by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Some call people like me a church planter. But you are fellow farmers who tend a young plant called Open Table. Today’s parable of the Sower and the Seed gives us a chance to look back on Open Table’s brief history as a church plant. This review might help newer folks in our midst understand something about our beginnings and encourage us all to continue tending this plant.
But first let’s notice an aspect of this parable that has puzzled many. Why did the sower of the seed toss some seeds onto the obviously hardened path with no soil, and some on rocky ground with little soil, and some seeds among thorny soil, and only some of the seed in the obviously good soil. Shouldn’t the planter have been more strategic? Why waste seed like that?
Maybe because the Good News of God’s kin*dom is shared in a wildly extravagant way without counting the cost. After all, a profligate God scattered the seeds of stars into inhospitable vastness on the off chance that after fruitless eons, life might take root and grow. How unlikely is planet earth! How improbable that it survived long enough for life to emerge and then love to evolve from biochemical reactions and attractions. How unexpected that our species developed sufficiently to make possible what Teilhard de Chardin called “the Christ event.”
Speaking of unlikely outcomes, we planted Open Table in the shallow, rocky, thorny soil of Mobile, AL, a part of planet earth NOT conducive to growing a church like ours.
A good church planter would not have chosen this soil for a church plant. There was a good reason no one had previously planted a progressive, Open and Affirming, diverse, unapologetically Christian congregation in this city. Which is precisely why I thought it should be attempted. Because the Christianity that is going to survive is both firmly rooted in Jesus and the Christian tradition but also adaptive to scientific understandings, interfaith influences, and humanitarian commitments. An evolving Christianity will be responsive to the needs of this world so that we can, to use the UCC’s new phrase, “love children, neighbor, and creation.” The Christianity we’re leaning into is the version that will survive—and help us all survive. But it may not be a Christianity that our corner of the world is ready to suppot right now.
Of course, it’s not just the PLACE that is inhospitable for a church like ours. It’s the TIMING, too, as church attendance plummets across all denominations and thousands of churches close every year. Some are predicting the death of the Church. But as I’ve just said, I think we are facing instead the death of the Church As We Have Known It. After all, the Church has always been evolving.
So the place for our church plant is wrong and the timing is wrong. The METHODS, too, have not been ideal for our church plant. For instance, church planters are supposed to start with the support of a denomination. But we began Open Table and then decided IF we’d affiliate with a denomination and then chose our denomination.
This was me in late 2009:
(Knock knock) “Hi, United Church of Christ? A handful of folks in Mobile, Alabama, are forming a new church and we want to be part of the UCC!”
I’m glad they embraced us. Because the decision to become a UCC congregation was perhaps the best decision we’ve made even though we entered the UCC in an unusual way.
A new church also needs financial support. We started with no funding. Initially a small core group pooled together enough money to allow us to rent a shabby store front property on Dauphin St. For awhile the rent was our only expense. And in less than two years we began receiving grant money from the UCC as a new church start.
Another expectation is that a church plant follow a protocol for launching the new church. The experts on church planting insist, for example, that you need an initial group of at least 25 committed people before you even start planning. Of course, many successful new churches are offshoots of an existing church that creates a satellite campus, or they are planted as “missions” of a larger church, so the mother church provides the funds and the church planting team. Many other new churches are the result of a schism in a large church so the new church begins with dozens who have splintered off. New churches often seem culturally relevant because the young pastor has tattoos or because the church meets in a coffee house—but the theology being preached is often based on a fundamentalism that first took root over a century ago and still flourishes like Christian crabgrass in our part of the world.
The standard gimmicks for church starting weren’t going to work for us either. Throw a carnival for the neighborhood and give away free goodies for the kids? Uh no. Clowns and dunking booths would convey nothing about our meaty and artful worship services, progressive theology, and social justice commitments. So we introduced ourselves to Mobile by serving our community.
It sounds as if we used a totally terrible tactic for planting a church. We reached out to people who were not only unchurched but who were averse to church, some of whom weren’t even on speaking terms with God. Most of our core group hadn’t been to church in their adult lives. One had never been to church. We respectfully avoided poaching members from other churches, but since most people in our culture are either churchgoers or are completely allergic to church, we laughingly had to admit that the people who would really “get” us were the last people who’d ever try us out. By God’s grace, we attracted a range of folks with diverse church experiences. But many came here despite unpleasant church experiences, so it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Let’s not EVEN explore the problems that a new church in Mobile encounters with a FEMALE pastor aligned with a denomination no one in Mobile has heard of and confuses with the Church of Christ. And a congregation that fought for marriage equality and created a support group for LGBTQ teens and offered a curriculum to expose White Privilege and fosters interreligious understanding, etc. etc. The average Mobilian is not interested in what interests us.
But we don’t need to be a church for everyone.
Besides, God is always looking out for those on the margins. And there is SOME good soil for us. We have already put down roots. The statistics say that the majority of church plants don’t survive beyond the first few years. And for every year you survive beyond that threshold, your chances of developing deep and lasting roots increase.
We’ve crossed another important threshold, too. As a new church plant in the UCC, we were eligible to apply for and receive up to three consecutive New Church Start grants, each disbursed over an 18-month period. After that, we needed to be financially independent. We weren’t sure we would survive financially after that grant money ended. But we did. And we are. Thanks to your generosity.
In dreaming of the church I felt called to plant, I never knew where you would come from. But like an expectant mother, I loved you before I knew you. And that love as well as this line from Antoine de Saint-Exupery have kept me going. However, I’m forced now to switch metaphors from planting crops to building ships:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
I had this crazy idea that there were other folks like me longing for God, and I believed that longing would be enough to show us how to build the boat, or grow the plants, or start the church. Yes, church planting requires wise planning. We’ve tried to be strategic. But we have decided to do the loving and faithful thing, even if it’s not the profitable or self-preserving thing. Our yearning for the sea draws us beyond ourselves.
It is this LONGING for God that motivates me as a church planter, and the byproduct of that love of God—-our love for one another—-directs us and strengthens us and keeps us growing.
God’s love in YOU has allowed us to do some impossible things. You’ve had the capacity to hear and respond to a vision of church that is all about following in the way of Jesus. Thank you.
I’ve been trying to figure out who YOU are in the parable. You are, as am I, the sower, inviting others into this church, for example. But you are also the seed that in some ways has cracked open, and out of you grows the church that offers this world something delicious and wholesome and sustaining amidst brutal conditions out there.
I believe Open Table already is flourishing in the ways that matter, though maybe not according to those who measure churches in terms of the height of the steeple and the numbers of the people.
A seed was planted and, improbably, by God’s grace and your faithfulness, it continues to mature. Thanks be to God.