Church Planting in All Sorts of Places (Not Just the “Cool, Hip Ones”)

A Church Planting Interview with Bishop Chip Edgar

Our new Bishop comes to the Diocese having successfully planted a church, sent out several young clergy to plant churches, and then, in 2019, his church planted a daughter church. So on March 31, 2022 we sat down together to talk about some of his experiences and what he’s learned. Editor, Joy Hunter

Where does the idea for church planting come from?

It comes from the Book of Acts. That’s the ministry Paul engaged in when Jesus sent his disciples out into the world – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the uttermost parts of the earth. He went from place to place, shared the gospel, established communities raised up leaders, put them in charge, and then went on. Planting churches is not the same as evangelism. It’s not just telling somebody about Jesus. It’s making evangelism part and parcel of the culture. People who hear the gospel form the Church then share the gospel. I think that’s why the image of planting is such a powerful image and is used so much with establishing and building churches, because you’re seeing the gospel take root and grow into a community.

But there are so many churches already, some of which are either dying or getting smaller. It’s hard enough getting people to come to them. How is a church plant different? And does it take away from existing churches?

It doesn’t have to, but that’s the common fear. Think of it this way: if your church has been in its community for 50 years and people haven’t come to it, unless you really retool what you are doing they’re probably not going to come next Sunday either. So think of church planting as scattering seed in another place.

And there’s more than one way to plant a church. Churches can plant churches within themselves – begin a second service. I remember years ago reading that 85% full is full. When somebody new walks into a room that is 85% full, there’s the perception that there’s just not enough room. So, a well thought out second service might be the plant that opens the door to other people.

It’s identifying a place, a need, a demographic—some target you’re currently not reaching. Oftentimes that involves the uncomfortable process of saying, “Okay, instead of doing another service the way we’ve always done it, we’re going to try to do something very different in the hopes that it attracts new people. You can plant a church by starting a Saturday evening service or a Sunday evening service or a second Sunday morning service.

Sometimes the thing that’s hindering a church is simply where it is and putting a church somewhere else, which a different group of people are going to drive by every day or hear of in a different way puts it on people’s radar screens in a way that the old location and facility didn’t. That may be all it takes to attract new folks. Think of church planting as a way of extending the ministry of a local church in ways that simply weren’t being seen in the community before.

How did you start the Church of the Apostles in Columbia?

There’s been all sorts of hay made by the media in Charleston about me being gifted in church planting. I don’t think that’s true. For me, in 2003 it felt like I was being shoved off the deck of an ocean liner and church planting happened to be the lifeboat coming by at the time.

I’d been an Episcopal priest for 10 years or so. And things in the Episcopal Church were changing dramatically. I was trying to decide whether I could still, in faithfulness, continue serving an Episcopal Church. Beth and I decided that we couldn’t. I got a call from a group of people, who had gotten my name from someone else, and they said, “Would you come and help us get this church started?” I had never thought of planting a Church before that.

And you weren’t even in South Carolina, were you?

I was in Illinois.

Today church planting is a pretty sophisticated undertaking. There are church planter assessments and things you would look at to see whether a person has the gifts for planting a church. I honestly think I would not score very well on those tests. It’s just not my gift mix. But I was willing, I was breathing, and more important than the gift set I had was the gift set that that community of people who had the vision for planting the church had. There was a group of about 20 people who really wanted a church planted in Columbia. They were willing to do
the work.

I think the biggest work in planting a church is communicating. It’s the people telling their friends, inviting their friends, sharing their enthusiasm. You can have the very best church planting strategy, the greatest funding; but if your initial folks don’t see their job as telling their friends and inviting people, particularly people who aren’t going to church somewhere, you’re dead in the water.

Oftentimes planting churches is not about reaching folks who have no connection at all to the gospel. Sometimes it’s about planting in a place where folks whose relationship to the church and relationship to the gospel have been injured somehow. Sometimes that’s traumatic. Other times it’s just careless. Sometimes it’s just falling out of the habit.

What are some of the benefits of a Church plant?

One of the benefits is newness. People love new stuff. Everybody wants a new car rather than the old car they’ve been driving for 14 years. People want new clothes, even when the old clothes are absolutely fine. Sometimes it’s simply that this is a new thing. And the idea of being part of a new thing attracts people.

