Church-planting is more than a fad
Fresh off the plane from the US, Bishop Al Stewart answered sydneyanglicans.net's questions on why church-planting is more than a fad and his vision for church-planting in Australia.
Can you give a brief explanation as to what motivated the conference you held here in Sydney in February, and what your plans are for a church-planting network in Sydney?
We have seen the need for some time to have a national network that aims to pull together the great work that is happening around the country at present and also to encourage further church-planting around the country. There are many networks currently working but no one network or denomination covers the nation.
We (myself, Andrew Heard, Steve Chong, Mikey Lynch and Guy Mason) had planned to go to Seattle to the Acts 29 boot camp in March for some time.
We decided that it would be good to have some momentum before we went to the USA, and also to gauge the level of support for such a network.
We held a one-day conference on Feb 19th at the Wesley Centre in Pitt St. We didn't advertise it heavily. It really just relied on a few contacts we had and on word of mouth.
We would have been happy with 40 people: we had approximately 160 turn up to hear about the idea of a church-planting network. This included people from different denominations, but also men from Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide.
The vast majority of these people said they were very positive about the idea of a church-planting network.
How has what you learnt in Seattle changed your vision of what a national church-planting network in Australia should look like?
What I found in Seattle is that there aren't any magic answers. The Acts 29 network is well organised; they put a lot of work into the assessment of planters, and are prepared to tell guys who aren't gifted in this way that they shouldn't precede.
Seattle Boot Camp was like the MTS Challenge (formerly Club 5) conferences, on steroids; focused on church planting, talks more about gospel motivation rather than on planting methodology (and a bit of testosterone that didn't go astray, young men fired up about the gospel, it warmed this middle-aged man's heart).
However it all comes down to people stepping out, taking some risks and engaging with non-Christian people so they can tell them the gospel of Jesus. In other words, the message from over here is 'get out there, connect with unbelievers, engage with them, love them and tell them about Jesus. Just do it!'
And yes this is hard work; one of the most useful sessions at the boot camp was about the need for endurance this ministry.
In your first ‘Letter from Seattle’, you said, “I think this is the thing we can most learn from our American brothers and sisters: they are big-hearted and understand gospel generosity, and they feel a sense of urgency about getting things done”. Do you have any more thoughts on how this might be played out here?
I feel like we often lack a sense of urgency in getting things done. We need a culture that is prepared to take a few more risks in trying new things. We so often use our resources in maintenance mode. After the Global Financial Crisis, there will be temptation to spend more and more time examining how to divide up a smaller and smaller cake.
There have been questions asked on sydneyanglicans.net as to how this network would sit alongside denominations… Can you throw any light on this at this stage?
Our aim is to set up a national network that will include individuals, churches, existing networks, and denominations. This is only of course if these people and groups find it useful, it will be a volunteer society. So for denominations for example, we could direct potential planters to partner denominations that were able to provide opportunities and resources for planting churches.
Before you left, you said using technology well and assessing church-planters were the two strategies in particular that you would be paying attention to. What did you take away from the conference in these two areas?
The church-planter assessment was really useful, I did the whole process. The initial stages are all online, questionaires, references, a Bible talk to be submitted, theological questions, a planting timeline etc. Once this is submitted at the boot camp, there's a two-hour interview.
I was interviewed by three pastors/church-planters and one of their wives. (I didn't have Kathy with me, but interviews are done with the applicant's wife present). In the interview there are 60 questions on 10 different areas of church-planting that can be followed up. The panel knew my situation was a bit unusual, and they were aware that they were helping me understand the process. It was still very useful to me, and highlighted some weaknesses I have that are blind spots to me, although no doubt obvious to everyone else.
At the end of the interviews people are accepted, or accepted with conditions or told they aren't suited to church-planting. People can re-apply at a later date. The issue isn't 'are people suitable for ministry?' per se. The interviews are focused specifically on whether you have the gifts, the psychological make-up to be a church-planter.
Church-planting has been called a ‘fad’. What is your response to this and why do you think church-planting is what we need to invest in long-term?
I know the criticisms: this is new and fashionable, and these young guys think they'll be rock stars if they plant a church. Reality will sort out the “would-be rock stars” from the real church-planters. But reality also needs to give a wake-up call to the critics - we are slowly dying. Protestant Christianity around the country is 'bleeding out' - slowly, but the bleeding is real.
Here's a couple of troubling statistics:
Between 1991-2001 (even with the growth in the AOG churches)
Protestant churches in Australia declined by 6%
Australian church attendance declined, by 3%
In 1991 - one church for every 1561 people in Australia
In 2006 (estimated) - one church for ever 2054 people,
NCLS figures - from Steve Addison - Church Resources.
During this 15-year period, the population increased and the number of churches decreased. We desperately need more churches across the nation to reverse this trend. In fact we need new churches that will plant other new churches.
Steve Addison from Church Resources has pointed out how the Baptist denomination dramatically increased their attendance and the health of their denomination in NSW from approx 1900 to 1930 under the leadership of AJ Waldock. How? An intentional strategy of church-planting.
The Assemblies of God churches saw dramatic growth through the 1970's under the leadership of Andrew Evans, once again through church-planting.
Of course we also need to revitalise and renew our existing churches, it's ‘both and’, not ‘either or’.
But make no mistake we need to ask the Lord to raise up a generation of church-planters, with the courage and vision to make things happen, and then be prepared to take risks ourselves as we help them start new ventures. These guys will not fit neatly into our existing structures. We can welcome them or they will go elsewhere.