By Dr. Stanley E. Granberg
What’s the future of Churches of Christ? The Covid-19 is like a change accelerant on a fire for churches. Covid is causing us to do things that it may have taken us ten more years to do, if at all. Many church leaders are feeling like they’re leading phantom churches; it seems like our members are still “out there,” but what if they aren’t. When we can meet again, who’s going to show up? Churches that felt healthy pre-Covid are having that idea tested. Churches that were not healthy may struggle to survive at all. As much as we hope that by this time next year things will be back to normal—our old normal is forever gone.
During this fire of change Wineskins asked me to reflect on the state of Churches of Christ, particularly on our mission activity of stateside church planting. As one of the 21st century pioneers in church planting in our fellowship, I want to take an autobiographical approach to this task that may bring a more nuanced insight and raise some different questions for Wineskins readers.
For the last fifteen years I’ve led the Kairos Church Planting ministry. My experience includes involvement with hundreds of churches in our fellowship coast to coast and acquaintance with many of our thought leaders. Kairos has worked with hundreds of people involved with starting new churches across our country, from lead church planters to brand new Christian believers. This firsthand experience provides a unique viewing platform I think you will find both interesting and informative.
Beginnings: 2003 to 2010
My journey into domestic church planting was very unplanned. In 2004 I was teaching Bible at Cascade College in Portland, Oregon. Cascade was a very small, regional college that catered primarily to students who came from small Churches of Christ dotted across the Pacific Northwest landscape. Over and over again I had students come into my office, often in tears, with two ideas on their hearts. First, they really loved and respected their home churches and the faith their parents reflected. But second, they were not going to go back to those churches for their spiritual nourishment. I was troubled.
In October 2002 the Crossroads Christian Church in Portland hosted a Restoration Unity Forum meeting. Our family friend, Marvin Philips, was speaking and I had time to catch Marvin and the session before his. In this session I was completely intrigued by Dean Pense’s presentation on the church planting the Christian Churches were doing in California via the Northern California Evangelistic Association (NCEA). They were using a system of recruiting, assessing and training entrepreneurial church start-up leaders that was very successful for them. From my mission training and experience in Kenya it made great sense. I struck up a friendship with Dean that led to invitations in 2003 and 2004 to join their NCEA team in assessing and training events, seeing the launch of Our Place Christian Church in Portland, and being part of their first training workshop for leaders of church planting ministries. The NCEA staff, led by Marcus Bigelow with Roger Gibson, Phil Claycomb, and Dan Slate were gracious hosts, knowledgeable trainers and friends.
In 2004 my wife and partner Gena and I took five couples from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia to an NCEA planter bootcamp. Also at the training were Jimmy Adcox and Larry Deal from the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, AR. They were a church looking for a new dream; Gena and I were a couple being called by God for a dream wondering how to make it happen. God had worked ahead of us all for years to bring us together at just the right time.
In June 2004 the Southwest church, in an amazing act of faith, committed a million dollars from a capital campaign to fund the start of Kairos in January 2005. I resigned from my tenured faculty position at Cascade and Gena and I launched Kairos Church Planting. Scott and Kim Lambert joined us a few months later, Scott resigning from his role as campus minister at Pepperdine University. Our purpose was to help reignite a church planting movement in the US originating from Churches of Christ.
Our first major Kairos event was the St. Louis Summit in the summer of 2005. We invited the church researcher and author Dr. Thom Rainer as a guest presenter and gathered over seventy leading preachers and influencers from across our fellowship for a three-day gathering to ask the question, “Can Churches of Christ successfully plant new churches?” We really did not know. It had been a generation since our fellowship had planted churches with any sort of regularity or intentionality. Did our fellowship still have the entrepreneurial leaders needed to start new congregations? Would the existing churches see the planting of a new generation of churches a valid and needed mission? Would a sufficient number of existing churches create a synergizing center that would generate the vision, the commitment and the experience to mobilize enough of our then 13,000 congregations to launch a church planting movement?
