‘Here is the church, Here is the steeple, Open the door, And here are the people!’
Many of us learnt that rhyme as children. Those with the required dexterity could perform the finger gymnastics that accompanied the words.
As adults, we have probably taught it to our young disciples. Of course, we know this is teaching bad ecclesiology, asserting that the church is the building and not the people inside. But we sing it anyway.
This is a frivolous example, but illumina-tive nonetheless. If we have deep-seated principles about what a church is, are there occasions when we might allow these to be put to one side?
In the area of church planting the current literature is pessimistic that ecclesiology is taking centre stage in shaping the churches we plant. Many influential commentators lament the demise of leaders who first ask what a church is, in order to guide them in the sort of church that they subsequently plant. Instead, it is argued, the issue of ecclesiology is being demoted as planters lay aside principles, and follow pragmatism instead.
So, to what extent are church plants being shaped by our ecclesiological convictions? To answer that question I undertook some research with the help of 73 evangelical church planters from across Britain, representing Anglican and Independent church theologies. What I discovered is that, while the situation on the ground may not be quite as bleak as the literature suggests, ecclesiology is certainly under increasing pressure to take a back seat in the process of planting churches.
The issue of leaders
Local church leadership would appear to be the most significant ecclesiological consideration, for commentators on church planting and for those who have actually planted churches. This is not surprising; after all, it is the leadership of a church plant who will ultimately influence the ecclesial policies of the plant in all areas.
It is surprising, therefore, that my research clearly showed that it is in the area of leadership where a church planter is most likely to implement structures that do not represent their ecclesiological principles.
A major factor in this for Independent church planters was a lack of suitable and qualified leaders, meaning that church plants began with a single elder in place, more akin to the Anglican model of leadership than their own plural-eldership conviction. In almost every case the reason given was the lack of suitable or available leaders to join the plant. It seems, therefore, that there is a need for a greater emphasis on training and equipping people for leadership if that trend is to be reversed.
Anglicans too appear to be facing their own leadership dilemma – though for very different reasons.
There are many examples of Anglican church plants adopting a leadership structure outside of traditional Anglicanism, my research showing a quarter of Anglicans falling into this category. Unlike Independent church planters, however, this is not due to a lack of leaders, rather it is simply a chosen departure, with planters indicating that an alternative structure was deemed preferable. Elderships in Anglican church plants are now not uncommon.
As Anglican planters become increasingly exposed to models of church planting by Independent Church planters (who have arguable taken the lead in church planting in recent years), they are being attracted to other models of church polity.
Another significant impact on the ecclesi-ology of church plants is the increasing numbers of churches planted in extra-eccle-sial partnerships.
Planters reported various reasons for planting in such partnerships, including dissatisfaction or disagreement within a denomination, or the necessity of sharing resources in order to enable a plant to even be considered. One potential difficulty of planting in this way, however, is that each stakeholder in the plant may have a different ecclesiology in key areas of structure and/or polity.
While planting churches in partnership is deemed by some planters to be not only possible, but also desirable, it is recognised that this will often mean that ecclesiology must submit to other priorities, such as missiol-ogy, to enable that partnership to exist. That is a sacrifice that some are willing to make. Others, however, are clear that while working in partnership was possible in some areas of ministry or mission, planting was not one of them precisely because of the irreducible importance of ecclesiology.
The research certainly seems to support the fact that planters will invariably have to make significant ecclesiological compromises if they are to plant with others from different backgrounds and traditions. Where planters are not willing to make compromises on their ecclesiology, such planting partnerships would be very difficult, perhaps impossible. As instances of planting in extra-ecclesial partnership will undoubtedly continue to increase, this represents an area where further consideration and research is as important as it is urgent.
The end from the beginning
There were other areas of church polity where it was evident that sometimes ecclesi-ological principles were not shaping practice as it might have done.
This included policies around membership, church discipline and liturgical forms. But, as we return to the question with which we began, perhaps the most pertinent discovery from the research was that less than half of respondents felt able to say that in the process stage of planting they had a clear idea of what the final form of their church plant would be.
This is surprising, given that the majority of planters expressed clear theological convictions about church. To understand this situation fully clearly requires further research. However, we can conclude that, while it is one thing to hold clear convictions regarding ecclesiology, planters are facing increasing challenges as they seek to implement those convictions in their church plants. And it is evident that some churches are being planted without a clear vision of what a church ought to be and ought to look like in its final form.
The challenge ahead
There will always be a range of competing factors that will influence the process of planting a church, and consequently the resultant church itself. It would be naïve to suggest that pragmatic considerations could, or even should, have no impact on church planting. But that does not diminish the importance of determining what we believe the church is, before we set about planting one. It appears that we are in danger of drifting increasingly into the territory of ‘working it out as we go along’.
Ultimately, like all things, the church exists to glorify God. We need to pay proper attention, therefore, to the biblical instruction of what church is as we understand it, to ensure that success is measured not by numbers, or reputation, but by obedience.
How we answer the question ‘What is the church’ should direct everything that follows in planting a church for God’s glory. The challenge it seems we will increasingly face is to keep asking that question.
Michael Farrier has recently completed research in the area of church planting for an MA at Oak Hill Theological College, supervised by Graham Beynon.