As I noted in my last post, Christianity took first century Europe, Asia Minor, and Palestine by storm. That is not the way I would describe the impact of Christianity on twenty-first century America. The Christian community has now been around for two thousand years, and its testimony hasn’t always been upright and noble. It has failed to emulate the character of its Lord, and familiarity with the history of the church has bred contempt for its message in many quarters.
The teachings of Jesus are still true and life-transforming, however, even if those who purport to follow Him have not always been faithful and consistent. The message of hope and forgiveness and a new kind of life made possible by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is still the best news the world could hear, even if the messengers have not always borne it with grace and dignity. And yet the fact remains that, as long as Christians need to relate redemptively to a culture that may be apathetic or even hostile, there will be a need for churches where they can be equipped and encouraged, find healing and strength, share burdens, regain perspective, and renew their hope.
Two thousand years of sometimes-sordid history impose a heavy burden on the church at large. Some believe that burden will ultimately prove fatal for the church as an institution. I don’t know about that, but I do think that the planting of new churches is the best way to combat the deadly grip of “institutionalization” to which almost every local church eventually succumbs.
Yes, almost every one. Eventually. Just consider the familiar pattern.
A new church often begins its life full of exuberance and hope. It is energized by the prospect and potential ahead. Ideally, the church recognizes its role as the agent of the kingdom of God, and it is creative and enthusiastic in carrying out that role. It is unafraid to try new approaches or to undertake new ministries.
Individual preferences are less important than the shared goal of establishing and growing an outpost for the kingdom. The church makes an impact on its community, and people take notice. Even some who had been skeptical of organized religion have to admit that this new church is focused on the things that really matter. It is a loving, accepting, serving, worshiping community that works together for the glory of God.
Over the years, however, things change. The excitement of the early days wears off. Growth plateaus and then starts to decline, but not before the church erects a fine building, implements a complex program of activities, and becomes well-established in the community. Within a few generations, the church finds that it spends more time and energy and money on maintaining the building and operating its programs than on meaningful kingdom ministry.
Factions and cliques develop, and eventually some issue arises that provokes a split within the membership. The disaffected element moves out to form a church of its own, but the new church lacks the excitement and enthusiasm of the original church in its infancy, since church splits often exhibit a dynamic considerably different than intentional church plants.
When a church devotes more energy and resources to keeping its organization alive than on realizing its kingdom vision, it has institutionalized. Churches which have institutionalized are more like fortresses than kingdom outposts. Since they are often declining in membership, they devote inordinate attention to raising money to maintain their facilities and pay their staff. Internal differences and divisions leave the church suspicious of innovation and creativity. An atmosphere of self-preservation verging on paranoia develops. In short, the church has ceased to function as the agent of kingdom of God.
That’s why new churches are always needed. Established churches, just like the humans who established them, have definite lifespans. Unfortunately ecclesiastical institutions, unlike humans, can continue to exist far beyond their natural lifespans, consuming resources vastly disproportionate to their size and effectiveness.
The planting of new churches is indeed the Christian community’s growing or cutting edge. Newly-planted churches can approach their ministries with a freshness uncharacteristic of established churches and without the obstacles and impediments that often strangle churches that have been around for decades and stifle their creative and visionary energies. Proportionally, new churches are far more effective in relating to the community around them than those that have existed a generation or more.