I know from that initial group of 20-25 at Church of the Apostles, some of those folks were driven by a desire to start a new thing. That’s who they were. And they were the same folks who 16 years later, when we decided to send off a group to plant in Lexington, South Carolina, raised their hands and went because they had this dream of establishing a new church. They were motivated by doing a new thing. They had that kind of drive.

And that wasn’t my drive. I was the pastor of a Church. I was looking for a Church to pastor. And it just so happened that I had to plant one in order to get one in God’s economy.

What are the hardest things about a church plant?

Uncertainty. Nobody knows, ever. No matter how good your plan is, no matter how extensive a demographic study you’ve done, you just don’t know if it’s going to take.

So, there’s just this feeling of risk. I remember Sunday mornings getting ready to start a service. We would come processing in like we do in this tradition. And I’d be standing outside praying, “Dear Lord, let there be somebody in the room.” I’d served in downtown churches where you’d see 300 to 400 on a Sunday morning. And then when suddenly that number is 40, even though that’s a good number starting a church, it felt like danger. It felt like we were on the brink, even though we were growing.

In a lot of church plant situations, the hardest thing is financial, the uncertainty of whether you’re going to be looking for a job in the next couple of years.

How about lessons you’ve learned through your experience?

I’ll say this a lot to younger pastors and church planters. The most important thing is that God wants a church there. And I say that because as I look back on it now, I see that there were lots of things that were going on that led to Church of the Apostles growing. Oddly enough, they tended not to be the things we tried to do. We would have this plan. We would do some program and think a bunch of people were going to show up, and then they were going to join our church. Those plans might produce some results, but they didn’t account for the kind of steady, week after week growth we were seeing.

We planted Church of the Apostles in March of 2004. And in April of 2006, I had to have a kidney transplant. I was out for about eight weeks. Amazingly, over those eight weeks, Church of the Apostles grew. When I came back, there were more people. They had heard about me. They had been praying for me. They were glad that I was there, but I’d never met them. I look back on that, and think it had nothing to do with me. It had nothing to do with my giftedness. It had more to do with the community of people.

But really, God decided there was going to be a church there. We brought our couple of loaves and a few fish, but it was God who built the church.

You can’t plan that. You can’t strategize that. There are things you can do to support it. But it’s God who wants to see his Church grow.

How long does it take to plant or establish a church?

Church plants are often funded on a three-year schedule. The first year the diocese may give $24,000, the second year 18 or something, and then the third year it gives six. The idea is that you have three years to become financially self-sufficient. But there are a lot of variations in that. It’s hard to say when a puppy becomes a dog. But there are certain things that are happening. At some point there’s this sense of rootedness, of structure and self-governance. They have their own vestry, their own bylaws, their own copy machine, and they become self sufficient. But it’s a long runway, and it just depends on how quickly the plane gets off the ground.

If money were no object and everybody was willing, what would be your church planting dream for the Diocese?

Often the desire for church planting comes with a desire for a certain kind of church. It’s pretty rare that you find a church planter who doesn’t want to be near a groovy coffee shop, targeting millennials, 20- to 24-year-olds or whatever. Nobody targets grandparents. Nobody targets poor neighborhoods.

As I drive around South Carolina I see lots of places with church buildings sitting empty. Those places need churches. If we believe that Anglicanism and our understanding of sacramental worship, the connectedness that comes from a diocese is good. If we’re right about those things, then we want churches in those places even if they aren’t hip.

My dream would be for us to figure out a way to plant churches in those smaller communities. Right now, we’re not really paying attention to them.

I’ve met some young guys whose vision is for being in small, more rural communities. They understand that might involve the necessity of bi-vocational work. They understand they’re not going to get all the cool restaurants of Charleston at their fingertips, but they have a passion for that kind of life and the people in those communities.

I’d love to see that grow. I’d love to see the gaps between our larger churches filled in with churches in those communities. And I think that, by definition, those are the churches that require a really long runway. So, how do we make that possible? I’ve had thoughts about that over the years, and we can talk about that another time, but that’s a passion. I want to see Church planting in all sorts of places, not just the cool, hip places.