From 2004 to 2010 Kairos assessed over 100 leaders in five-day Discovery (assessment) and Strategy Labs (training). To encourage involvement among leading churches in our fellowship and to expose those churches to church planting we strategically held our Strategy Labs in host congregations in different parts of the country: Cascade College in Oregon, Vancouver Church of Christ in Washington, Durham in North Carolina, Harpeth Hills and Brentwood Hills in Nashville, Pleasant Valley in Little Rock and the Conejo and Simi Valley churches in the Los Angeles area. We trained 103 people for 19 new church projects, like Renovatus in Washington, Cascade Hills, Soma and Agape in Oregon, Way of Life Village and South County in California, Ethos in Nashville, Kainos in Pennsylvania, Gateway in New Jersey, Bridgeway in Maryland and missionaries for Angola, Panama, Australia and Guatemala.
During those years Kairos in the Northwest and Mission Alive in Texas both experimented, learned and developed resources that church planting leaders could use to fulfill their God-given calls to plant new congregations. By 2010 we had answered the question, “Can Churches of Christ plant new churches?” Absolutely yes! Our fellowship could raise up, train and deploy start-up church leaders who were evangelistically reaching new people across our nation.
The planters that chose to work with Kairos mostly had backgrounds in the Churches of Christ. They held a deep respect for our fellowship along with an objective understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. They were not mad at our fellowship (we spoke with many younger leaders who were mad, they chose to work with other fellowships) nor were they disenchanted. Like us, they were hopeful our churches, their churches, the churches they often grew up in and had worked for as ministers, would catch the dream, welcome the opportunity, and partner with them to reach more of God’s people.
We worked hard to develop those partnerships with congregations. Our thinking was if enough regionally influential churches got the vision for church planting, they would be able to bring other churches to the work and a movement would arise. Kairos asked planters to work under the elderships of partnering churches. We worked with them to find these churches, cast their vision, and asked these churches to partner with these planters as domestic missionaries. It was hard. Most churches had not heard of church planting at that time. There was suspicion that these were church splits in disguise or that the planters were simply young bucks wanting to do things they couldn’t do in the existing churches. Yet despite the unknowns, over seventy-five established congregations did step up and we saw some amazing work of God in those new churches.
Midstream: 2011 to 2020
By 2011 we knew Churches of Christ could plant new churches. We began to ask a new question, “Would the Churches of Christ do this?” By this time the Kairos team had grown to three full-time and three part-time people. We were energized and awed by the work done by the planters we were blessed to work with. Still, it had been a hard road with our existing churches. No matter what we tried the typical responses we and planters received from those by now less than 12,000 existing churches were apathy, resistance or hostility.
With this new question in mind—and some bewilderment as to why our fellowship would be apathetic, resistant or hostile towards the idea of reaching new people for Jesus in new churches—the Kairos team invited a small group of our fellowships’ leading influencers to the Hoover Institute on the campus of Stanford University for what we called the Hoover Summit. Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb University, led this group of university presidents and teachers, business entrepreneurs, and political and social leaders to investigate the purpose, processes and results of our Kairos work and the responses we were encountering from our fellowship.
For three days we investigated, asked questions, worked in focus groups to look at specific areas in question. In our final session, after compiling the insights of these brilliant people, Mike O’Neal, then president of Oklahoma Christian University, summed up the answer to our question, “Would the Churches of Christ step up to plant a new generation of churches in the US for the twenty-first century?” Mike’s answer, given with a heavy sigh, was, “It will be very hard.”
Where are we now?
From 2004 to 2020 Kairos assessed 212 leaders (couples and individuals) for church planting, trained over 230 individuals for new church leadership, and helped resource hundreds of existing churches through seminars, workshops, lectureships and strategy training. One goal we had was to mobilize one percent of our existing churches into supporting church planting. By 2020 over 160 congregations (1.3% of 12,000 congregations) had made financial commitments to new churches through Kairos.
When I look back at these fifteen years our fellowship has certainly made progress. Today there are several hundred congregations that have engaged in planting new churches through Kairos, Mission Alive, some university-based initiatives or on their own initiative. When Kairos began in 2005, most churches had never heard of church planting. Today, most church leaders in our fellowship have at least heard of or have been exposed to new churches, if not from Churches of Christ, they have seen new churches growing up around them, sometimes exploding with growth.
