Lisburn needs a new church like it needs a hole in the head!
I remember this expression (or one very like it) in an animated conversation around our dinner table a few years ago. It was spoken by a guest in our house and I am not going to mention the particular church project that was being discussed (though it seems to be doing well!).
It’s an interesting comment and I imagine that it might find echoes in more places than Lisburn (someone told me last year that Ballymena had almost 50 evangelical churches). There are certainly plenty of new churches popping up on the spiritual landscape. Some of them seem to be pretty much independent (though no doubt many of their leaders have some church model they look to), others are part of fairly new movements or families of churches, and there are even some radical ventures on the part of established denominations.
Do we really need all these new churches? Would it not be better to get stuck into working with the many established churches that have already been around for a while? Are new churches not just reinventing the wheel, albeit a more flashy wheel than the old-style wheels? And are the new churches not just magnets for malcontents in established churches?
I have pastored both an established church and a new church (it served a particular niche as an international church).
Here are a few thoughts and suggestions that might help both sides of the discussion:
- If you lead an established church, you need to accept that newer (and perhaps younger) churches may be better equipped to reach a rapidly changing and increasingly secularised society. If you are honest, you have to admit that the routines of an established church may become ruts. Vibrancy may be lost under encrusted layers of tradition. Part of your task is to ensure that that does not happen – Semper reformanda. And while Jesus was not critiquing sound, but slumbering evangelical churches when he spoke about patching garments and about what happens when you put new wine in old wineskins, there has to be some point of application that fits 2014. So when a new church arrives on your doorstep, don’t assume the worst!
- I wonder if part of the ongoing renewal of established churches might come through being intentional about church planting. Church planting may be one of the best ways to evangelise. The church planters who are sent out will be motivated to see their new church grow and those who are left will have room and incentive to see the empty pews filled up again.
- Intentional church planting on the part of an established church is much to be preferred to a painful split.
- If you lead a new church (or you are planning to start one), please be respectful of the established churches nearby. It would be great if more church planters followed the example of Paul who wanted to preach in places where Christ was not known, but Northern Ireland is a small place and it might be challenging to find totally new ground where nothing has ever been done. Challenging – and possibly unfashionable – but probably not impossible. However if you are in an area where there are already people who have been maintaining a gospel witness for decades (and their ancestors for centuries before that again), please respect them, even if you think their style is outdated or their views are too narrow. Please don’t blow into town as if this was the first time in 2000 years that anyone had ever announced the gospel in your area.
- Figure out what you are going to do about transfers. You will probably have them. Christians who are not happy where they are (and perhaps they have decent reasons) and who are thrilled that you have come to provide them the spiritual care and nurture that they have been starved of (as well as livelier music and the fact that they don’t have to wear a suit and tie). Some of them may have been hurt where they were before and they will need time to heal and grow stronger. Should you take some steps to make sure that they have left their previous church well, where possible? But be careful that you don’t allow your agenda to be set by disaffected Christians. At the end of the day you need people who will get involved in your mission and vision.
- Have a clear vision. It will help keep you on track and it will help you handle the people who come to you hoping that that you will be able to implement their vision!
- If you are in a new church, remember that in a generation or so, you will be the established church. How will you build renewal into your church?
- It would be great if leaders of both could talk to each other. Get to know each other, pray for each other and ask for prayer from each other. You may not be able to condone everything that the other guy does in his church (and it would be naive and unhelpful to play down all the differences as differences of style: some differences are more serious), but find ways of affirming, where possible. Build decent relationships and you might open possibilities of mentoring. Who knows, everyone might learn from each other and everyone might be better off overall!
What do you think? Are there too many new churches? Could new churches and more established churches who actually agree on gospel fundamentals do a better job of relating to each other?
PS – If you think there are already enough churches and there aren’t going to be enough Christians to go around if people start new ones, may I suggest that you revisit the issue of mission.