Shifts in Church Planting

Stock friends standing in a circle

By Elaine A. Heath

As we consider cultural changes in our society and what this means for church planters now and in the years ahead, there are two things we must keep in mind. These two foci will radically impact our conception of who is suitable as a planter, how we equip planters, what kinds of faith communities they plant, and how we evaluate fruitfulness.

Focus 1: Who are our planters?

First look at 2019 data on demographic trends from the Pew Research Institute. By 2020 Hispanics will be the largest racial/ethnic minority in the U.S. Millennials are now the largest age group in the United States. Generation Z is catching up with them. One fourth of all parents in the U.S. are unmarried. The percentage of immigrants within the US is near an all-time high. Even so, immigration to the US declined in 2017.[1] The decrease in immigration to the US is linked to policy trends within the government. Should a future change of administration bring a returned openness to immigration, the trend toward more and not less multiculturalism will no doubt increase. Regardless, the US is becoming increasingly multicultural. With less than half of Americans under the age of 15 being white, within two decades white Americans will be a minority population.[2]

We need apostolic teams of church planters who reflect the makeup of our actual mission fields. There is no monotype for a church planter.

Moreover, we need a range of planting models because the church of the future must in the words of John 1:14, The Message, “. . . become flesh and blood and move into the neighborhood.” While we will continue to need healthy large churches, especially in cities, we will need many more healthy small faith communities that are dedicating to helping their neighborhoods flourish. The leadership of the small faith communities will increasingly need to be teams of bi-vocational people.

Focus 2: What are the essential skills our planters need?

Among other qualities such as loving people and having a lively faith of their own, planting teams need two crucial skill sets regardless of where they plant, regardless of whether they are clergy or laity. These two skill sets often have not been core concerns in our church planting efforts in the past: contemplative spirituality, and community development. Contemplative spirituality forms leaders who know how to practice deep discernment. They are able to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. They are mindful, self-aware, not ego-driven, and have strong capacity for presence. They do not rush. In our post-Christendom context these are non-negotiables for Christian leadership. The other skill set the team needs is facility in developing authentic, asset-based spiritual community that is self-giving, healthy, and a benefit to its neighborhood. Our rapidly changing cultural context with increasing polarization around race, sexuality, economic status, ethnicity, and embodiment, needs what Margaret Wheatley calls “islands of sanity”—local spiritual communities that exist for the well-being of the local context.

Some resources that can help planting teams to foster a contemplative stance and nurture community in their context include:

  • Elaine A. Heath, General Editor and contributor, Holy Living Series. A new eight-volume study series from Abingdon that helps readers develop eight spiritual practices that lead to missional engagement.
  • Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Revised 2nd Edition (Oakland, CA: Berret-Koehler, 2018).

Rev. Elaine A. Heath, Ph.D. Neighborhood Seminary, President, The Community at Spring Forest, Abbess.



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