The Practices of a Network: Church Planting – From Centralized Function to Collaborative Mission
One of the primary reasons for any church network to exist is to facilitate the more rapid development of church multiplication. Almost all of the new forms of church networks have this as their original goal and many of our historical denominations could attribute this kind of work to their original intention in formation. Indeed, most of those that have developed traction and momentum have kept this as their organizing goal (Acts 29, Redeemer, ARC) and even those that were once stagnant and returned to church multiplication as a collaborative goal, have experienced new life and energy (Baptist General Conference/Converge, The Christian Church).. Clearly, this focus aligns with the sentness of the church in community with one another. There is no shortage of studies to remind us that the starting of a new community of faith is the greatest evangelistic tool that the church has in its repertoire (even though the forms those new communities should take can morph over time).
In established denominational circles (again, the church “networks” of the past), church planting has been one of several departments housed in the denominational office or hierarchy. There were professionals assigned to the task of starting a new denominational branch in an area that was lacking one at the time. In general, the pattern of organizing and developing the church was similar in every circumstance. Churches within the association understood that it was the central office’s job to start new works. They may need to act as a sponsor congregation or to send a few people to help initiate the new start, but this was rarely at the initiative of the congregation.
In the network philosophy, church planting will occur as the leaders of various churches in the network collaborate with one another, both in leadership and finances, to initiate new communities of faith. The post-denominational network will equip and facilitate church-planting and church-planting partnerships between churches. While there could be avenues and possibilities of funding for church-plants coming through the centralized network, the majority of resources for church planting in the post-denominational network will be derived from church partnerships and relationships. This will lead to greater investment in the project and relationship on behalf of both the church plant and the sponsoring church. The network could provide leadership to recruiting, assessing, and training potential church planters as well as providing ongoing coaching and skill development during the planting process. Yet, the majority of this work will be accomplished by pastors and church planters within the network.
In general, this is how the Ecclesia Network has developed in relationship to church planting. Unlike many denominations, there is no centralized pot of money from which a project can draw support or a salary. Funds generally come from partner churches within the network, from funds raised by the planters themselves, from a core team, or from some form of bi-vocational work by those planting the new community. Often, all of these avenues are necessary in putting together a viable financial plan for planting.
Through Ecclesia, a number of the critical components of planting new communities are offered. Each year we sponsor our church planters training. We have always offered coaching in Ecclesia, but now coaching for church planters is becoming more organized and required if planting with Ecclesia. In many places, regional meet ups are available to connect with other ministry leaders and when they are not we are working strengthening relationships and connectedness through phone and Skype. Practitioners are the ones involved in developing and guiding all of this and we are constantly seeking to bring more recent church planters into the church multiplication work of Ecclesia because they offer a critical perspective along with those who have involved in planting work for or 10 or 20 years. In addition, because there are no one (or even two or three) models of church planting within Ecclesia, it is even more critical to show a varied approach.
Our next steps in this realm could be summed up in two phrases – more new communities of faith and better new communities of faith. I use the phrase “communities of faith” because I expect (along with several others) that the shape of new churches in the future may look less and less like “church planting” as we’ve known it in the past. Or, at least it will take longer for these new communities to look like a “church plant” that we are used to. Our increasingly post-Christian culture in many places is a primary factor in that development – calling for more and time needed to cultivate a new community in context.