By Ircel Harrison
On any given Sunday, there are more people outside the walls of the churches than within, and few of these will be in Christian worship at any other time during the week. Some leaders see starting new churches — new communities of faith or worshipping units — as one way to address this situation.
Church consultant Eddie Hammett pointed out in a recent Facebook posting that although he is an advocate of starting new churches, he is “increasingly concerned about the amount of money denominations are putting into the effort that is not bearing fruitful results in reaching a new generation.” He goes on to ask if there are other options that might be “a better stewardship of our time, energy and money.”
North Carolina pastor Jack Glasgow responded with this comment: “I believe our efforts will not be fruitful focused on clergy to be church starters. We need to focus on a core group of laypersons who want to create, or have created, a spiritual community and invest in them. When they are ready, they will call clergy leaders to service. Across the board, we must shift our emphasis from clergy to laity in denominational work if we want to have relevance in what God is doing.”
This is a novel approach for today, although it certainly has valid biblical and historical roots. Modern church-planting movements tend to focus on finding, placing and equipping gifted individuals who can start a new church. We can identify many examples, however, of faith communities created by the work of lay leaders. While I am not ready to give up on committed church planters, Glasgow’s idea merits some thought.
What steps would the pastor of an established congregation take to implement a lay-led church start strategy?
First, the minister must regularly and forcefully present the challenge to laity to accept the responsibility to start new faith communities. You can call them faith communities, cell groups, house churches or new church starts, but the idea is that a committed group of lay people can do this without clergy leadership on site.
One approach would be to ask church members to think about their own experience and where such a new faith community might be needed. This may be a geographic area like a neighborhood or an apartment complex.
Perhaps someone will have a calling to reach out to a particular people group — an ethnic group, for example. Church members may be aware of the need to work within a particular institutional setting — a college or university, a military base or a health facility — in a creative and transformative way.
The call may be some mix of the above; for example, developing a worshipping community of international students in a local university.
Second, the minister must find and present examples of where this has happened. This might be hard to do initially, but there are groups of lay people who have done this successfully. Give them the opportunity to tell their stories in person, by video conferencing or by recording.
Third, pray regularly in worship services and other meetings that God will place this burden on the hearts of persons to lead such an effort. The call to this challenging work may be articulated by pastoral leadership, but the empowering to undertake the task comes from the work of the spirit of God in the hearts of individuals.
Fourth, ministers in established congregations can provide the training that is necessary for a core group to grow spiritually and in ministry skills as they undertake this task. The first step is for the core group to develop the spiritual and relational rapport in which gifts can be affirmed and encouraged. Only then will the strategy to begin the work emerge.
In all of this, the incubator church should invest very little funding so that the core group will not become dependent on outside finances. The initial stages will require a commitment of time by church leaders to encourage and equip the group, but actual funding should come from those who are called to do the new start.
One of my seminary professors repeatedly said that an indigenous church can be started with 10 tithing family units. With some creativity, a new faith community should be able to prosper with that kind of funding.
Although the cliché is over used, we do need to “think outside the box” when it comes to reaching unchurched people. Tom Ehrich recently commented: “Mainline churches have missed two consecutive generations of young adults — because they never came, they never found a reason to attend Sunday worship. If something else had been offered, who knows? But as it is, churches have remained remarkably stubborn about ‘putting all their eggs’ in the one basket of Sunday worship.”
Calling out a group of committed lay people who are not bound by tradition, location or time impediments might be one way to address this concern. “Church” does not have to happen in a brick edifice on Sunday mornings at 11 o’clock with a musical team and an ordained minister.
The Christian faith grew as individuals were “called out” (ekklesia) to become part of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps it can be so today.