Prairie Sky UCC: The short life of a new church plant

Prairie Sky UCC: The short life of a new church plant

May 31, 2009
Written by Daniel Hazard

The Rev. Nicole Grant Yonkman (second from right) and the people of Prairie Sky UCC at their 2008 Easter event. Todd Grant Yonkman photo.
Told from the frontlines

"Jesus invited each, starting where each was, to begin a spiritual adventure in a hitherto-untried way of living."
— Adventurous Religion by Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1926.

It was on our European backpacking honeymoon in 1996 that we began calling ourselves the "Grant Yonkman Adventure Team." A call to ministry and a sense of adventure are two things we've always shared.

When we accepted a call from the Indiana-Kentucky Conference in February 2007 to plant a church in Fishers, Ind., a fast-growing suburb of Indianapolis, we understood it to be another chapter in the Adventure Team story. We drew on the spirit and energy of our adventurous UCC forebears who had the guts and the will to gather around the vision "that they may all be one" 50 years earlier.

Church planting is the process of starting a new church that will, in a relatively short period of time, become a self-sufficient, self-supporting, autonomous congregation. Ultimately, our efforts did not produce a church, but our experience has taught us a lot about what it takes to plant a church and reach young people.

Plotting the Course

The process of selecting us to be the planters was fairly strenuous. In addition to the normal profile and interview process, we took the Gallup church planters assessment, an interview assessment with the UCC's Local Church Ministries, and a three-day on-site church planters' assessment with Midwest Career Development Ministries.

Though a lot of expense and energy went into the assessment process, we were glad for it because it affirmed our feeling that we had the gifts and calling to be church planters.

The Conference had committed to use the "parachute drop" church planting model. We moved to Fishers without any contacts or a sponsoring church to help us. We did receive some startup funding from the committee that called us. We later learned that the "parachute drop" model is the most risky, most expensive and most difficult kind of church start — with an estimated 85 percent failure rate.

The Conference had hired a consultant to do a feasibility study that showed promising demographics and catalogued several success stories in the area. The population of Fishers is young, well-educated, rapidly growing and upper income.
The study also revealed some red flags, which we chose to see as challenges to overcome. Fishers is in the most Republican congressional district in the United States, nationally known for its social and religious conservatism. It is located just a few miles down the road from the Church of God world headquarters in Anderson, Ind.

Although we weren't interested in planting a church for Democrats, some of the UCC's positions on social issues turned out to be a really hard sell in Fishers. Additionally, all of the successful new churches in Fishers had partnered with existing congregations or mission organizations to gather groups of people that made up a critical mass to start the church strong, and largely self-sufficient, right from the start.

Setting Sail

The actual work of planting the church turned out to be a lot of fun. We threw ourselves into the community — getting involved in every committee, organization, and social and business event we could find. These provided us many opportunities to meet people, share our vision for Prairie Sky Church and demonstrate that we were in Fishers to serve the community in Christ's name.

We quickly developed a large and expanding network of contacts, which translated into a group of about 25 adults and children who met regularly on Sunday evenings at our house for worship, Bible study, Sunday school and supper.

At this point the wind started to go out of our sails. Except for one family, we had gathered a group of "baby Christians," new to Christianity or returning for the first time as adults, who were interested in attending a new UCC, but who didn't yet have the leadership skills to help us expand our group. And we needed people with skills — pronto.

The paradox of church planting is that you need people to get people. This is the point where partnering UCC congregations would have made a difference.

We had one high school student from a local UCC who helped us with childcare. She was fantastic. One church helped us with food. We had others from local UCCs who would come for a meeting or two.

But the groundwork for partner churches lending their members as missionaries or as "rent-a-members" for a 12- or 24-month period had not been laid. As newcomers to the Conference and relative outsiders, we were unable to garner support from pastors and lay people.

We simply did not have the critical mass or funding to get the church off the ground in the time frame we had been provided. With incredible grief and the help of a consultant, we decided with the Conference to bring the project to an end about one year after beginning.

Changing Course

We share this story with you in the hope that it might be beneficial as the UCC continues to work toward its church planting goals. The experience, though personally painful, taught us many things. We have space to share just a few.

The "parachute drop" model of church planting was not a good match for the UCC in Fishers. People in Fishers did not understand how two people could just come in and start a church without any people. In fact, it made them suspicious.

Our model assumed that people had an affinity to mainline Christianity, that they trusted denominational church institutions in general, and that they were willing to join a church which, in many ways, was counter-cultural to the rest of the community.

What we found: the majority of people in our plant area were evangelical social conservatives, young (average age 31) and, as a generation, did not trust church institutions. There was no "safe space" in which to create a counter-cultural movement. Because the UCC message was not a "natural fit" for Fishers, there was no way two people working alone could overcome these dynamics.

In church planting, it is never just one thing that leads to success or failure. However, the main failure in this project may have been that we did not recognize that the UCC is no longer a "mainline" church in the traditional sense of the word.

In other words, traditional Protestantism is no longer the dominant mode of religious expression, and that most young people — our target group — are not interested in traditional institutional religion. This is because American "mainstream" culture has evolved and too many of our "mainline" congregations have not.

The parachute drop model operates under the assumption that people are out there just waiting to be a part of a UCC. We found that this was not the case.

Yet there was one bright light. We discovered that many people are compelled by the vision, "That they may all be one." The way we put it was, "We are a church that focuses on what unites us instead of fighting over what divides us."

The point of church planting is not simply to re-create the past. It is "to begin a spiritual adventure in a hitherto-untried way of living." We can't make seekers, spiritual but not religious types, fit into our church categories of Sunday worship in a traditional building, going to committee meetings and giving money to support a budget.

The decisive question for the church is not whether there's some magical program that will make unchurched people fit into its life. The decisive question is whether or not the church is willing to do what it takes to fit into the lives of unchurched people.

As planters, we went to the offices, the soccer games, the classrooms, the parks, the coffee shops, the concerts in order to "be Jesus" to the people we met there. On that account we succeeded. While these efforts didn't produce a church, they did make a difference to the community on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Revs. Todd and Nicole Grant Yonkman are co-pastors of Beneficent Congregational UCC in Providence, R.I. 

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