Does St. John’s Really Need New Churches?
My short answer? Absolutely! Here’s why . . .
I’ve been part of many conversations about church planting here in St. John’s, NL. And especially among long-time church members, the response is fairly typical. Why do we need more churches when the churches that already exist are not nearly full?
For the record, all of my 23 years of pastoral ministry has been in established churches. An established church is, quite simply, a church that has been in existence for some time. Sam Rainer suggests a church that has been around for more than a decade should be considered an established church. The last church I pastored was over 100 years old; we might say that’s well-established.
During my years of local church ministry, I have also served in various leadership capacities in my denomination, including the governing body. What is quite clear to me is so many established churches need revitalization; established churches and denominations need renewal. Of course, this should come as little surprise. Consider the ancient, biblical church at Ephesus. The gospel came to Ephesus through the ministry of the church planting missionary, Paul, along with his friends and co-workers, Aquila and Priscilla. And we are given insight into the condition of this great church after just 4 decades of gospel ministry. In a letter, recorded in Revelation chapter 2, Jesus calls the church to renewal:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first . . . (Revelation 2:4-5)
If a church, planted and established by the Apostle Paul, can find itself in need of revitalization after just 4 decades, it should cause us to take a long, prayerful look at our churches today.
Any organization tends to lose focus over time and churches are no different. Personal experience has taught me that it takes an enormous amount of resolve and energy to keep a church on mission and without an intentional biblical strategy combined with stubborn resolve, churches inevitably turn inward.
Much continues to be written about the current state of the church in what has been described by some as a post-Christian culture. So many churches are struggling to find their prophetic voice in a culture the average established church member no longer recognizes. Culture change is happening at break-neck speed, pushing many established churches and denominations into seclusion, protectionism, in-fighting, and irrelevance. An awakening is needed; yes a powerful movement of the Spirit of God to convert many people to Christ and to renew in His church a zeal for His truth, for spiritual growth, and for missions.
Don’t Give Up on the Established Church
What happens in established churches over time is well-documented. Here are some observations born out of personal experience: (note: these are generalizations)
- Inward-focused. Ministries, budgets, service times, leadership room conversations become increasingly focused on the needs of long-time members.
- Loss of entrepreneurial spirit. Established churches tend to settle into a mode of status-quo with much effort given to trying to keep the ‘machinery’ of the church going.
- Control. In smaller established churches, there is the danger for one family to have control. In larger established churches, coalitions often form but the end goal is the same; control.
- Resistance to change. A common issue in established churches is a resistance to change. The tendency is for long-time church members to look back at a time that was considered ‘the glory days’ and measure change based upon that time.
- Spiritual Lethargy. Movements start when the founder really knows God; movements die when the people only know the founder. Or as Thom Rainer said, when the preferences of church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying.
Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. – Jaroslav Pelikan
Should we give up on established churches? By no means. Established churches have so much to offer and we need pastors who will step up to the challenge of bringing gospel renewal to established congregations. Much courage will be needed.
Why Church Planting?
Nostalgia is a powerful force that has the potential to hinder a church’s health and growth. Trevin Wax writes, “the pull of the past is a good yet dangerous thing. Its force can either serve as a slingshot, whereby we pull back into the past in order to gain the force necessary to be propelled forward on our mission. Or its force can serve as a black hole that sucks up all our energy and emotion until our present and future are swallowed up in a void of hopelessness.” I would suggest that church planting has proven to be one such bible strategy for propelling churches forward on gospel-mission. In fact, while many established churches shy away from church planting for fear of ‘losing’ members, it may be the very strategy that plants seeds of gospel renewal by challenging established churches to press into a reproducing, multiplying mindset.
Long before church-planting was in vogue like it is today, Peter Wagner shocked many when he famously said in 1987; “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.” More recently, Tim Keller writes;
The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in any city, and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow-raising statement. But to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial.
From a hillside overlooking the great city of Jerusalem, Jesus cast a compelling global vision of making disciples. The first followers of Jesus pursued this vision through the planting and establishing of local churches. It’s clear that God’s plan from the beginning included the planting of churches and the story of these churches is woven throughout much of the New Testament. In was in these new local gatherings that believers met to hear God’s word, to pray, grow and then mobilize to reach others.
New Churches for St. John’s, NL?
A gospel mobilization is needed in St. Johns and in other regions of our province. The St. John’s metro area has a population of 205,955 making it the 2nd largest metro area in Atlantic Canada. Sadly, St. John’s is also one of the least reached and forgotten cities in Canada, with just around 1% of the entire population attending an evangelical worship service on any given Sunday.
City to City points to research showing that new churches are the best way to reach new generations, new residents, and new people groups in a city with the gospel. In fact, they are up to 6 to 10 times more effective at attracting people to the gospel than older, more established churches. While we need existing churches to grow and stay faithful to gospel ministry, we need many new churches to reach the growing numbers of people in our cities who do not know Jesus.
We need new, gospel churches and churches planting other churches. We need established churches investing their resources in planting churches and we need church planters working hand in hand with established churches and pastors. And, I would suggest that the task is so great and the need so urgent that we need gospel-centered churches and denominations of all tribes, mobilizing together for our God, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1Timothy 2:4).