Recently I spoke in front of a large class of undergraduate students and asked, “How many of you have ever been a part of a church plant?” A few students raised their hands. I responded with a probably over-dramatized but inquisitive look as I probed further. “Hm-m. Well . . . how many of you have ever been a part of a local church?” They all raised their hands, and a few light bulbs turned on as I repeated my first question, “OK . . . so how many of you have ever been a part of a church plant?” This time around, almost all of the students raised their hands. At least some probably thought it was a silly line of questioning, but they got the point. In that moment, these 18 to 22 year-olds realized the simple truth that they already really knew: every church in existence today started out as a church plant.
What’s the significance of remembering that your church began originally as a church plant? Many people like to hold on to traditions in a church setting. In fact, that is the norm for most of us. We like to live in our comfort zones, sit in the same places, talk to the same people and participate in the same sacred rituals — even among traditionally non-traditional Quakers. Maybe that’s the point. Among Friends, we pride ourselves in our non-sacramental and non-creedal ways, and yet we hold as firmly as anyone else to what we think of as our distinctives, convictions and practices that contribute to our self-identity and reputation. Typically, we cling to the traditions that we grew up with: the norms, social practices, ways of conducting corporate worship, appropriate church business methods and a host of other religious priorities and activities — from how we collect (or do not collect) an offering to serving the right kind of coffee (Is it really fair-trade? How do you know? What if it doesn’t taste as good?). However, as many of my pastor friends have confessed, there are times when those traditions serve to slowly kill a congregation. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should jettison the past.
We may need to embrace our heritage even more! As a historian, I contend that the problem for many Friends is not that we embrace history, but that we don’t hold onto it in as tightly or in as informed of a way as we should. If we would take an honest look at how our actual meetings began, remembering the reason why people took the steps and made the sacrifices in the first place, it might just serve as a new kind of motivation to do it again. I would contend that very few Friends churches that persisted began with a self-serving intent. If in fact they did, they probably shifted their focus very soon or they died. Even if a new birth came as the result of an “unwanted ecclesiastical pregnancy” (a church division of some kind), for a new church to survive it takes sacrifice, time, money, energy, prayer, dedication and a lot of hard work. Like a marriage, it is not something to enter into flippantly or unadvisedly. A gathering of believers is a visible testimony to the idea that God did not intend for his children to live alone and in isolation.
The full story provides motivation for the future. When people in an existing church can learn and remember the whole story — that someone(s) probably gave sacrificially, prayed fervently and worked diligently to start their congregation — that provides great encouragement and impetus. It involves getting past the lesser traditions to the deepest kind of heritage, the heartbeat of getting outside of yourself for the sake of others. What a wonderful legacy to own and share! In some ways, it’s a matter of stewardship of the vision and faithfulness to pass on the calling of the founders to every new congregation. This is the best kind of tradition to maintain, and it’s close to the heart of God to reach those who don’t have a relationship with him yet.
Remembering the origins of your church gives hope in another crucial way. In simple terms, if someone had the vision and then followed through to start your church, there is reason to believe that your congregation could turn around and give birth to another new church in the future, regardless of the age, size or context of your congregation. Before you dismiss this notion too quickly, remember that Sarah once laughed pretty hard when told that she would give birth to a child even though she had been ordering off of the senior menu for many years. In response, God made clear his position on the topic by asking rhetorically, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18: 12-14) Friends need to be reminded of God-honoring questions like that today. If God was able to help launch your church, despite the obstacles, why do you think that he wouldn’t enable and equip you to start new churches to reach others that he loves?
But isn’t this a bad time to even think about starting new churches?! I have talked with many Friends pastors and denominational leaders across the country in the past couple of years and have observed that there are many things that feel distracting at best and discouraging if not debilitating at worst. Numerous pressures serve to paralyze and fears freeze us from taking action. Churches grapple with very real conflicts, pastoral and leadership changes, financial difficulties, theological/lifestyle issue debates and politicized divisions to name a few. It’s in these times that there can be a tendency to pull back, hold our collective breath and simply try to survive or weather the perceived storm. But, is that really the life that God has called us to live?
This is a hopeful time to move forward! Rather than hiding or devolving into self-absorption and irrelevance, we need to remind ourselves of our central calling and purpose. God once established Friends, including your church, to make a difference in this world for him. Rather than take a defensive “back on our heels” posture or maintenance mentality, this is the time to continue to move forward with a “gates of hell shall not prevail against it” passion. This may be the exact right moment in the ongoing history of Friends to give sacrificially, pray fervently and work diligently to start more new churches for God’s glory and the good of others.
Can you imagine what would happen if God poured out his Spirit in such a way that we experienced a Friends church multiplication movement? Although God hasn’t called Friends to win the whole world to Christ by ourselves, he has entrusted to us a portion of this unfinished task. For many months, a number of leaders have been talking, praying and considering how to help Friends do our part to fulfill the Great Commission, cultivating a renewed passion for evangelism and church planting. Exciting flickers of this fire exist among Friends, around the country and globe, but it is time to begin to bring these sparks together. Plans are well underway to do just that.
A National Friends Church Multiplication Conference is coming. Evangelically-minded Friends from around the country will gather on the campus of Barclay College, May 8-10, 2013, for encouragement, inspiration, information, dreaming and synergistic fellowship. The main speaker is Bruce Redmond, the Director of Church Planting for the Evangelical Free Church of America, Southeast District. Recognizing that it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people, a number of different methods and approaches will be discussed in a variety of “best practice” workshops and general sessions. Conference organizers anticipate attracting younger as well as older participants. Both undergraduate credit (through Barclay College) and graduate credit (through George Fox Evangelical Seminary and the Friends Center at Azusa Pacific University) are available.
It’s best thought of as a catalyst, not the conclusion. Of course, the real goal of the NFCMC is not simply to have a great conference. It will be an inspiring, informative and encouraging time, but the ultimate objective is to help launch new churches and rekindle a church multiplication movement among evangelically-minded Friends across the country. In many ways, this event is not the finish line of the synergistic undertaking; it is the starting line. Other gatherings are anticipated for the future.
How can someone register for the conference or find out more information? If you have a heart for church planting or want to learn more about it, this first National Friends Church Multiplication Conference is for you. The web page as well as the online registration form can be found at the Barclay College website.
As for my undergraduate friends, it is easy for Christ-followers of any age to forget that every single church was once started by someone (and usually by a number of people), an undertaking involving risks, sacrifices, joys, costs, gains, heartaches and triumphs. May God help us to recapture the hope and faith of our founders, rekindling a passion for others as we build bridges of new churches. May we stay in step with his Spirit as we look to the future, joining him in what he is doing (and desires to do) among us.
Jim Le Shana is the Vice President of Academics and the Director of the Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership program at Barclay College in Haviland, Kansas.