In 2005 my recruiting conversations with ministers, youth ministers, and graduate students in Churches of Christ began with an explanation of what in the world did I mean by church planting. There were no classes taught on church planting, let alone specialized degrees, in the Bible departments of any of our Christian universities or colleges. I taught the first church planting course at Harding School of Theology. Gailyn Van Rheenen added church planting to Abilene Christian University’s offerings before he left his tenured professorship to begin Mission Alive. Today, most of our schools at least have a domestic church planting course or two and Harding University now has an endowed chair for church planting.
Today we have processes and training that developed through the hard work of Kairos, Mission Alive and others within our fellowship. Today we have examples of successful new churches like Ethos in Nashville, The Vine in Kennewick, Washington and The Feast in Providence, Rhode Island. Today young leaders have role models to follow that didn’t exist fifteen years ago.
Yet despite these advances, Churches of Christ have not yet responded in a significant way to God’s call to plant a new generation of churches. For the rest of this article I will give some perspective for this lack of significant response and provide some possible avenues Churches of Christ can pursue for the future.
Earlier I said that the responses we have typically received from our now 10,000 or so existing congregations have been apathy, hostility or resistance. Let me elaborate some on each of these responses.
Churches that met our overtures with apathy were a minority. When I say apathy I am talking about their response to Kairos, not their response to God’s work. Actually, these churches were often quite active, but active in ways that made them apathetic towards the Kairos’ mission. These churches tended to fall into two categories. The first category are those I would call cutting edge planting churches. These congregations wanted to plant churches, but they had already decided to partner outside the fellowship of Churches of Christ.
Most looked towards the Christian Churches who have had dynamic expressions of church planting through their fifty or so state or regional evangelistic associations (the best known of which is Stadia, which was originally the Northern California Evangelistic Association), the Exponential Church Planting conference, and influential local churches that have inspired and resourced church planting (such as East 91stStreet Christian Church in Indianapolis and Community Christian in Chicago). Others looked to networks outside the Restoration Movement, such as ARC (the Association of Related Churches), North Point, and Acts 29.
These churches looked outside our fellowship for networks that gave them more recognition and resources. These churches saw a partnership with Kairos as a step backwards in their progression towards something else. Sometimes they exhibited the big church syndrome. Because they were successful, they sometimes felt they did not need help; they could replicate new churches using the methods they had successfully employed. Those efforts most often did not replicate well.
The second category of churches in the apathy response were those who had decided to prioritize a specific issue. The three typical issues were social justice, gender inclusiveness and instrumental music. These churches had already committed their attention and resources to these issues. Adding church planting didn’t make sense to them as a mission because it did not advance their particular focus. One such church whose focus was social justice said to me, “If you were Catholic, Methodist or almost any group other than Church of Christ, we might be interested.” Sometimes the mere fact we maintained connection with Churches of Christ was reason to not partner with us.
The next largest group were those who met us with hostility. This group often identified themselves as “defenders of the faith.” These churches attacked anything that did not look, sound or feel like them. They saw the new churches as threats to their accepted standards of practice.
Leaders in these hostile churches actively worked against church planters. One of the saddest experiences I ever had was sitting with the elders of one such church talking about a planter who had grown up in their church. This planter had asked them to join with him and his wife as financial and spiritual partners to go to a highly unchurched area in the same general region. We talked through what this planter was proposing. These elders acknowledged that the people the planter was focusing on would never come to their church, that this young man was well equipped for this task and that they loved him as one of their own. We also recognized that the church he was envisioning was not going to look or practice exactly like theirs. Finally, one elder, with tears in his eyes, said, “We know these people are lost and we know that this young man will probably be able to reach some of them. But we would rather those people go to hell than support this young man because he will not do church like us.” The point at issue was instrumental music.
The majority of churches responded to our church planting work with resistance. Where the hostile churches actively opposed the new churches, the resistant churches were simply not going to support, recognize or encourage planters or their new churches. Sometimes this was out of fear that some of their people would end up going to the new church (our experience is that very few long-time church people find a home in a new church). Other times the perceived lack of control they would have over the new churches was what they resisted. Most of the time, though, their resistance arose out of the thought that “this really doesn’t concern us.” Their plates were already full. Involvement in church planting was going to take people, money, or time that they were not willing to give for an outcome they would not be able to control.
