To Plant or Not to Plant: That is the Question

During our special Annual Conference session November 19th a retired pastor and District Superintendent made the contention that new church plants are only for the Houston area – not for the majority of towns in the Conference. I can think of two reasons one might hold such a view, one clearly wrong, and one that is questionable, yet commonly believed. Note: I do not know if the one who made the original comments adheres to these or any other reasons.

First, one who is against church planting outside Houston – easily thought of as the Big City of the Conference – might think most of the other towns, whether static in population or not, have all the churches they need to reach the resident population. My guess is that the city that has 50% of its residents in church any given Sunday is highly exceptional. There are lots of unreached people out there – even in a small, highly churched town like Pittsburg. The Baptists and non-denominational churches certainly don’t think there are enough churches: they keep planting more, whether through intentional placement or through church splits. We may quail at the idea of copying the Baptists, but in how many of our East Texas towns is the main UM church larger and stronger than the largest Baptist church? In how many towns are there multiple Baptist churches that are larger and stronger than our UM churches? If they can keep up the church planting (and growing), why can’t we? So the idea that there are simply plenty of churches to reach the people is clearly false in my judgment.

The second possible reason is related to the first. Some believe that one church can be for all people. These are the folks who think the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) is evil. This principle, developed by theorists in Church Growth, basically says that people like to go to church (and do just about anything) with people who are like them. Some of us hear this idea and hear it as an expression of racism. We think it’s wrong to want to go to church only with people who are like us.

Before I came to my current appointment I served Westbury UMC in Houston. Westbury is rightly known as a multi-cultural church. One of my favorite things about the congregation was that it wasn’t just Anglo folks like me: we had Africans, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Europeans, etc. One might point to Westbury as counter-evidence to the HUP. Here are people who are clearly different going to church together and enjoying each other’s company. But that assessment would be wrong, and in its wrongness I see why the HUP need not be considered as a justification for racism – or any other evil “ism.”

The difference between Westbury and the vast multitude of monochromatic churches was not that the people there decided not to identify those who are “like us” on the basis of race. Racial difference just didn’t matter. If you could go to Westbury and ignore race, you’d notice that most of the people were alike: they were (mostly) middle class professional people. We lazy Americans too often judge “likeness to us” based on skin color since skin color is something we can see instantly (unless the lights are low), with no thought required.

HUP – as I understand it – does not make the claim that homogeneity is the ultimate destination for the church, either in the eschaton or here and now. HUP is a descriptive sociological claim – people congregate with people who are like themselves, not a normative theological claim – churches ought to be composed of people who are alike.

If this is so, can we ask this question: Is it the case that one of the questions people ask when they are considering going to church (any particular church, that is) is, “Is there someone there like me?” If this is one of the questions people who are not in our churches ask, is it then legitimate to ask the general question, “What barriers must we remove that are presently keeping people out of our church?” in a more particular way: “What can we do that might break down the barrier the keeps this particular group of people in our town from coming?” Or, to put it another way, “What can we do to make this particular group of people comfortable in our church?”

“Comfortable” is a dangerous word. It’s hard to read the New Testament and not see that the Gospel – the Good News that Jesus is Lord – is highly discomforting for those committed to living the way of the World. Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio has commented that when it comes to language, he wants to be as clear and accommodating as possible [I paraphrase] so that he makes sure the people understand the Gospel well enough to be offended at it and not their method of style of presentation. Shifting from the rhetorical to the social arena, we see Jesus doing something similar – he loved sinners in a way they never expected – yet his relationships with them led them away from their sin, not to affirmation in their lifestyle (Ex. Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery).

What does all this have to do with church planting in the Texas Conference? Just this: Our assumption in small town United Methodism has too often been that one church will accommodate all people. Actually our practice is a little different – we really mean that one white church and one black church will accommodate all people.

In the first summer of my first appointment, it crossed my mind that we ought to do a vacation bible school. That’s what churches do in the summer, isn’t it? Our problem was that our little church only had one or two children. We had loads of retired adults who could teach, but not enough children. Simple minded fellow that I was, I looked across town (about a quarter mile) and saw the black UM church. They had lots of children, and few adults available to teach at VBS during the day. It sounded like a perfect match. As I recall, our combined VBS went well that year, but I sure got a bunch of lectures. “Preacher,” I was told, “Our churches are supposed to be separate. That’s why the Conference spent so much money to build them their own building.”

Now I don’t know if the Conference was motivated by an ecclesiastical version of “separate but equal,” but my (white) members certainly perceived it that way.

Having pastored a multicultural church my longstanding theory (and previous experience) was confirmed: Black people aren’t all alike. The senior pastor I worked with their commented that he (and African American) had observed the same thing about whites – we’re not all alike. If these observations – first, that people tend to congregate with people who are like themselves, and, second, that not all people in any given racial, ethnic or social category are all alike – are accurate, then surely one White church and one Black church surely won’t be enough to reach everyone in any town. Some people find their primary identity in their race. My guess is that neither Black church leaders nor White church leaders will be prone to label their monochrome way of doing church as illegitimate anytime soon. Nonetheless, there are many in our communities for whom ecclesial segregation is the main barrier that is keeping them out of our churches. So without eliminating our white and black congregations (instead multiplying them), we need also to plant intentionally integrated churches. Some will say this is impossible to do in East Texas. I have two answers to that protest. First, church planting is hard no matter where you are or what kind of church you’re planting. Second, God loves calling us to do things that can only be done in his power.

While we plant and grow churches where distinct people groups (and we’ll have to work by their own self-identification, not our own), we will include as part of their discipling, the skills and inclination to expand the circle of those they count as “like me.” To do this, the leaders (especially the pastors) will have to be more mature than their people in this area, so they can preach unity in Christ. Beyond preaching and teaching, we’ll also have to find ways for congregations to gather regularly with each other across the various boundary lines we’ve identified.

My guess is that racial, ethnic and even language boundaries will be easier for us to cross than the socio-economic barriers. The UMC is mostly a middle-class denomination. Our leadership comes from that stratum of society. We have many ministries to the poor. We even have brought them into some of our churches (St. Johns in Houston strikes me as a good example). It will be very difficult, however, to bring them into leadership and equip them to be pastors and church planters. The main barrier is the educational requirement. The normal route to becoming an Elder is a four year college degree, followed by a 90 hour (at least) masters. Some of the Baptist and Pentecostal groups that offer lower educational hurdles for pastors (or none at all) seem to be doing a more effective job of planting and growing churches among the poor. We UMs tend to look down our noses at them – at their questionable theology, their quaint hymnody, their crass emotionalism. But just as we’ve learned that neither the White or Black way(s) of doing church is/are the one right way, we’ll need to learn that the middle class educated way of doing church isn’t the one right way either.

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One Response to To Plant or Not to Plant: That is the Question

  1. Randy says:

    You make several important points that I agree with wholeheartedly. The sad thing is, most conferences will not consider putting the resources into starting a new church in a small town or a town that is not experiencing above average growth. One of the main criteria in my conference is that new churches will be started in areas of rapid growth — a policy that was started by your bishop when she was bishop in my conference.

    I am a proponent of new church starts because that seems to be the most effective way to evangelize. But I sometimes wonder if those funds were available for congregational renewal and training for pastors if more couldn’t be done to strenghthen the ministries of the vast majority of our churches.

    For example, our conference is funding a new church start with $250,000 over five years. How many pastors and laypeople could you train for more effective ministry with that kind of money? How many people could you send to seminary, or to youth ministry training?

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