What I am about to ask is about as controversial a question as one can ask in the Church. But because I’ve rarely heard it asked, I’ll ask: Do we need more mission congregations? For those who aren’t familiar with all this language, a mission congregation is a new church plant, an upstart. They are organized to serve gatherings of underserved Christians, or to try to make new Christians in secular areas. Church denominations frequently have goals of planting new congregations in new housing developments or suburbs where a church with their “brand” is not yet present.
Without a doubt, many areas do need church plants, so it would be quite silly to suggest that there is not an absolute need for more church plants. As the population naturally increases, some areas will have enough Christians to merit a congregation of one brand or another. But how many do we need and what church plants are legitimate, if I may be so bold to ask?
With a few exceptions, mission congregations that aren’t absolutely necessary, can easily do two things that are harmful to the body at large: they market themselves to a particular demographic, creating a competitive atmosphere in the Church; and they create overhead for new congregations, a burden when so many small congregations are struggling to survive and could benefit from partnership. Unless a congregation is one of the exceptions, mission pastors should strongly consider whether they need to be involved in a church plant.
What are the exceptions? First, if there is an area that does not have a Christian presence, clearly a congregation is needed. Much more discernment would be needed to decide if a particular brand (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. and various versions therein) is needed, or if a partnership between congregations can be worked out. Second, if an ethnic group that does not speak English (assuming an American context), it will likely need to be served by a pastor of its heritage for a generation or so. Third, if your brand has very particular theological issues at stake, and no congregation in a good distance (say, a 25 miles radius) shares them, a mission congregation may be needed. If there is no confessional or sacramental congregation in 50 miles, a mission congregation may be needed for sure.
The problems with too many mission congregations are rarely said –who wants to be opposed to mission! – but they should be. Notably, too many mission congregations inevitably create a competitive atmosphere, because they are rarely planted out of pent-up demand. Graduates from seminary want to lead a congregation, so one is organized. This can lead to a less-than-catholic view of worship and fellowship: people are marketed to by demographics and felt needs. All of a sudden, mission congregations are appealing to the very people established congregations are losing. But instead of restoring people to catholic worship and teaching, they are recruiting them to something new that may be perilous to their spiritual health, i.e. Purpose-Driven, seeker-sensitive versions of Christianity.
All of this marketed, demographic research and certainty that “we can reach who others can’t” is happening while churches are hallowing out. Leaders and people that could be engaged in already-established congregations, helping them grow or resurrect, are beginning from scratch somewhere else. And when they do, they take on overhead that the other church already has covered: a building, property insurance, utilities, hymnals, and so on. Instead of the Church coming together, it is breaking apart and competing with itself…all in the name of mission.
What fuels all of this? The easy answer is typical American methodology: bigger is better and numbers are king. We want to say we have planted so many congregations. I think we also look at the megachurch superstars - Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, et. al. - and we believe we can be the next guy to start a church as a Bible study and grow it to a powerhouse.
But what if the Church at large is contracting in the West? What if, no matter how many mission congregations we plant, the Lord is shrinking his Church, turning it into a mustard seed? Why should we resist it? What makes us think we’re so special that we must grow? Or more to the point, is God’s Kingdom always growing? That seems to be the assumption in all of this, but I know of no reason that it is necessarily true.
I guess to put some meat on the bones, if I were a bishop and a young man contacted me about starting a mission congregation, I would have to really think about it. Unless it were an ethnic situation or a totally barren community regarding the Church, my answer would probably be, “No.”
A final proposal: among like-minded (generally like-minded, but not always exactly like-minded) church bodies, it seems that congregations should share as much as they can, but create ordinariates within one congregation. For example, Rome has done this with its Personal Ordinariates, where Anglicans retain Anglican liturgy and practice, but in some cases, have reunited with the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps a variety of ordinariates can be one congregation for elements of worship, Bible study and outreach, but separate for sacramental purposes. This isn’t a perfect solution, but at least it shares the burden of overhead, saving resources. It also encourages cooperation in the Church instead of competition.