This past fall, I had the opportunity to connect with Matt Pamplin, a church planter from Hamilton, Ontario. I invited Matt to speak as a guest lecturer in my church planting course at Wycliffe College. We enjoyed his talk so much that I later asked if he would like to expand on it as an interview for a Good Idea article. Below is the first of a three part interview. I hope you will find Matt’s story as helpful and challenging as I have.
Sean: Tell me a little about St. Clair Community Church. I understand that your community emerged out of a small group, or what you are now calling a missional family. How did that happen?
Matt: I was on staff at a healthy established church In Waterdown, Ontario, about a 20-minute drive from my home in downtown Hamilton. Things were going well. My wife and I loved the church but had felt a call to the neighbourhood we were living in and where we had built some strong friendships with our neighbours. During this time a few friends / families who lived downtown were also “commuting” to Waterdown for church. So we decided to gather some people to pray for our neighbourhood and the city of Hamilton.
Prayer was the starting point and continues to be the source of everything we do. The presence of Jesus is the engine of the church. We often think if we run better programs or have better plans things will grow but if we don’t pray or seek his presence we don’t have anything. So we prayed, ate together, shared communion, spent time in the scripture and asked “How do we love our neighbourhood?” We prayed and gathered for over a year and realized that we wanted to be a family joined together on mission. So when we “officially” planted a Sunday gathering, we started with these midweek groups that we called missional families.
Sean: So you were gathering as a small group before you knew that you were planting a church—instinctively, as a way of engaging your wider community. Usually it’s the other way around.
Matt: Very true! We just felt called to pray, listen to Jesus and then do what Jesus said. That was really the heart of what we did, and then a church grew almost accidentally out of that. A pastor, who we have learnt a lot from, Mike Breen, says “If you make disciples you will get the church, but if you start with the church you may not make disciples”. This has been really helpful to us, we felt called to make disciples of Jesus by living as a family on mission and see what happens. That was our starting point as opposed to getting a building, projector, great Bible teacher, etc. and trying to form a crowd. We prayed and then asked our neighbours and people who lived in the community what their dreams, hopes, fears and heartaches were. We wanted to reflect our neighbourhood (which has historically had lots of economic disparity). A friend while praying for us during this time said he had a word for us: “If you take care of the least of these, I’ll take care of your church”.
Sean: I understand that you continue to practice missional families as a church community. How would you describe these groups and what do they do?
Matt: Missional families are central to all we do. We feel called to make disciples and to do that we need a context. We can’t make disciples simply by meeting in a large group for an hour once a week. Jesus and Paul, throughout the New Testament, gather together in a smaller context to live out the way of Jesus every day. We say our missional families are not a once a week meeting but they do involve one.
We now have around 14 missional families at St. Clair that are spread throughout the city. They are based around 5 practices: Eating together (there is always a meal involved), praying together, engaging in scripture together, caring for each other and serving together. The serving involves loving people outside our existing missional families. Each missional family bases their serving on a question “Are we called to our neighbourhood or a network”. The neighbourhood is the place we live in and the network is a group of people drawn together by affinity, interest or life experience—things like school activities, arts community, sports teams, refugee support, etc. We ask each missional family to pray and see where they are called to serve and love.
Sean: Traditionally one of the big challenges of small groups is that they can so easily turn inward and become huddle-like. How do you remain open and on mission together?
Matt: This is a challenge for every church I think, ourselves included. We meet with our leaders for training during the year and continue to remind them of the vision and values of missional family. Each of our missional families is open to new people and we want them to multiply. We don’t talk about splitting but multiplying. When a group gets too big (which many have) we pray and send out some new leaders to start their own missional family based around “mission”. We then ask if other people want to join them rather than just splitting the group in half. We also use Sunday mornings to teach and reiterate the fact that the church is a missionary people. We often say we “gather” on Sundays to remind ourselves we are a “scattered people”. We also believe that if we truly pray and seek Jesus, prayer always grows legs and leaves the prayer room.
Sean: I’ve heard that one of your current missional families is set to plant a church in another part of the city? So the story continues! Can you say how that’s come about and maybe share a few highlights and challenges?
Matt: My wife and I were leading a missional family and then launched two new ones out of ours. So we decided to go and join one of the new couples leading this group to help support and encourage them. They were meeting in their home in the next neighbourhood over. On the first night there were just two families and a single lady from our community. During the year more people started to join until we had no room in their house (there were 18 children in the group). We also had some other families from St. Clair who had bought homes in that neighbourhood who said they were interested in joining. During the time this missional family was growing we felt as a leadership team that we should church plant again. So we invited our community to pray. We spent a year praying with no pre-conceived ideas of where or what it should be, and during that time we sensed that God was doing something in the neighbourhood the missional family was in. So we told our church we would be planting again and in September started meeting as a missional family that would birth the church plant.
