Friday, August 28, 2009

Upstarts


Ask any denomination today to name its priorities and “starting new churches” is very likely to be near the top of the list. Doing this is another matter. When I was part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Movement Leadership Team, we often talked about starting new churches and classified church starts in three ways—new starts, restarts, and upstarts.

New starts are what we often call “church plants.” These are churches or faith communities that are started intentionally, usually after much prayer, preparation, and planning. A restart is church that, very often, rises from the ashes of a prior congregation. This can happen in a number of ways but it usually comes when an existing congregation realizes that it can no longer minister effectively in its setting, literally “goes out of business,” and gives its resources (usually a physical plant) to a new or forming congregation. “Upstarts” is a polite way to refer to “church splits.” In this situation, a dissatisfied group decides to leave an established congregation and begin something new. This is the way that most Baptist congregations have come into existence. In fact, a friend once told me, "It's hard to start a new church when you're not mad at somebody!"

There are pros and cons in the upstart situation. On the plus side is that the group starting the new church has a certain level of energy. Some of this is based on a commitment to a particular theological stance. Some comes from an attitude of “we are going to show them [the former congregation] that we can make it!” Upstarts usually benefit from having a core group that is highly motivated to work and contribute to make the new church succeed.

On the negative side is the baggage that the participants in the upstart carry from their former congregation. There may be anger, bitterness, and grief. If the upstart group recognizes these feelings and will go through a period of collective group therapy, they may succeed. If they do not, this will always be the proverbial “elephant in the room” for the new church.

Another negative factor that the upstart congregation must deal with is unrealistic expectations. Unless the upstart group numbers 100 or more, they will not be able to have the nice building, quality worship, and extensive ministry programs that were available in the old church. These may develop over time, but this requires a great deal of commitment and patience.

Another negative is that the group who withdrew may be too cautious about whom they will admit into their church and their leadership circle. There is often a fear that “someone will steal our church like they did at (name the old congregation).” This is a barrier both to growth and innovation. The upstart congregation may live in the past rather than creating a future.

While I worked with Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I talked at least two groups out of starting new churches. My primary question was, “Do you have a positive vision to motivate you as you begin this new church?” In both cases, the final response was “No.” Can upstarts or church splits succeed? In some cases they can, but they always carry the history of being borne out of conflict and must decide if this is a burden or a blessing.

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