After a series of short hops as an intern, interim, or “seasonal” music leader in various churches in Hawaii and California, I landed my first more permanent role in an ecclesiastical school of hard knocks, otherwise known as a church plant. My first Sunday in Denver, Abby and I walked into the doors of the elementary school cafeteria where the small community of Rocky Mountain Presbyterian Church had been meeting for a little over a year. And we knew we were home. RMPC became for me the deep end of pastoral ministry for the next five years. I got thrown into the sink-or-swim budget and evangelize-or-die mission, where all we had were the Word, the sacraments, and each other. Three chords and the truth.
The early 21st century saw a fresh wave of evangelical church planting, spurred on by needle-movers and movement-leaders like the Acts 29 network and Tim Keller. Many plants didn’t survive beyond a five-year life span, but for the ones that did, they’re now reaching various points of maturity and exerting not insignificant amounts of influence on the broader culture of evangelicalism. For me, after five years with my north Denver church plant, God called me to two larger, established churches with long histories and complex identities, and I’ve observed a few things about what happens when worship and church planting collide.
First, building an intentional worship culture is generally easier in a church plant setting.
Whether you’re a free-church evangelical with no script or high-church Anglican with a detailed script, when you plant a church, you’re afforded a measure of freedom in the way worship goes that you don’t get at an established church. I’ve seen it time and again with my friends who set out to plant churches. One of the things they were most excited about was being able to craft something from scratch that either severely side-stepped or outright eliminated some of the worship ruts, hangups, and landmines that established churches seemed to be tangled up in. Granted, people will always find an excuses to fight about worship (I remember several skirmishes in our church plant…we were Presbyterians, after all), but such squabbles were never laden with the heaviness that weighed down the worship wars of established churches. Church plants set forth a plan of action for worship and went for it. If it didn’t resonate with folks, they either never showed up or didn’t come back.
And I learned, in my little corner of the world, that (once I got my head on straight) it was pretty easy to shape an intentional worship culture. Most people left their pre-conceptions, if they had any, at the door, and the community was small enough that I was able to cast vision organically and relationally without any big-church red tape. Church plants naturally give off an air of informal experimentalism–no building, no protocol, no “way we’ve always done it.” This at least opens the door to think more freely and to latch on to ideas which may run against the flow of the mainstream.
Second, as a result, church planting is allowing for needed doxological shifts and correctives to take place faster.
Think of the difference between trying to steer a rowboat in a new direction versus turning an aircraft carrier. When we think about the fact that, in some sense, our worship will always be reforming (semper reformanda), church plants are at an advantage, because they can turn on a dime and point in a new direction. Established churches (even small ones) are barges with big, sometimes rusty rudders, and seeing the compass turn requires a great deal of work.
I’ve spoken many times about certain impulses that are marking the next generation of evangelical worship leaders–impulses for greater theological depth, historical connection, and biblical reflection in worship. There is a nearly instinctual reaction against the pragmatism and performancism that were at least a part of the value-structure of much of our parents’ evangelicalism, and those instincts are being given an outlet like never before…in church plants. Established churches of all kinds are scratching their heads: What? They’re doing liturgy? They’re singing hymns? They’re reciting creeds? They’re preaching through the lectionary?
And what we’re seeing is that these “reforms” are happening alongside existing, established churches in the major cities in the US, and they’re having an effect. They are teaching evangelicalism that latent in their own doxological psyche is a hunger for something more deep, more rich, and more thoughtful. They are challenging evangelicalism’s manufactured “sixth sola”–solus whateverworkus.
Third, many of these plants have come of age and are now exerting more than just a small influence.
I’m noticing, for instance, the Sojourn network of churches in Louisville shaping the way other churches and church plants are asking questions about their own worship. Between their blog, their music, their emerging worship school, and their growing connection with the formal programs of Southern Seminary, their indie-Reformed-Baptist-liturgical identity is leaking out to the broader Church.
In a back-handed way, this very blog, too, is the product of the influence of church-plant-related worship. I wouldn’t have been able to cut my teeth on many of the above-mentioned values and ideas in a larger, older, established church. Being a free-thinking worship leader allowed me to experiment, somewhat self-educate, and form my philosophical and theological convictions with a much greater degree of latitude than I would have ever been afforded in either of my other two roles after the plant. This blog, its thoughts, and its influence are directly related to my experiences in being a worship leader in a church plant. It’s actually fascinating that I find myself in established churches attempting to effect change in them more toward the values that were forged in me in that church plant in north Denver.
And as I start to think about the worship leaders with whom I share boat-loads of overlapping doxological convictions, they all are in or have been in various ways connected with church plants. It is the church plants that are “going liturgical” and bucking the trends of the majority’s musical sound. It is the church plants that are more quickly implementing discipleship strategies that relate corporate worship to spiritual formation, a la James K. A. Smith.
Fourth, established churches and the mainstream are beginning to ask different questions and seek different answers.
This blog has been, for the last four years, dedicated to observing and reporting many of the subtle shifts that may be indicators of gradual but substantial change in evangelical worship, from mainstream CCM album reviews, to highlighting indie hymn projects, to new liturgical resources, to songwriting trends, and on and on. In some sense, then, the gentle, implicit critiques of the church plants are being heard and heeded. Established churches are seeking the counsel and wisdom of church planters when it comes to thinking more missionally, and we’re seeing a similar parallel now in emerging questions about worship. I can’t tell you the countless dialogues I’ve had with pastors who are asking questions like, “How do we root our worship more in the historic practices of the Church so that we realize we’re part of something bigger than ourselves?”
And so, while it’s certainly not true that the new church planting movement is reponsible for any and all healthy shifts in worship happening in evangelicalism today, I do believe it’s fair to say that God has allowed these little ecclesiastical seedlings to move the dial for the Church in a bunch of ways…and worship is one of them.