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Why Do You Want to Start a Church Planting Movement?

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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My Life’s Purpose

destiney: lifeIn a year and twenty days, I am moving to Austin, Texas. I am going to launch a church.

I have been praying, dreaming, planning, talking, thinking, and researching this move for years. This is where my life has been headed since the beginning. This is where it has been headed since my father’s death led me to rededicate myself to singlemindedly doing what is important. Since I visited Gateway Church and The Austin Stone. Since I sat in the Spider House Cafe with Dave Lindrooth and realized how drawn to the people of Austin I was. Since I visited Austin with my family and found out the answer to Dave Roth’s question. Since I wrote the first draft of my launch plan in a hotel room in San Diego. Since Dave Roth asked me over beers at the National Outreach Convention if I was ready to spend the rest of my life in Austin. Since Prescott Rogers moved to Charlotte, NC. Since Ethan McCardell began praying for and with me.

My life has been headed here ever since Ron Sylvia’s Starting New Churches on Purpose and Nelson Searcy’s Launch showed me how to launch big from crowd to core. Since Derek Elphick gave me a copy of Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change, and changed the way I think about preaching. Since Tom Kline ordained me into the priesthood of the New Church. Since I visited Saddleback Church. Since Grant Schnarr told me to not wait for someone to tell me I am a church planter but to take the initiative for myself. Since I attended the Making Disciples seminar in Boulder, CO and learned a new way to worship. Since my wife suggested Austin as a good place to plant a church. Since Bronwen Henry gave me a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church and showed me what was possible. Since I realized, sitting in a class at the ANC Theological School, that the General Church of the New Jerusalem needed to change culturally, and that the only way to do that was by adding more people. Since I learned that evangelism was a war for people’s freedom. Since Eric Carswell put an ad in the Bryn Athyn Post inviting people who had thought about joining the ministry to come talk to him. Since September 11 reset my priorities. Since reading and applying Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Built to Last. Since I helped launch a company from ten people playing with their computers in an unused bedroom to a multi-million dollar industry leader in less than ten years. Since I married an amazing woman who shares and shapes my dreams as an equal partner.

What’s more, this is where I have been headed since Jonathan Rose’s Apocalypse Revealed class showed me both that the Writings of Swedenborg are full of passion and humor, and that I loved standing in front of people and helping them connect to ideas in the Word. Since I came back in from the brief, bitter cold of Nietcsche and atheism to reembrace the faith of my childhood, but on my own terms. Since I sat in an empty cathedral on a Saturday afternoon, and heard (but then ignored, for a while) a call to Fill His Church. Since Andy Heilman taught me the connection between vector plotting and Divine Providence. Since Prescott Rogers, substitute teaching because my sixth-grade religion teacher had a heart attack, encouraged me in my pursuit of the Ancient Word. Since Gloria Wetzel put Pott’s Swedenborg Concordance in front of me.

Going back even earlier, this is where I have been headed since my father first opened a Sunday dinner with the question, “So, what was church about?” Since Kurt Asplundh preached at the 9:30 Cathedral Family Services while I silently mouthed the words he was saying, pretending I was the minister. Since my father taught me to do what you love and to love solving tricky problems for the sake of others. Since my mother taught me to be myself no matter what others said. Since they both taught me to love the Lord, to read the Word, and to be nice to my sister. Since Dan Goodenough baptized me.

Perhaps, even, since the day I was born, this is where I have been heading. Or so it seems to me.

Anyway, as you can see, I feel like I’m on sort of a mission these days. And what, exactly, is that mission? That’s an easy question to answer: to contribute to a Swedenborgian Church Planting Movement by launching a new, healthy, reproducing, useful New Christian congregation in Austin, TX, in the next eighteen months. And learning the heck out of all the mistakes I make. And sharing with others. And talking regularly with other church planters and the people who love them.

Now, a lot of people already know some piece of this dream of mine, but as we get closer, I’m getting more and more people asking questions about it. Plus, I am a big believer in broadcasting your vision and your intention as widely as possible, becuase then other people–sometimes strangers, even–are able to contribute in powerful and unexpected ways. Think of it as crowdsourcing the strategic planning process.

Anyway, I was working on my plan this morning when it occurred to me that it might be useful for me to share on my blog the high level what, why and how of my dream. I started to outline something between a proposal and a manifesto, when I realized that maybe the best way to do it was as an FAQ list. So that’s what I’m starting. This is just the preamble; each question will be handled in its own blog post, over time as I get to them. For now, here are the articles I will probably write:

  • What is the “New Church”?
  • Why do you care about the New Church?
  • What is an evangelist?
  • Why are you an evangelist?
  • Why do you want to start a church planting movement?
  • What does “The Long Tail” have to do with church planting?
  • What is a healthy congregation?
  • If every one of our congregations spends more money than it brings in through donations, wouldn’t a church planting movement just make the General Church’s financial system worse?
  • What about New Church Live?
  • How does church multiplication work?
  • Why are you launching a new congregation in Austin, TX?
  • Why Austin?
  • What is Austin like?
  • Why you?
  • Do you have a core group?
  • What is your plan for launching a new congregation in Austin?
  • What about starting a New Church school?
  • How will you pay for this?
  • Who will you be reaching out to at first?
  • What sort of music will you have?
  • Where will you meet?
  • When will you own your own building?
  • What will you do after the new congregation in Austin is established?
  • What challenges do you anticipate?
  • How can I help?

Believe it or not I have answers to all these questions. Some are not totally concrete (and can’t be answered just by myself alone). Some may surprise you. Some are pretty bold. And I’m excited to start answering them–if nothing else than as a way of ordering and testing my own thoughts. But this exercise will be much more useful to me if you help by providing feedback as I go.

But before I start in on the first answer, tell me this: are there other questions I should also be addressing?

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