Written by David Schoen
June - July 2009
My daughter was married at the end of May. It has been an exciting time for my family. As I looked forward to the celebration, I had a certain sense of fulfillment as I thought about how our household brought forth our daughter's own married relationship and home.
One household finds fulfillment in seeing a new home born.
It's not all that different in the development of new churches. One household of faith finds purpose and fulfillment in birthing new faith communities. Reproduction is a normal and natural outflow of healthy congregations.
The history of church development is the story of one church starting another church, sometimes several churches. Existing churches gave birth to new churches.
I know of a congregation in Canton, Ohio, that was the first church established in the community in the 1800s. It went on to plant most of the other churches throughout the city and area. A good part of the vision and energy for giving birth to other congregations came from its pastors, who understood that part of their ministry was to spread the gospel and community of Christ by starting new congregations.
Unfortunately most UCC churches, especially Euro-American congregations, have lost that reproducing vitality and DNA — the mission of starting new churches.
But not all congregations. A growing number of UCC congregations have a vision and vitality for birthing new congregations. Trinity UCC in Chicago has planted many congregations and is currently supporting three new UCC congregations in Gary, Ind., Milwaukee, Wisc., and Benton Harbor, Mich.
Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, having planted one congregation in Oklahoma City, now has the goal of starting five new congregations in five years. Two of these churches are already worshipping.
City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco has started several new UCC congregations and works through The Fellowship to connect other congregations who are looking for a welcoming home to the United Church of Christ.
Iglesia Hispana de la Communidad UCC in Jamaica Plains, Mass., is starting several new Spanish language congregations in the Boston area.
Mayflower Congregational UCC in Naples, Fla., and Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City are both in involved in planting new congregations. Churches of all sizes and backgrounds are catching the new Pentecost movement of birthing new congregations.
Flowers sow seeds to start new flowers. Fish spawn new fish. Giraffes give birth to giraffes. Humans give birth to humans. Species exist by giving birth to new generations.
The decline of mainstream denominations in America is not merely due to the decline of our population's birth rate, but to the decline of our congregations' birth rate — a lack of congregations birthing congregations.
Vital denominations in the United States are filled with congregations giving birth to new congregations at the rate of more than three percent of their total number of congregations each year.
While the recent increase in new church development is encouraging, the UCC is only planting new churches at the rate of less than one percent of our total number of congregations each year. Total congregations decline by an average of more than two percent annually.
The UCC will not be able to respond to all those in our nation seeking the still speaking God's welcome and witness unless our existing congregations get excited and involved in planting new congregations.
There is often resistance, even hostility, to new congregations by existing congregations. There is a "one parish per town" mentality that sees new churches as a threat to existing churches. This perceived "threat" fails to understand the unchurched nature of our communities, where there are multitude of opportunities and possibilities for outreach for all congregations, new and old.
Studies suggest that the vitality of all congregations is increased in communities where there is new church planting activity. New and existing congregations are not in competition, but rather enhance each other.
It is also shown that the most effective strategy for planting successful new churches is through one vital congregation birthing another. And new churches bring vital energy, fresh insight and missional purpose to existing congregations and denominations. Missional churches and pastors know that it is not just about growing "my" church, but it's all about growing the church, the whole church, as a sign and instrument of the still speaking God's realm.
The risen Christ greeted his disciples in Galilee, and greets his disciples today, with the words, "Go forth into the world and make disciples." Vital congregations go forth into the world and reach whole new communities of disciples by birthing new congregations.
The UCC recently hosted its first Churches Birthing Churches Conference at Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas over Pentecost Weekend. This is the beginning of a new Pentecost movement of congregations planting congregations in the UCC. It is an encouraging time to reclaim and rediscover the vital reproducing DNA and mission in UCC congregations.
Just as I looked forward to a new household being formed in my family, I also look forward to a day in my still speaking family, the United Church of Christ, when planting new households of faith is the joyful fulfillment of every congregation.
The Rev. David Schoen is Minister and Team Leader of the UCC's Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministries. Additional new church planting and congregation reproduction information and events can be found at http://growtheucc.org.