It’s Life or Death for Church!

I’m reading some of the people who are writing about Emerging & Missional Church for my MA Dissertation, including Alan Hirsch. He quotes a statistic that says only 4% of Southern Baptist churches will plant a daughter church – 96% will not ‘give birth’. By analogy, if 96% of women did not have children it would indicate a fertility problem, even a general health problem in our culture. Hirsch suggests that not planting churches is unhealthy and that ‘the missional-incarnational impulse is a fundamental indicator of ecclesial health’.

Now his image of new, missional churches isn’t stale image that some of us might have, so more churches to Hirsch really means more communities of Jesus followers living in their culture and sharing the good news. The idea still raises some questions in me that I’m not sure I have the answers to at the moment.

Firstly, definitions of ‘church’ seem quite hard to pin down. At what point does a new community group transition from ‘missional community’ to ‘daughter church’ – is it only with an official grant of independence? I think the contemporary trend for working in the tiny (missional groups) and the large (big, even mega- churches) means that there are groups working under the name of a much bigger church that are effectively or largely autonomous. Even semi-autonomous groups starting are an indication of new life.

Hirsch quotes the idea that if we always want new people born, it should be the same with churches. The flipside of this is that we keep wanting new people because humans get old and die. Does Hirsch think that this is the case with churches? He writes near the start of the book that the church he was leading was over 140 years old and that he and his wife were a ‘last ditch effort to turn it around’. Yes, it came back to life under their pastoring and gave life to many new churches, but the only way to keep birthing new churches is to either have (a) exponential growth in number of Christians or (b) old churches die. Or, of course, a bit of both. The trend to ‘big’ is driven in part by Christians moving to where the life is – there are churches where there is little life and death might actually be a release.

Which leads to another, perhaps more difficult question: how can churches die gracefully?