroit, tattooed and environmentally conscientious young adults living in youth-magnet cities like Portland, immigrant tech workers from India working in San Francisco, children of illegal immigrants in Arizona, unemployed Arabic kids living in the suburbs of Paris, Iranian professionals living in Toronto, quiet underground home churches in China, the middle-aged salaryman in Tokyo, scientists and university professors in Pakistan, young families in Italy who ride to church on a fleet of mopeds… I could go on forever.

That is my vision for the church. And rather than ask all these people to conform to our existing cultural practices, I would like to invite them all to contribute their culture to a new, more beautiful vision of the worldwide New Church. And to do that, we’re going to need a lot of church plants.

There is another reason I want to start a church planting movement: we need to fail. A lot. Part of what has us stuck is our insistence on “winning” whenever we step up to bat. School trains us to avoid getting the wrong answer—ever. But creativity and entrepreneurship require getting lots of wrong answers in the search for what works. Church planting guru Ed Stetzer told me a little while ago that recent statistics show one in three church plants fail to survive more than a few years. An additional one third survive, but only languishingly at an unhealthy but barely sustainable plateau. And one third soar. So if we just want to start one healthy, soaring New Church congregation, we need to plant three of them right now. Plus, when we fail, we will fail forward: we will learn from our mistakes and adjust our plans and keep trying and improving. That’s how regeneration works, and that’s how entrepreneurship works, too.

I could say more, but this is long enough, so I’ll just say this one more thing. By a church planting movement I mean this: a momentum-building, culture-transforming extended period of time in which more and more people become involved in launching more and more new congregations, with each congregation deciding to launch several of its own children, all in a way that maintains a critical mass of incoming new enthusiasm, for as long as possible. To change the culture. To grow the church. To open the church up so that the people of the world feel comfortable walking in and benefiting from it.

Yeah, that’s a big vision. But the first step is actually pretty easy. But that’s a topic for another time.

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