Maybe y’all don’t have this problem in Canada. But indulge me as an American writer soon to move north of the 49th.
In the US we don’t have enough fast-growing church plants in mainline contexts. The Gathering UMC in St. Louis is a counter-example. It’s one of five United Methodist church plants to grow from nil to a thousand worshipers over the past ten years (the others are in Atlanta, Nashville, Kansas City, and improbably, Sioux Falls SD). We mainliners usually leave multi-site and mega to evangelicals. Yet if sociologist Mark Chaves is right, 1 in 10 worshipers in the US now worships at a multi-site church. Stew on that number for a moment. And then ask yourself whether mainline churches can leave that demographic to evangelicals alone.
Part of Rev. Matt Miofsky’s secret is that he has borrowed unashamedly from evangelicals. He and I both inhabit an overlapping space and claim both descriptions, mainline (open to women and gays, closed to fundamentalism, avowedly non-partisan) and evangelical (trying to preach the gospel to all people as creatively and winsomely as possible). Matt has noticed some things evangelicals do really well in planting that we in the mainline fail at. Conversely he’s seen some built-in advantages we have that his evangelical friends can only lust after.
One, evangelicals pay attention to character. To put it that baldly feels like it’s designed to shame mainliners. It’s not, but if it has that effect, so be it. Mainliners, Miofsky says, tend to get taken with charisma and then send someone out to plant. That person usually fails if charisma is all he or she has. And one key point of character is whether they’ll stay with the mainline even when the going gets tough. Many plant a church that grows that they then break off and make independent—their ego is more important than the church that grew them. Evangelicals, on the other hand, ask whether this person has the character of someone who can stand to fail regularly and often on the way to (perhaps unlikely) success. Further, evangelicals will examine the character of the planter’s spouse. Will she (usually she) be ok with regular repeated failure and likely job insecurity?
This absence of interest in character is surprising. Mainline ethicists have launched a revival over the last generation in character ethics in the academy led by Stanley Hauerwas and his students. When we ask what the moral good is we don’t so much arbitrate the question with open minds. We rather concentrate on becoming the sort of people who do the right thing without having to deliberate. For all this talk of character in the university very little of it has gravitated to those who train church planters. That should change.
Conversely we mainliners have something evangelicals do not: a built-in network. The UMC exists as a connection of churches that don’t try to go it alone but rather rely on one another. But we don’t leverage this gift for planting. So, many mainline churches bump along, struggling to stay open but never becoming viable. In Methodistland we never ask those churches to close. But Miofsky, counter to convention, has. He was having lunch with one pastor of such a church when she suggested he ask her board if they might consider closing and turning over their property to The Gathering. He accepted the invitation and they voted that very night to dissolve themselves and becoming part of The Gathering’s mission. The church sold the parsonage and made the building another worshiping site. At first Miofsky’s district freaked out. How dare they ask that! Shouldn’t the money be pooled and given equally to all churches in the district? Or maybe there could be an application process to see who is awarded the money? By then it was too late. These churches have struggled along for decades, no one has a fresh idea for them, until The Gathering—why should he give the money back? Now the problem is more churches want to close and hand over property to The Gathering than they can handle. “My evangelical friends wish they had our networks,” he said. “They just can’t believe we’re not leveraging them.” He also hired the pastor who made that first connection at The Gathering.
Miofsky has a few more secrets for what makes for a multi-site mini-megachurch (technically megachurches have over 2000 in worship). One, it helps that he launched this place in his hometown. He has deep networks of family and friends in St. Louis, “so when worship was really bad, at first, they stuck with us,” he says. Many mainline churches look longingly at evangelical megachurches and resent them: ‘If we had that kind of money our worship would be awesome too.’ But The Gathering’s worship wasn’t awesome at first, not for a while. The deep rootedness of being in a local place allowed Miofsky and The Gathering to make early mistakes, to learn, and eventually to grow sustainably. Two, we need to train pastors differently. Miofsky is no seminary hater. He loved his studies at Candler School of Theology and thinks some topics, like bible and church history, can’t easily be taught on the job. But most can. So The Gathering hires loads of interns. They get to audition someone for a summer and consider hiring them when they graduate. Miofsky’s not convinced someone needs to be an ordained elder or even a person considering ordination to be a church planter. They just have to love Jesus, to be resourceful, to be willing to reach out creatively to unchurched people. And finally it helps to have launched in a town without a lot of similar churches. St. Louis has plenty of Catholic parishes (Miofsky grew up in one). It has plenty of tired old fashioned mainline churches. But unlike, say, the bible belt or SoCal, it’s not had an abundance of creative non-denominational church plants. Miofsky has his eye on similar cities with a similar lack cities in Colorado and Wisconsin. It’s not clear how those will work given he won’t have the long roots in those towns. But as mobile as folks are these days, The Gathering already has a small group meeting in Chicago that listens to his sermons and gathers for fellowship. Who knows what can happen?
To only have 5 church plants in the whole UMC grow to four figures in ten years is sad and almost embarrassing. To fail at one of these is expensive—a salaried pastor costs more than $70K a year, and most grants for startups end up covering little more than her or his salary. To fail at even one, a conference is looking at more than a $200K loss in an era of cuts across the board to vital denominational ministries. Surely we can start cheaper than that, leaner, more creatively. And perhaps, given our networks and our deep roots in many places, more fruitfully than that.
Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is the new Butler Chair of Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at the Vancouver School of Theology.