Early in their lives, some children and some young churches get labeled as failures. Once so labeled, there is almost no chance of their fulfilling the dreams that once surrounded them. In the world of new churches, once we label them as failed, we may quickly pull all resources and close a project, effectively saying to the people gathered, "Thank you for your time. Don't call us we'll call you. Here is a list of other xyz churches in your county. Have a nice life." Many of these folks were taking intentional personal risk to trust anything related to organized religion. By our actions, we are then insuring that they will never go near any church again in their lives.
Sometimes a new church fails to gain traction because the planter-leader is not the right person for that place, for that people, in that moment. Fair enough. Sometimes it is because a person who could have led more effectively was not properly trained, coached or mentored. Occasionally a new thing fails because others within the denominational tribe sabotage it, most often the pastors of nearby churches or even the sponsoring/parent church. But in almost every case, in America at least, when a new church is labeled as failed, there is money involved!! In fact, when there is not big money at stake, we are usually more than happy to let small faith communities continue to grow at a pace appropriate to their mission context.
The other day, I sat around a table with Thomas Kemper of The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, where he spoke of the enormous efforts within a worldwide mission organization to establish more sustainable models for mission, that create less long-term dependency on sponsors beyond the local context. With ministries to very poor persons, long-term partnership may be appropriate. But it is also dangerous to create dependency on others. There is something profoundly humanizing about being able to take care of oneself and to experience a sense of basic self-sufficiency at multiple levels. This is true of individual human beings and also true of faith communities. When a church grows slowly and we resource it with expensive leadership models, the bills stack up, and with the bills, donor fatigue!
Epicenter Group is currently working with more than forty new church starts. Some of them are exploding with people. Some of the best of them are not exploding, at least not yet! Almost all of them are growing. We work with one young faith community on the East Coast that is running behind its benchmarks in growth, but which has received two-dozen adults on profession of faith in the last six months. That fledgling church leads all churches in their judicatory region in this aspect of gospel fruitfulness. And yet, their pastor feels anxiety about the denomination possibly choosing to close them because they only have around 50 worshippers a week. Their operation is not financially sustainable at the rate that we pay fulltime clergy in most of our denominations. Fortunately, there is stellar communication between all parties as we figure out a right way forward there. Another new church on the west coast is taking root in a highly secularized city, creating a movement of passionate spirituality and community service. They gather about 65 folks when they worship - impressive for their context and yet not yet sustainable. Yet another church in a Midwestern rustbelt city ministering to an eclectic array of persons who feel rejected or uncomfortable in most churches - also with about 65 in worship, reaching new families each year - and transforming individual lives as well as creating a fresh witness for justice and community in their city. The latter church is growing stronger this year, and has a good shot at finding long-term sustainability.
In each case, these young churches will soon run out of denominational funding, and they are at about forty percent of the minimum congregational size needed in order to survive financially using our most current American economic models for church development. Whatever happens in each case, we need to celebrate them for their success and the ministry miracles that are happening in each! They are creating the twenty-first century church! Each is remarkably different, but also distinctively different and healthier than most American congregations. In some cases, we just need to offer some additional resourcing to help them grow to financial viability on a conventional model with a full-time ordained pastor. In some cases, we may need to discover a different leadership strategy or to connect these churches to other ministries that can anchor them.
Whatever we do, we must not measure these twenty-first century churches by the standards of success with homogeneous new church plants in the last days of Christendom in 1980s Atlanta suburbs. Let's help them find pathways to sustainability, so that they can finish the work they started, and build something that is replicable and multipliable. Let's be sure first that they are receiving good coaching, assess if their leader is suited for the challenge, look for alternative ways forward that are less cash-intensive, and sometimes help them rethink strategy - but let's avoid "pulling the plug" too quickly, simply because a project is hard and it started with too expensive an operational budget.