Are We Training Planters in Ways That Don’t Work and for Ministries That Don’t Exist?

How should we really prepare church planters?

Are We Training Planters in Ways That Don’t Work and for Ministries That Don’t Exist?

The church has a problem: Most of its future leaders are being prepared in ways that don’t work and for ministries that don’t exist.

Ways That Don’t Work

My (Chris’) first call out of seminary was to be a bivocational church planter. For more than five years, I worked part-time at an independent café in the neighborhood where our church would grow. I’ll never forget my conversations with cafe coworkers in my first few nights on the job.

They had no interest in the number of books I’d read or papers I’d written, nor in my well-nuanced theological opinions on all the burning issues of our day. But they had stories to tell, stories of God’s surprising presence (and sometimes seeming absence) in their lives. Night after night, while washing dishes and cleaning the espresso machine, these new friends challenged me with stories and questions that mattered to their real lives, but which couldn’t be answered by books on my shelves.

I was stunned to realize that the greatest tools I needed for that kind of ministry weren’t my Bible commentaries or my theological library. What I needed was a posture of attentiveness—the desire and ability to recognize when God was speaking into and through those conversations.

While I loved every minute of my seminary education—and fully believe that theological education is necessary for leaders in the church—I soon realized that my formation had been intellectually top-heavy. The education I had received in my Master of Divinity degree—appropriately rigorous and rich in its academic work—had neglected to teach me either to pray or to notice what God was doing in the neighborhood around me. I could translate Greek, untangle Barth and describe ancient heresies, but anything that wasn’t bound between the covers of a book remained a mystery to me.

I suspect I’m not alone.

Ministries That Don’t Exist

The context of the church in North America is radically changing. In a post-Christendom world, future leaders of the church are more likely to work multiple jobs than to preach from a pulpit of a tall-steeple congregation. Ministry is (thankfully) becoming less confined to the walls of the church and more Christian leaders are serving in other neighborhood spaces where God has sent them, often next to people who wouldn’t ordinarily go anywhere near a church.

In Pittsburgh, a historic Catholic church houses The Church Brew Works, where local small-batch beers are served in a space punctuated with symbols of the holy. One enters the restaurant through heavy wooden doors and steps into an arched, high-ceiling sanctuary with light streaming through stained-glass windows. Bulk tanks extend across the altar, backlit for effect. Nestled into a side chapel and surrounded by high tables, the bar hums with quiet energy.

Such spaces are commonplace. While they reflect, perhaps, a broad yearning in North America for the holy and spiritual experience, they also provide anecdotal evidence for what Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe in American Grace as the rise of the “nones.” Religious affiliations are shifting in North America away from institutional or traditional expressions; we live in what Stuart Murray and others call “Post-Christendom.”

Whatever we call it, the experience of congregations feels a lot like The Church Brew Works. Declining numbers and budgets make congregational programs and buildings unsustainable, leaving church leaders doling out diminishing services to stave off the closing of the congregation and the selling of the building.

But this narrative of decline does not adequately describe the North American church. Yes, it is difficult, but God is also renewing communities of Christ across North America, sending us back into our neighborhoods to discover missional forms of church. For this reason, Patrick Keifert calls this “our new missional era.” The problem for our congregations and seminaries, however, is that we might lament “post-Christendom,” but we remain tethered to Christendom modes of ministry. We struggle to prepare leaders for our “new missional era.”

Who Are Our Future Leaders in Ministry?

When Diane Anderson heard the call to start a new ministry for the prostitutes who worked the street outside her church, she didn’t move away to seminary for three years. Instead this school social worker and elder in her church walked outside with a bucket of chicken wings and offered to pray for the women with whom she shared the food. That ministry has become Faith Works: Wings and a Prayer, a ministry that offers spiritual and physical nourishment for those who once didn’t feel welcome in a traditional church.

Women and men like Diane—the people who will successfully help the church discover new ways to engage our world—are already living in such missional ways that they can’t pack up and move across the country for three years. How should the elder leading a new worshiping community in their local context receive more training? What would you tell the leader of a new monastic community committed to stability about where to receive more education? These people are already following the Spirit’s guidance and investing in relationships and places which they cannot faithfully leave and which provide the perfect crucibles in which to be formed for ministry.

And they are doing hard work. As much as receiving education, these leaders need to take a retreat to restore their spiritual, mental and physical health. Too many Christian leaders are operating from a place that Ruth Haley Barton describes as “dangerously tired.” These leaders desire intellectual formation, but they also desire refreshment for their souls. What if they could find both in the same place?

So, How Should We Really Prepare Church Planters?

We need a new kind of formation for our post-Christendom world. It needs to be theologically robust without being top-heavy. And it needs to form church planters and other missional pioneers holistically while letting them remain in their existing ministry contexts. It needs a strong spiritual foundation that trains them to listen to the Holy Spirit and teaches them to care for their own souls.

The Anglican missionary bishop and theologian John V. Taylor wrote, “The main concern of any missionary training should be to help people to become more receptive to the revelations of God.” In other words, preparation for missional ministry should help you listen to, recognize, notice and attend to what God’s up to in a given time and place. To do that well, you need to be well-practiced in praying, listening and in risking naming what God is doing.

Where Is This Kind of Formation Happening?

Because all mission and ministry is contextual, the church needs multiple models of formation and education for our changing ministry context. Thankfully, ways of preparing leaders that are closer to how we really ought to form missional pioneers are springing up around the country: The Academy for Missional Wisdom, the V3 Movement Learning Cohorts and Bridges.

At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we’ve even developed a new Graduate Certificate in Church Planting and Revitalization that uses a hybrid format that combines online learning with in-person intensives to let people learn through the program without having to pick up and move to Pittsburgh. We want the students to all have ministry contexts where they’re embedded, practicing what they’re learning throughout the program, and we designed the program to help students grow attentiveness and discernment.

The stakes are high. How we form future leaders of the church will inform the shape the church takes in our context. Will the church of the future be unwieldy and stolid because our methods of formation haven’t caught up? Or will the church of the future be flexible, adaptive, nimble—freely following the Spirit’s guidance as we participate in mission?

Scott Hagley (PhD. Luther Seminary) came to serve as Associate Professor of Missiology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary from Vancouver, BC, where he both served a local congregation and with Forge Canada as an advisor to denominations seeking to plant or revitalize churches. Christopher Brown is a founding co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church and the first Church Planting Initiative Coordinator at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.