What to Plant?

Like most major Christian denominations in the United States, mine (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) is on the decline.  Over the last decade our denominational polity has spoken excitedly and often to tout  foreign missions rather than addressing the serious problems in domestic congregation (aging membership, declining congregational sizes, etc.).

However in the past year our denominational polity has begun to increasingly make efforts to address the domestic mission field.  However, thus far their main emphasis and goal is planting new churches.  This, we are told, is the answer to the problems of a declining LC-MS membership in the United States.  It was the key to our growth in days gone by, and it will save us in the future.  They have a pretty video to explain why this is the case, and you can watch it here.

The argument boils down to numerics.  The LC-MS remains heavily non-hispanic white (NHW), and this population demographic is shrinking in the United States.  We have an influx of people from all over the world, and these demographics have traditionally not been reached very well by LC-MS congregations.  Solution?  Plant new churches who will reach those groups.

I remember being told by mission executives while at Seminary (and repeatedly since) that it is far easier to plant a new church than revitalize or change an existing one.  Change is hard, for many reasons – not all of which are bad or evil.  It’s simpler to start with a fresh slate, set new expectations, create new paradigms that don’t have to win over the hearts and minds of existing members.  With a few years of experience under my belt (and frankly, long before that even), I understand the wisdom of this.

If expediency is your goal.

That’s what I have a problem with.  The assumption that planting new churches is the key to growth for our denomination basically is a death sentence for a majority of existing congregations.  Talk in denominational publications about looking to places where our church isn’t represented should get easier as the years pass and more and more existing congregations die off.  There are going to be lots of new places to plant churches!  But that’s a pretty brutal message.  You’re too hard to work with, and rather than take the discipling process seriously, we’re just going to start over with other people.  What if we valued planting not new congregations but rather seeds of change through Biblical ways of thinking about and coping with change, so that our existing congregants (and pastors) could do the hard work of reaching out beyond their current ways of doing things?  What if our Seminaries actively addressed this in their practical theological education?  That’s a harder road, no doubt.  But aren’t our people worth it?   How do we bridge the gap between congregational hopes and dreams that their congregation will continue on indefinitely, and expert studies that insist congregations have life-cycles (including death) just like people do?

I can’t count how many conversations and meetings I’ve sat in with various congregations all asking the same question – why isn’t anybody helping us?  My answer has always been the same regardless of who it is I’m sitting with – because you’re hard to help, and even if you were easy to help, nobody knows how to help you.  We stink at helping people cope with change and see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.  Nobody has discovered a silver bullet for this – despite a lot of people trying to make a lot of money pretending they have.  It takes a long time and a lot of resources in terms of money and manpower and even then the results are far from predictable.  It’s much more fun and exciting  (and easier) to just start over with something – and someone – new, someplace else.

Sounds a lot like the struggles facing marriage in our country as well.  Hmmm.

Our denominational leadership is acting as if everyone should be all excited about their new initiative.  Here’s my prediction – they’re going to get their butts chewed off.  By hundreds and thousands of existing congregants and pastors who are struggling to survive and interpret in this initiative that they are being abandoned.  Here’s another prediction – as soon as people begin to realize  how unable our denominational polity (or any denominational polity, for that matter!) is to help them, they’re going to get a lot more creative about helping themselves (maybe even by working with other local congregations in the process – gasp!), all of which may lead to a greater weakening of our denomination as a whole.  Abandonment is not forgotten easily, especially when you come calling asking for donations and support.

So, dear readers,  are you in congregations that are struggling as they grow older and weaker (regardless of denominational affiliation)?  What are you going to do about it?  How are you going to adapt and change based on the unique challenges of your particular context?    Who needs to be reached with the Gospel in your community and how are you going to do it?  What have you tried?  What has worked?  What hasn’t?

Because if you don’t have answers to these questions, there’s a good chance you’re going to die off as a congregation.  But don’t worry – eventually someone may plant a new congregation over your corpse.


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