Better to Plant New Churches?

This is a really intriguing article from Brian McLaren on Patheos essentially saying that seminary prepares students much better for planting new churches than it does for being placed in a stagnant existing one. It is part of a series on the future of the seminary featuring a variety of different thinkers. I have yet to read the other articles but from the titles you can see that there is a lot of different ideas represented. Here McLaren argues that seminary is not the problem – the churches are. In fact, the seminaries are often providing students exactly with what they want from their churches but aren’t getting. I would probably testify to this general statement. I’ve been a part of some good churches, but I felt like I needed more. I didn’t decide to do seminary because I wanted to be a pastor. I came because it seemed like the next step for my own growth that churches didn’t seem able or willing to provide.

McLaren lists five things that seminaries generally give that churches generally don’t:

  1. A robust intellectual environment where they can openly and energetically explore God, the Bible, doctrine, faith, liturgy, mission, church history, and the spiritual life.
  2. A diverse ecumenical environment where they can read and learn from (and with) a broad range of Christians from a variety of cultures, denominations, and perspectives.
  3. A reverent soul-friendly environment where spiritual direction, practices, and formation are taken seriously.
  4.  An engaged missional environment at the intersection of faith, contemporary global crises, and local social needs—where students are guided into experiences of practical involvement.
  5. An accepting communal environment where they can experience what Bonhoeffer called “life together.”

For me, I think it was the second one that I most wanted and have most appreciated since. Number 1 and Number 5 are particularly big ones for me, too, although I’ve probably experienced #5 best in a couple different campus groups more than I have at seminary (although that’s been good, too). Obviously I fully support 3 and 4 as well.

McLaren continues by pointing out that when most people finish seminary after this experience of everything that they wanted in church, they get placed in a church of their denomination, which usually is lacking (or exhibiting the opposite of) all these things. They get people who just want to be told the answer instead of investigating. They want to only hear from their denomination and keep out their “other” brothers and sisters elsewhere. They want a comfortable, easy form of spirituality. They want to compartmentalize their faith away from the needs of the world. They want to worship together on Sundays, say “good morning”, then leave to not talk to each other for another week. Pastors often get blamed for these attitudes in the churches, and it is definitely sometimes their fault, but a lot of the time what happens is a lively fresh-out-of-seminary pastor comes and has the soul sucked out of him/her because these are the things that the people demand. Many pastors spend years trying to create otherwise, to create like they had in seminary, and only bang their heads against the wall of comfortable religiosity. Even Jesus couldn’t transform the Temple establishment of his day, McLaren points out rightly. We’ve talked about this in our classes, and I find it somewhat disappointing when the answer is usually that you can’t push people too much so you need to just lower your expectations to the routine religiosity that they want.

McLaren suggests a challenging alternate answer: maybe seminary should be more of an “entrepreneurial boot camp” instead of a “shop management school”. In other words, maybe instead of shoving our newly trained pastors into simply managing the existing shop of a rigid existing church, we could be putting their skills and spiritual vitality to much more use by encouraging them towards starting new, vibrant communities. This would be much less of a waste of talent and would do the church much more good in the long run. As I thought about it, I tried to think of any churches in my experience that are really “alive” which are more than 30 years old, and I couldn’t come up with any. I’m not saying it is impossible, but it is definitely not the norm. Most of the passionate churches of our world are less than a generation old. As I consider the pro’s and con’s, I generally agree. Here’s some of the stuff I came up with:

Pro’s:

  • Pastors actually get to use their training.
  • Pastors don’t become jaded and lose their own passion for the faith.
  • Churches are significantly less prone to be stuck in religiosity.
  • New wine needs new wineskins. Each generation is different than its parents, and doesn’t completely fit in the old structures/theologies/liturgies/moralities. For many churches worshipping acting the same as 3 generations ago, reshaping the wineskin isn’t going to be nearly as easy as getting a new one.
  • The church will actually be allowed to evolve. In many ways the church doesn’t need to, of course, but in many ways it does, and it is usually stopped from doing so by laypeople who don’t want their comfortable little religious system to ever change.

Con’s:

  • What about the people being abandoned because they refuse to adapt? On the one hand, you could say that they didn’t really have any alive faith anyway, so settling for the dead faith they want wouldn’t help them either. On the other hand, it definitely seems like a form of abandonment. Then I would counter that again, though, when I realize that Jesus essentially “abandoned” the religious leaders of his day who refused to see a bigger picture of an alive faith, so maybe this is necessary. Regardless, I’ll leave it as a con.
  • Practical/logistical concerns. It is a lot harder to set up a church in a new building than to use an existing one. It is a lot harder to find all the necessary staff again than to use existing ones. It is a lot harder to get the support structures outside of your congregation than to be a part of a denomination. There’s a lot of extra work, and it is totally understandable that most people would prefer to just take the easy way out.
  • It would be very easy to lose that aspect of ecumenism if it begins with an attitude of having to do their own thing. I’ve seen this in non-denominational churches already, and the us and them attitude may actually be worse than a lot of the older denominational churches which at least has a larger “us” of their denomination.

What do you think? Should the church universal learn to essentially cut its losses by forming new communities when old ones are stagnating?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.