Sean: That’s great. I’m noticing a theme in your story: the centrality of prayer. It seems this takes precedence over everything, which is good news for people who may not think of themselves as particularly skilled or gifted for missional work. We can all pray! And we can all take small steps in response to God’s leading.
What advice would you have for people in an existing congregation if they are wanting to experiment with something like missional families? What would be a good place to begin, and what are some of the key perspectives and practices that incline in this direction?
Matt: I think start small and be willing to experiment. We heard a phrase during planting that has been really helpful to us: “It’s evolution not revolution because in revolutions too many people die”. We have said to a few people just start a small gathering that lives out the practices of family on mission and invite people to be part of it. You don’t have to overhaul everything but just start with this. Two of the key practices are eating together and having children as part of the missional family. I’ll say more about that later*, but we’ve learned so much from this. It has been an amazing journey for us but it hasn’t been easy and we are continuing to learn and grow every day.
*see next month’s Good Idea
From the Director of the Institute of Evangelism
Church Planting Turned on its Head
So let’s assume that for some crazy reason you have decided to plant a church. How will you go about it? There are a number of different models you could choose from.
One model prevalent across the centuries has been the ‘mother-daughter’ church plant. It’s a predominantly top-down model that often begins with a decision to plant a church in a new residential area. Denominational executives meeting with the leaders of an established church is a usual starting point. Funds are raised from both of these sources. A planting-team is formed from the ‘mother church’ with a lead planter often provided by the denomination. Land is purchased, a building is built, advertising is done, doors in the new area are knocked on, and collective worship begins. The new church hopes to grow largely by attracting people to come to its Sunday services. Financial support, from both the ‘mother’ church and the denomination, may be relied on for a decade or more.
This model depends on the intentional support of both robust and mission-focused denominations and established churches of significant financial means. There is usually a strong family resemblance between the ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ churches. They share denominational affiliation, organizational structures, leadership practices, worship style, and congregational demographics. Even their buildings share a particular architectural style. This model requires significant financial support from the start. It is heavily grounded in a denomination, land, buildings and salaried clergy. It was a model prevalent throughout Christendom. And it is a model that is increasingly rare today.
What are we to say about the decline of this model of church planting? Shouldn’t we be concerned that countless new subdivisions are being built today without a church building rising in their midst? Shouldn’t we be troubled that so few established churches are today embarking on ‘mother-daughter’ church plants? Not necessarily.
What if the ‘mother-daughter’ model so effective at one time is being superseded by another model better suited for today’s post-Christendom context? What if God is doing a ‘new yet ancient’ thing?
A very different model of church plant is explored in this month’s Good Idea. It’s a distinctly bottom-up model. We’re not even sure if ‘model’ is the right word in this case, since like many of these sorts of church plants they don’t actually begin with the intent to plant a new church! They may begin with someone who has a desire to simply pray for their neighbourhood. They then may gather some others from the neighbourhood around them; meeting to share food, read Scripture together, talk about the strengths and needs of the neighbourhood, and pray for its flourishing. No Master plan, no funds, no land, no building. And yet such small groups then grow and multiply, eventually coming to a point when they recognize they have planted a new church.
What are the possible advantages of this model for today? As I see it there are several:
- It begins less with an idea to plant a church and more with a desire to pray about where God is leading them to offer their gifts in service to His kingdom. Prayer and mission are the starting point, without the outcome of a new church driving the agenda.
- It is founded on, and encourages, a more contextually-driven form of ministry focused less on replication of an established church’s practices and more on an incarnational ministry within a specific neighbourhood.
- It is more flexible and responsive, since it isn’t burdened down in its formational stages with the high cost of land and buildings or with complex denominational structures.
- It is highly relational in an era when a large percentage of the population are living alone. This focus on relationships returns disciple-making to an ancient model involving a life-long discipline. It suggests that growing as an apprentice of Jesus is not a six-week course but an ongoing walk within the community of faith.
- It is a model of church planting that even small and less well-heeled congregations can engage in as they seek to live in a particular locale as a sign, foretaste and instrument of the Kingdom of God.
Will this bottom-up model of church planting become more the norm than the exception in our post-Christendom context? I think it’s highly likely.