Do NOT Plant a Church, Unless…

By Ken Howard


This is gonna be a short one. And many of my fellow church-planting colleagues may not like it.

But if a young clergyperson with aspirations of becoming a church planter came to me today and asked my advice about how to go about it, this would be my advice:


Why? Because the picture they have in their head about what a church looks like is some variation of the typical church model that Christian clergy and their congregants have been carrying around in our collective consciousness for more than hundreds, if not thousands of years.

It probably looks something like this…

A dedicated church building. On a dedicated church lot. With a dedicated clergyperson. And dedicated members.

Somebody recently asked me if we would still see churches like this in the future. My response was, “Only if it were stuffed and mounted and displayed in a museum of church archeology.”

Because this model of church is dead. Walking dead. But still dead. It is unsustainable. Because the way the trends are heading, there will simply not be sufficient numbers of Christians per worship center to keep it afloat, either financially or communally.


What will be the new model?

I can’t answer that question with any certainty. However, I suspect it will not only look different on the outside but be different on the inside, with a different, more missional theology of what it means to be church in the context of the larger community. A model more like the Celtic Christian monasteries of the British Isles in the latter half of the first millennium C.E., modeled on the Christian communities of Gaul that flourished earlier under Bishop Martin of Tours. The undergirding ecclesiology of these early Christian communities was that to truly love their neighbors they need to form a sort of symbiotic relationship between themselves, their surrounding neighborhoods, and God. By doing so they were central to the communities in which they were planted. Not so much as the center OF the community, but rather as a center FOR the community and WITH the community. They were in authentic and equal partnership with their neighborhoods.


How might this principal inform a new paradigm of Church?

It’s too early to say for sure. We will likely move through a period of rapid trial-and-error experimentation before the new paradigm emerges and takes a more concrete and enduring form.

And there are a few communities that are beginning to do just that. The approaches they are experimenting include:


Multi-Faith Worship Centers

The Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha, Nebraska is one example of this approach.

Leadership from three institutions, Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture (now the American Muslim Institute), came together to form a partnership between representatives of the three Abrahamic faith traditions. All three partners were looking to build new houses of worship in West Omaha. All have a commitment to interfaith relations and cooperation. The initiative reflects their shared belief that they are being led by our God to continue the journey started by Abraham are all called to be a blessing to each other and our community.

While they are limiting the formal partnership and onsite structures to the three Abrahamic faiths, they invite and encourage people of all religions to visit and interact on the Tri-Faith Commons, and engage in Tri-Faith-sponsored programs. They only ask that visitors abide by their Memorandum of Understanding, which states there will be no proselytizing on the campus; all people – and all belief – are to be treated with respect. They hope for their commons to be a place where people can feel comfortable and safe sharing their personal faith journey with others and bring a respectful curiosity about the other traditions.

The Tri-Faith Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, governed by a local board of directors consisting of representatives from each faith partner and seven additional community representatives. The board is comprised entirely of Omaha area leaders with long track records of participation in other community activities. 99% of all funds raised for the Tri-Faith Initiative have come from Omaha community members and local philanthropic foundations.


Partnerships between Churches and Institutions

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church is experimenting with this approach in its partnership with the Texas Medical Center.
People come from all over the United States to receive care at the Texas Medical Center, located directly across the street from Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. The people of Palmer wanted to be a home away from home for out-of-town medical guests. So they entered into a partnership with the Medical Center, inviting medical guests into their worship and walking with them through the weeks or months that they spend there.


Church-Community Partnerships

Christ Lutheran Church’s “Graceful Growing Together Center” in Bethesda, Maryland is one of the most ambitious, innovative, and data-grounded examples of this approach that I have seen.
After nearly a decade of studying the needs of the neighborhoods surrounding their church and discerning how God was calling them to change themselves to engage the community around them, Christ Lutheran decided to tear down the present church building and create a seven-story, 64,000-square-foot center that would include a new worship center for the church, space for child care, offices for nonprofit organizations, a commercial kitchen and multi-purpose space expected to contain a basketball court. The building is estimated to cost around $25 million which will come from a public/private partnership with a faith-based nonprofit organization established by the congregation.

Moving the project forward has not been easy for the church and its nonprofit Graceful Growing Together, Inc., which is managing the project. The church partnered with a Virginia-based developer in 2006. In the meantime, they have had to overcome objections from immediate neighbors worrying about density and building height. They also have had to negotiate the notoriously byzantine land use regulations of Montgomery County. They have both cleared and stumbled on various hurdles, and have had to adjust their plans several times. But they remain determined to carry out their vision.

Will any of these examples be the new model of church in the near future? Hard to say.

But one thing I can say is that they exemplify the spirit of exploring new frontiers and experimenting with new ways of being in community that is necessary to begin the journey to what is coming.

Does your church have a story of faithful, vision-driven innovation? Send us your story and we will feature it the the Faith (eXperimental) blog.