According to statistical reports every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors in America compared to just over 1,000 new church starts. While clearly more church planting is needed to change the scenario, church re-planting presents itself as a valid alternative to expand the Kingdom of Jesus in global cities. There are several places in the world today (specially in the Northern Hemisphere) where Christianity “once was”. With main-line churches loosing strength and influence in these areas, a large amount of resources is going to waste. First, think about the people in some of these dying institutions that would give their lives up to see the gospel transforming their communities. I think we tend to underestimate the holy-discontent that exists in such contexts because we tend to generalize the condition across the board. Now, think about the assets that some of these institutions possess. Many of them end up being sold at the price of bananas only to be converted into private schools, clubs and, concert venues. In a green-friendly era church re-cycling should be highly considered. In this article I want to share some of the learning principles that have taken place in my life and in the life of my friends as we replanted a church in the beautiful and messy Miami. This week we will be celebrating Crossbridge’s one year anniversary previously known as Immanuel Presbyterian Church. Immanuel was handed to us in the following conditions: A remnant group of 52 members, in the average age of 57, followed with a multi-million dollar-debt-free facility in the affluent Pinecrest neighborhood. Today we are a church of 200+ in attendance, 32 being our average age and, getting ready to launch a new campus next month Downtown Miami. If the Lord happens to lead you to an opportunity like ours, here are some of the things we have learned along the way.
They have to come to peace with dying - Let me start by saying this. A replant is impossible unless the vast majority of the congregation is willing to die. Unless this is the case, you might as well give up. That being the case (that the church is willing to die), your job coming in is to flesh out for them the practical implications of the death and resurrection scenario. You have to be systematic, patient, loving and, trust that ultimately the Holy Spirit is speaking to their hearts. This is a crucial phase because it will set the tone for the whole process. Once people are convinced that they have to die for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel the soil is ready for the seed of the new church to germinate. When I was called by Redeemer to visit Immanuel Pres at the time, I admit, I had a large level of skepticism towards the whole idea (other local pastors shared the same skepticism). Thankfully the folks at Immanuel were faced with this reality and they were alright with it. They had lost all hopes of revitalization and the Spirit made them realize that they needed to start over.
-Find a “proxy” – Don’t try this by yourself. Often times dying churches will see you as the person that will come in and restore to them the “good ol’ days”. Obviously that’s not what you have in mind coming in but, that’s what they are hoping for. You will spend time planning and talking about change and they will not be listening. Ultimately they will hear what they want to hear. We’re all like that. For this reason, you need another entity that both you and the congregation can trust to mediate the process. This is important for you and for the congregation. For them it’s important because the last thing they want is be taken advantage of. For you its important because your proxy will help you with coaching and mentoring which will minimize bad decision-making as well as providing you with protection from being bullied by the congregation. In our case Redeemer served as the proxy. Before I came in they had a Board of Governors established where two of Redeemer’s elders were a part of it along with three members of their session and myself. This board had full autonomy to execute decisions without the need to get the approval of the session. Looking back, I don’t think it would have worked otherwise.
Get them excited about new life – One of the things that was in the original partnership agreement (that we ended up changing) was the idea of two separate congregations. According to the agreement the church planter would play a double role. He would care for the existing congregation while giving birth to this new church. The two congregations would share facilities and staff. From the start Beth (my wife) and I thought that would be an impossible task to accomplish not only because it would divide resources but because it would give room to all sorts of relational problems. Instead, I proposed the idea of a single multi-generational (they liked this word) and multi-cultural congregation to which they really got excited about. Deep inside they didn’t want to stand by the side lines but desired to be participants of the new. And, they have participated in a big way.
Bring small changes. This was one piece of advice that I got in the beginning from a pastor in town who had gone through a similar situation. For a couple reasons. First, it helps to build momentum and anticipation of what’s coming. Secondly, it gets them off-balance. It helps them to disconnect from the ways things have been done. Some of the things we did right away were rearrange chairs, change worship time, dress casually, buy new office furniture etc.
Bring radical changes. If you are re-planting, you need a clear slate. Even before I arrived I asked the Board of Governors to clear the decks. That meant, letting go of all three staff members, eliminating all programs and, shutting down all committees. The last thing to go was the church’s name. We did that a month before we launched Crossbridge.
Bring new people from day one. One of the first things Terry Gyger told me was: “-Felipe, the name of the game is bring new people in”. He was right. If all they see is the same ol’ group of peeps week in week out, they will lose trust in you as a gatherer and as a leader. Beth and I worked really hard at meeting new people all the time, everywhere. It worked.
Build a new launch team with new people. You need a new group of people from the outside and maybe a few from the inside that can help you to craft the vision for the new church. As a planter you have a keen sense of what you think needs to be created in relation the ministry but you need some collective intelligence to help you to contextualize the church’s ministry to the community/ city. Through some networking, I was able to meet and invite some emotionally stable (make sure this is the case), mature people that believed in the vision and that were able to contribute in a big way.
Get the “old folks” excited about them. The last thing you want is jealousy to be fostered within the existing congregation. One of the ways I did this was to talk about the “new folks” in public and ask the existing congregation to welcome them well. They did a good job at that.
Set a day for the launch and a day for the memorial service. The old church needs closure and the new church needs a new beginning. It needs to be evident. Six months into the transition phase we held a memorial service for Immanuel where some of the members got up to share stories of how they had seen God in their midst along the years. After that, we shut the church down for two weeks, offered a new membership class for all of them to go through and launched Crossbridge.
Be careful with “shady” offers. I thought about not bringing this up but, the more I thought about it, it seemed important. In the beginning you will find folks trying to be generous in order to gain leverage for negotiation.
Don’t be afraid to lose people. Often times pastors find themselves negotiating with people to keep them and their money in. In reality they are negotiating their vision. Money and people can be replaced, not vision. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So, don’t negotiate, don’t accommodate, don’t adapt.
Fight “well intentioned dragons” smart. “Within the church, they are often sincere, well-meaning saints, but they leave ulcers, strained relationships, and hard feelings in their wake. They don’t consider themselves difficult people. They don’t sit up nights thinking of ways to be nasty. Often they are pillars of the community, talented, strong personalities, deservingly respected but for some reason, they undermine the ministry of the church. They are not naturally rebellious or pathological; they are loyal church members, convinced they’re serving God, but they wind up doing more harm than good. They can drive pastors crazy or out of the church (Well-Intentioned Dragons – Marshall Shelly, p. 11)”. We had a couple of these laying around and we spent time strategizing of how to approach them. Al Barth (my Redeemer coach) was very instrumental here. We met with these guys, allowed them to speak their mind, and respected their points of view. As a last resort, we suggested that they check out a few churches in town that were closer to their style.
Keep new things coming. If you bring a bunch of new things at once, it might overwhelm people and you might run out of cards. If you can afford to time them and spread them out weekly, monthly, quarterly, semesterly… it will help you to always have momentum.
Keep thanking ”the old folks”. I know it’s hard but they need recognition. After all, without them you wouldn’t be replanting so whenever you have the opportunity thank them. Do it in public, on a one on one basis, through emails, notes, whatever it takes for them to feel appreciated.
Pound the Vision. Make sure that if someone attended your church a month they would be able to articulate the vision. You can do this in several ways. Through published materials, your website, as you preach, give announcements, send newsletters etc.
Preach the Gospel every Sunday. Don’t waste your time preaching anything else. You need to form a gospel culture in order for it to work. When the gospel is embraced by the people both younger brothers and older brother types will rejoice and an outstanding community will be formed. It will cross through economical, ethnical, cultural and generational lines.