There’s something going on in the world of Presbyterian new church development — something exciting, shifting and possibly bigger than anyone realizes.
Craig Williams, associate for the PC(USA)’s Office of Western Church Development, pays attention to such things — it is his job, after all.
Many of these new ‘experiments in missional community’ are not waiting, as in the past, for ‘permission’ or even for funding — the typical channels for traditional new church development, Williams said.
“People are taking initiative, and there is not so much permission-asking as there is invitation — ‘Do you want to join in with us?’” Williams said.
His role is to walk beside these fledgling experiments as coach, mentor and consultant.
“What we are trying to do is to find where the energy is and then to follow it — to find where God is at work in people’s lives and to come alongside it,” he said.
Though there seems to be an increased interest in new church development, there also seems to be a turning away from what Williams calls ‘big public launches.’
“There seems to be a new movement and it is not top down — it is bottom up, not centralized,” he said. “We want to encourage that.”
When asked about this growth of interest in and experimentation with new church development, Williams is quick to respond.
“I think it is the work of the Spirit. I think we have to say that — we are not in charge of this thing,” he said. “It is not generating because people think it is the best thing to do — I think God is putting it on people’s hearts.”
That said, Williams points to some pragmatic factors as well.
“I think some of it is generational — people are saying, ‘I don’t see a church for us, or for the people we need to reach or for people like me’ or they are saying ‘My parents’ church doesn’t reach the people that I am working with.’
Williams is seeing is that often, existing churches are not prepared to reach those people by themselves.
“We are seeing amongst existing churches a recognition that they may not be the vehicle to reach the populations around them, and that’s okay,” he said.
Rather than trying to grow larger, some churches are wondering if the way to grow churches is to plant new ones. Existing churches then become sending churches rather than constructing new buildings or further extending themselves.
Often, though, it is hard to get past ‘the way we’ve always done things.’ Many times, Williams has found that people’s immediate questions center around location and land.
“It is not about the land and the property — it is about people, and the development of community, and that will take many shapes and forms,” he said.
The church, at its most basic, is the people that God gathers together to worship, serve and spread the Kingdom of God.
“We are not here to start institutions or buildings,” Williams said. “We are about calling a group of people out to serve Jesus Christ and to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom at hand in both word and deed.”
Williams acknowledges that some of this openness to trying new things is at least partly due to the current membership decline across denominations. There is a fair amount of panic, but that panic has also created a willingness to try new things, he said.
“We need to teach people to discern what God is doing in the world and to follow that out into the world,” Williams said.
Williams’ position was created by the 219th General Assembly last summer and is funded through April 2012. He hopes that it will eventually partner with the Office of Church Growth.
“We are trying to get people to think like missionaries — not missionaries that are imperial, but those that raise up indigenous leadership,” he said. “It is really not complicated, but that doesn’t make it easy.”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.