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Pioneer church planters reach for Canadian ‘nones’

They’re not just trying to start a church but a new kind of church.

“I will never plant a church again,” Joe Manafo says.

“I had the best church planting experience one could ask for. I planted alongside the best people, who were also my best friends. The location was perfect, the setting ideal and the timing, just right.

“However, I also lost seven prime earning years and drained my RRSPs. The emotional toll, marital strain and relational pitfalls were considerable. The vocational pressure and confusion it carried, substantial.

“Yet, I am able to look back at that season of my life and say with all honesty that it was the most meaningful adventure of which I have been a part, and the most fulfilling work I have done. For all its blemishes, it was a magical ride right from the very beginning.”

Thus begins the foreword of Jared Siebert’s forthcoming book, Gutsy: (Mis)Adventures in Canadian Church Planting, released on September 30. The book is a follow-up to a 2008 documentary called One Size Fits All? Exploring New and Evolving Forms of Church in Canada, which tells the story of 19 Canadian church plants and can be viewed for free online at onesizefitsall.ca.

Siebert was himself a church planter at Next Church, which began in 1998 in Kingston, Ontario. Christian Courier spoke with him by phone from his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where he is now the National Director of Church Planting for the Free Methodist Church in Canada.

Siebert says that much has changed for the church communities profiled in One Size Fits All? since the documentary came out. The stories “weren’t all happy,” but the difficult ones were included in Gutsy because “even the painful stories [have] something to teach us.” Both the stories of success and the stories of struggle contribute to community knowledge, a hard-earned wisdom which Siebert aims to preserve. Gutsy shares these stories in the form of anonymous interviews that enabled people to reflect more openly on their challenges and accomplishments.

Natural risk-takers

Church planters are pioneers and innovators. The documentary’s narrator, Barry Mielke, says “these new churches realize that success and failure are inevitably intertwined. Safety and security are named as fallacies, and risk is embraced as the most basic building block of faith.” Planters may make many mistakes and may also strike gold. Siebert commented that the people he interviewed “weren’t just trying to start a church, they were trying to start a new kind of church,” a church for a culture which is increasingly secular. Like Wayne Gretzky, who famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” they are attempting to move to where they believe the church should go.

As church planters venture into this new territory, they often lack a guide, particularly a guide knowledgeable about the Canadian context, which is “further along the track” toward post-Christendom than the U.S. Siebert commented that he wrote the book “for people who are tempted to do pioneer church planting. I think of it like a letter from your older brother who’s gone to college, and who is saying, ‘Listen, if you’re gonna go to this college, here’s what you do or here’s what you don’t do. On your first day, think about x, y and z. On your second day, think about this.’”

Some of the core practices he suggests are indicated by the chapter titles: “Stay in contact with reality,” “Watch your heart,” and “Take a LITTLE help from your friends.” His advice balances idealism with the very human enterprise of trying to be a healthy church community together: “Have dreams, believe in things, but also be ready to deal with the reality of whatever comes.”

High stakes

In commenting on the purpose of his book, Siebert says, “I’ve tried to create a picture of why we need to do this, but more importantly, these are the people who have gone ahead of you and they know where the rocky shoals are hidden underneath the surface, and they’re telling you, and sometimes with tears in their eyes, because of what happened to them when they hit them.” These rocky shoals often come in the form of unmet expectations and disillusionment with the community the planter started: “More often than not, the trouble didn’t come from the outside. It came from inside the church that they had planted, the church that they knew was going to be different.”

For those who plant churches, the stakes can be high. In some extreme cases, some of the church planters Siebert interviewed had lost their faith, their marriages and their sense of hope: “Some of them wondered if things were all over for them. I’m wanting to give people recipes for bouncing back. I’m wanting them to stay connected to reality.”

Church planting is not all “rocky shoals” and wondering if things are over, however. In Siebert’s words, “When you shape the church for the sake of a group of people who weren’t already a part of it, some incredible things can happen.”

Ministry to the ‘nones’
Shaping the church for people who are not there yet means being “driven by an interest in people who have no interest in them.” The “nones,” people who do not do not identify with any religious group, are the fastest-growing group in Canada. Siebert wants to bring together a network of people from various denominations to explore ways of reaching out to the nones.

Proceeds from the sale of Gutsy will support the New Leaf Network, “a Christian Canadian network that cultivates and supports starters and planters.” The Network is meant to be a “broader umbrella” for those who are looking at Canada with missionary eyes and who are interested in starting new ventures. In One Size Fits All? Anglican priest Nick Brotherwood of Montréal talks about the “need to face the challenge of being followers of Jesus in a world, in a culture, that doesn’t see being followers of Jesus as a very important thing. The move from being central to Canadian society to our present peripheral placement is a huge change, and we’ve got to fully adjust to that change. . . . It’s a calling to return to our roots.”

When asked what gives him the greatest sense of urgency, Siebert comments, “things have changed in our culture, and we need to respond.” The book is his way to “put my hand up, stand and be counted, and offer my suggestion.” This suggestion may just inspire others, such as Joe Manafo, who says in the Foreword that Gutsy and the New Leaf Network “set the stage for what’s next” in the Canadian church landscape. 

Manafo continues, “That said, I will never plant a church again. But this book just might change my mind.”

Advice from Gutsy for church plants

1. Stay in contact with reality
Planters who had a reality-based relationship to their dreams and aspirations did better than those who remained doggedly committed to idealism and fantasy.

2. Watch your heart
Planters who watched their hearts did much better over the long run than those who left their character issues unaddressed.

3. Be ready for growing pains
Planters who unapologetically pursued becoming a healthy church did better than planters who were motivated negatively to not become a traditional church.

4. Do you know what success looks like?
Plants that developed ways of building on success and adapting after failure did better than those that refused to examine themselves according to any standards – even their own.

5. Know your people
Planters and plants that were prepared to adapt to the people who actually joined them did better than those that couldn’t adjust or who longed to work with people who weren’t joining them.
6. Always expect the unexpected
Planters and plants that persevered through unexpected events did better than those that were unable or unwilling to keep going.

7. Take a LITTLE help from your friends
Plants that received occasional or modest help from outside sources did better than those that depended heavily on outside sources for survival.

8. Broaden your shoulders
Planters who were able to share leadership did better than plants in which the majority of energy and authority was localized in the planter.

9. Keep ‘em separated
Plants that did not tie their survival to a business did better than those that did tie their plant to a business.
10. Your denomination matters
Planters who were connected with denominations with a high capacity for nurturing and supporting pioneer church planting did better than those whose denominations had little to no capacity for support and nurturing them.

11. God ain’t done with you yet
Planters can and do recover when a church plant doesn’t continue.

12. A one-shot deal?
The future of pioneer church planting in Canada depends on planters who can overcome their reluctance to plant more than once. 

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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