On the surface these resistant churches were polite and well-wishing, but they were never going to provide any support, nor would they encourage any other congregations to provide any support or encouragement. Our experience has been that the most encouraging churches to our planters have (and I’ll make a big value judgment here) always been churches that were not associated with Churches of Christ.
Planters struggled with this lack of acceptance and support from the people they knew, loved and respected. Sometimes, like a planter couple in the upper Midwest who was rejected by every Church of Christ both he and his wife had grown up knowing, this lack of acceptance pushed them to other religious fellowships for support. Sometimes this lack of support contributed to the closing of the new church and the loss of that new kingdom lighthouse. Most times the planters simply chose to grit their teeth, try to maintain connection, and do what God had called and prepared them to do the best they could. Can I say it again? Church planting in our fellowship is hard.
A Look to the Future
When I look to the future it is with uncertain clarity. These past fifteen years have, however, given some perspective.
First, what do Churches of Christ bring to the church planting table? When I look over our Church of Christ fellowship, I see three incredible gifts that we bring to God’s great kingdom work for planting new churches.
The first of these gifts is an amazing system of Christian education. The pursuit of Christian based education through our schools and universities is a hallmark of our fellowship. These schools have provided us with gifted, committed church leaders. Our schools have been fertile and fruitful providers of strong Christians who have settled around the globe for the cause of Christ. For the future, we do need to change the model of church minister our schools are producing. For at least the last fifty years we have produced pastoral ministers who, typically, feel most comfortable in their study and presenting thoughtful, Bible-based lessons. What we need are action-oriented ministers who use their strong, biblical education to address the deep cultural challenges of our rapidly changing world.
Second, we have an almost unique relationship with scripture in the Christian world. From my observations during my years on the mission field in Kenya, then in the domestic mission field, I state it this way:
We are a people who desperately desire to obey the God of the Word and who implicitly trust the Word of God to creatively engage the World of God.
At our best it is hard to imagine a more powerful platform from which to work. In our darker moments the pursuit of ecclesial purity based on the case law approach of command, example or necessary inference has let us feel justified in shaving off our fellowship those who did not practice church just like us. In the realm of church planting that dividing line was most often over a cappella or instrumental worship. We might retain a cappella worship as a helpful practice for spiritual development, but not to hold it as a theological imperative for fellowship.
Finally, God has blessed our fellowship with an incredible wealth of resources. From our inception in the 19th century we have been a pioneer movement. In less than 100 years the movement stretched coast to coast and was counted as one of the major American Christian movements. This spread created an amazing network of cooperation for many years, where brother helped brother and church helped church.
This resource blessing is also counted in dollars. Churches of Christ hold billions of dollars of assets in the lands and buildings of our existing churches. Financial gurus say that the largest exchange of wealth the world has ever seen will happen in the next ten to twenty years as the Boomer generation retires, then passes on. It is entirely possible that we will see the same happen among churches. Most congregations have a lifespan about the same as a person, seventy to one hundred years. Today, most congregations in Churches of Christ are at that age. We have already seen almost 3,000 congregations close their doors in the last twenty years. We can expect to see many, many more churches close. Our question, then, is not will churches close, but what will closing churches do with their God-given resources? Will at least a portion of that money be used to seed a new generation of churches or will it be used for what may be good works, but not reproductive for the kingdom of God.
For better or worse, it is our generation that gets to decide the trajectory of our fellowship’s future.
As I reflect on these past fifteen years, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to step into the challenge God set before me years ago. I am thankful for those hundreds of churches and hundreds of men and women who responded to that same call. Churches of Christ today are aware of church planting today in ways they were not fifteen years. I believe that Kairos was a major contributor to this shift.
What is the future of the Churches of Christ? Is it too late? Have we begun an inexorable decline like many other groups around us? Perhaps. We live in a completely different kind of world than the one most of our existing churches were planted in. After 15 years of seeking to engage our fellowship in a significant way in the mission of God with the planting of new churches as one measurable result, I have to agree with the conclusion of the Hoover Summit: it will be hard.