Many in the Grace Brethren movement remember when North American church planting followed a specific and consistent model. With minor variations at times, the model for church planting went something like this:
- A group of Grace Brethren people (perhaps a family or two) had relocated to a new town and wanted to start a Grace Brethren church. They contacted the Home Missions office in Winona Lake, Ind., and expressed their desire. A representative of the agency would visit with the group and begin the process of helping them find a pastor.
- The agency identified a potential church planter, either by networking throughout the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) or by recruiting from Grace Theological Seminary, and arranged for him to meet the group. If all went well, the new group became a church plant.
- The new church plant, normally in association with the geographically closest district mission board, created a three-to-five year financial and accountability arrangement in conjunction with Home Missions. This would allow the church planter to be supported until the church could sustain the pastor’s salary.
- Funds for this endeavor were overseen by the Home Missions Council and often provided by donations from the Grace Brethren Investment Foundation as Grace Brethren people invested in the GBIF savings program.
- When the church had grown enough to support the pastor without outside funding, the church was declared established and very often brought the process full circle by borrowing a mortgage from the GBIF to construct their “first unit” building. Funds generated by the mortgage could then be coupled with funding generated from the savings account in order to provide financial assistance to the next church planter.
This model was successfully repeated many times throughout the early decades of the Grace Brethren movement and was especially effective in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Under the direction of capable leaders at Home Missions, the addition of Grace Brethren churches, and by extension, the Grace Brethren movement, was enacted.
This model worked quite well. It had an inherent understanding among the FGBC churches that new church planting was the creation of one locally autonomous church in a specific geographical location. It was led by a pastor or similarly qualified elders, practiced Grace Brethren doctrine as defined in the statement of faith, especially the ordinances of threefold communion and foot-washing, and was committed to Biblical mission. Additionally, the common relationships and deep friendships of the pastors and families of the Fellowship provided a glue which enabled the model to succeed.
Having grown up in an FGBC church, this was the network as I entered it as a pastoral leader in 1984. The exact same structure that existed when I became a church planter with a small group of people in central Pennsylvania in the early 1980s.
So, if it worked so well in the past, why aren’t we using this model today?
That is a great question and one that requires more time than I have in this overview to articulate. However, let me suggest three of the more glaring reasons this model is no longer effective:
First, we no longer live in the same day and age. With the advent of the personal computer and the ushering in of the Information Age in the mid-eighties — life, culture, and the church changed drastically. Perhaps we have underestimated the impact of this reality on the Grace Brethren Fellowship, as have others in similar denominational groups.
Previously, we depended on organizational structures and Statements of Faith to identify and process how we would affiliate with others. We went to the same conferences, read the same books, and generally accepted the relationships in our families of faith around these structures.
When it became clear in the computer age that information and best practices on any number of issues, including church planting, was easily found by simply accessing the Internet, we no longer were dependent on our own family structures for the dissemination and interpretation of ideas. A simple Google search would find a whole host of articles on any number of issues. There will no doubt be non-Grace Brethren people who will read this article when it is is published online. Thus, the need for family structures like mission agencies and top-down funding are diminished.
Secondly, a younger generation, fully raised in the Information Age, distrusts hierarchy and top-down leadership. There is an incredible body of work in the social sciences that is dedicated to creating networks and multiplication movements of colleagues who share leadership together rather than receiving it from some authority person in a denominational position far away.
Thirdly, church planting literature, fashioned by today’s realities, is exploring new understandings and definitions of everything from the definition of a church, to the fivefold leadership gifts of Ephesians 4:11. Subsequently, those who might be Grace Brethren church planters are exploring new ways to be the church, to be on mission as the church, and new styles of church leadership.
The ways in which new churches start and become established are now multiple and varied. In many church-planting networks, the realities outlined below seem to be emerging as viable models. While the traditional model still is occasionally and successfully implemented, it is waning and losing momentum to these church planting realities:
- A reliance upon multiple leaders rather than one church-planting pastor. Scriptures seem to indicate that leadership gifts other than shepherd-teacher are needed for mission expansion. Subsequently, many times church-planting teams will specifically be created to include all of the five gifts mentioned by Paul in the Ephesians passage referenced earlier.
- A desire to be more missional and less programmatic. Today’s church planters feel passionately that the church must go to the lost rather than the lost being invited to participate in the programming of the church. As a result, these types of church planters do not desire to build traditional churches. Rather than construct a building and offer the best services and programs, they engage the community through deeds of service, creative events, and by joining in the common rhythms of life. They are convinced that these methods will win more people to Christ, especially in an American society that is less open to the message of the gospel as delivered by traditional churches. This is especially true in the urban areas of the country.
- An almost radical focus on the discipling of members rather than the emphasis of growing larger numbers in one location. This connects intimately to a focus on discipleship, which is laity-led rather than led by professional clergy. Such an approach has the capacity to multiply churches rather than merely add them, as long as one counts where the people meet outside of the worship service. Many in the church planting arena see this happening in other parts of the world and long for the same to happen in the United States. They often quote Roland Allen, an early 20th century missionary who examined church planting methods, who defines this in his book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church:
It is the expansion that follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the church explaining to others the gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian church for men who see its ordered life and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share.
With the advent of the personal computer and the ushering in of the Information Age in the mid-eighties — life, culture, and the church changed drastically.
Of course, the most pressing need, regardless of the model chosen for planting, is for workers. Jesus said in Luke 10:2 that we must “pray for harvest workers.” We will not plant churches without people willing to commit their lives to establishing new congregations. At the end of the day, the model for any church-planting endeavor will be implemented by people working the mission field of America. Are we praying for Grace Brethren Church planters for this field?
Because the FGBC was founded and designed in a very different age, we should expect that some structures are being strained as we identify how to multiply new churches. We are presented with challenges about how to count our churches, how to pay for new congregations, which gifts to acknowledge in Ephesians 4:11, and a host of other items.
We need not be discouraged! Ours is a progressive movement! We have always risen to the challenge of distinguishing between our message and our models. Models will change, but the message of the gospel will not! Let’s continually be praying for new church planters, engaging new methods for reaching the lost, and becoming more missionary-minded for our country. New politicians will not save our land, but new church plants just might! The progressive nature of our Grace Brethren heritage should teach us that God uses those who are committed to his eternal Word rather than man-made traditions, models, or structures.
We had many new churches brought into the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches at last year’s National Celebration in California. We should rejoice, not in the number of new churches added to our fellowship, but for the number of new souls written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and the number of new loyal followers of Jesus who are glorifying God in their life! These are the real reasons to plant new churches.
 The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church by Roland Allen, Eerdmans, 1960.
Dr. Tim Boal is executive director of Go2 Network, the church-planting arm of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. He also serves as executive director and pastor of Penn Valley Church, a multi-site network of Grace Brethren congregations based in Telford, Pa.
An edited version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of GraceConnect magazine.