One of the greatest joys of my new role as District Superintendent (and part-time congregational consultant) is that I am learning so many new and exciting things. In recent years my denomination has placed a strong emphasis on starting new churches. Clearly, congregations that are growing in vitality are the ones who best engage their immediate communities and this is the essence of what a new church start is all about.
According to Bishop Schnase in his new book Seven Levers, “new churches reach unchurched people more effectively than existing congregations. Demographically, new congregations do better at reaching younger generations and more diverse populations, which are the fastest growing segments of our communities.” (p. 38) I’m discovering how much I enjoy working with, supporting and observing the new church starts across the conference. Kind of makes me feel like a proud parent!
A key learning for me is that all congregations need to be involved to one degree or another in planting and supporting new congregations. Let me talk about why this is important for congregations of all sizes:
- Large Congregations
This is a no-brainer for large congregations as many are already involved in starting new churches or intentional communities. Large congregations have the resources (sometimes more resources than their middle judicatory) and have the healthy cultures and DNA to pass on to a new community which maximizes the chances that this new congregation will succeed. One key way that large congregations expand their own capacity to reach new people is by starting new communities. They also grow, call and inspire new candidates for ministry through these bold, new endeavors.
- Mid-Size Congregations
From my perspective, it is tough being a mid-size congregation in this current cultural climate. Many congregations that are worshipping between 100 and 250 are not only living in one of the most challenging size transition zones but they know they can’t compete with the large congregations in their area which have so many more programs of excellence and resources for quality worship. By partnering in some way with a new church start these long-established congregations can offer the financial and emotional/spiritual support that a new church start needs and in turn, they learn how to reach new people. Many of our existing congregations have lost the skill and fervor for evangelism. Working side-by-side with a brand new community is inspiring as new churches have a freshness, passion and energy that our existing congregations have forgotten.
- Small, Vital Congregations
I love small, vital congregations! There’s nothing sweeter or more moving for me than seeing a small, loving congregation adopt new people into their family and engage their communities in such special (albeit small scale) ways. A vital, small congregation has a great deal to offer a new church start. They can adopt the new church and provide needed supplies (such as toys for the nursery) and can act as loving parents and grandparents for the new congregation. It is rewarding for them and helps the new church start feel loved and supported. It is a way to multiply the love.
- Small Congregations Living Beneath the Threshold of Change
Believe it or not, I think these churches have the greatest gifts to offer new spiritual communities. When a congregation that has been declining for many years reaches that critical fork in the road where their survival is at risk, there are many opportunities to become a legacy congregation. A small congregation might decide to nest a brand new congregation within their facilities and eventually give this new community their building and assets. Or, a small congregation at the end of its lifecycle might decide to close and their assets can be re-purposed and used to start a new community.
The greatest challenge is that small, struggling congregations often prefer to bunker in and keep doing what they’ve been doing even though that has not been working. They think it is easier to bunker in rather than take big and frightening risks. However, I often hear from lay leaders of congregations that do take those risks how overjoyed they are that their congregation finally made the tough decisions. Members are able to reclaim a sense of joy and energy which replaces the constant struggle to just survive and pay the bills.
Any size congregation can start a new congregation or play a big role in the start-up and on-going support of a new congregation. And, in turn, it will change the existing congregation in so many surprising ways.
For an excellent resource on the impact of new churches see Stephen Compton’s Rekindling the Mainline: New Life through New Churches (The Alban Institute 2003)
Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.