My friend Mike Paget has written a series of blog posts: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of a conversation that Church plants and Established churches need to have, of which I thought Part 3 was where he was just getting started and getting interesting. Rather than deal with the details of the three posts I thought I would interact with some of the main themes, hence this is a conversation not a critique. I should point out that I am writing from my experience as a church planter but more from my own church plant, Soma. I should point out that Mike is not against church planting and I don’t have a problem with existing churches. We both simply see a problem in how they are working together.
Obligation to Churches
One of the things that I think Mike and I are on the same page with is that there does seem to be a very loose loyalty that people feel towards churches. People feel that it is OK to change churches if “it isn’t working for them”. I agree with Mike, this has been an Achilles heel in our theology and practise. Church is not a service like a mobile phone contract to change when something better comes along.
At Soma we do have a formal membership, not for theological reasons, but for practical reasons. The reason we have this is so we know who is actually a part of our church and who is not. We formally welcome new people in (with the presentation of a t-shirt!), we say goodbye to people as we send them off.
Without looking at the numbers, about 2/3 of our people have come from other churches, the other 1/3 Soma is their first church. The reason I know this is because when someone comes across from another church I let them know I am intending to call their minister or pastor, so I am counting the number of those conversations I have had.
That conversation is interesting! Some pastors are angry at me for allowing ‘one of their people’ to come to my church (like I had a choice in that). Some are confused, thinking that the person was a committed member of their church, at which point I tell them our process is on hold until they sit down and have a chat with the person about this (that is sometimes a surprise to me because I always suggest the person changing churches have a talk first). This conversation sometimes means the person does not come across to us. Some are glad, they think the person coming across, at least one case, was dead weight (not what we found). By the end most appreciate the call. I also ask if there are any pastoral issues I need to know about, again this helps me a lot.
The thing is that of the 50 or so people we have sent, only 2 ministers have done the same for me. The point I am trying to make is we need to stop thinking that people don’t or won’t change churches and we need to have protocols for this. Again church membership is something we as ministers need to take seriously.
New Stages of Church Partnerships
Let me offer my own fable. In the old, wild west churches could plot their ground and set up their homestead like churches that offered a complete package. They had to. There was nothing else around. But as more and more people filled into the area, the homesteads became connected into towns and some people stopped farming and started general stores, bars, etc.
My point is this: parochial ministry is good, but it is not enough to reach the whole city. Of the many churches I have visited, most buildings could seat about 200-300 in a parish of around 12-15,000. In order to reach 10% of that parish, that building needs to be full at least 5 times a week. And frankly I don’t think 10% is a good number to be aiming at. I have always maintained and will again: We need lots of different churches to reach different people in our city. We need to be planting at least 12 new churches in our city a year. This means, I think, church plants and existing churches need to be working together in partnerships that may look like small towns rather than independent homesteads.
I currently have the keys to 3 church buildings on my keyring. We don’t own a building and we aren’t planning on getting one. I have three keys because we have partnerships with 3 different churches who want to work with us to make the Gospel known. We have worked out how we can help each other reach people that we could not as individual churches. This is much easier, I think for small churches to do than larger churches who don’t feel the need.
 Would we be content to know that firefighters went into a building aiming to save only 10% of the people who were in there?