Inside the current storm among ELCA congregations, there is a huge difference between the thought “I will leave” and the thought “We will leave.” The decision to leave for an individual or an individual family usually creates ex-Lutherans joining another church in town. The decision for a group of people to leave often creates a new Lutheran congregation. We are calling these new congregations “remnant” churches, because in many cases they represent a faithful remnant who are seeking to remain true to God’s Word in their lives and mission.
Romans 11:1-6: I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don't you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: "Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me"? And what was God's answer to him? "I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
At WordAlone we have been carefully following the development of several of these remnant churches in order to share their experiences with others who are considering doing the same thing. This “Starting Over” series on our website is the result of our work in this area. Please understand that this is not meant to be an authoritative source for starting new congregations. We are only offering what we have learned from those who are actually engaged in “remnant” mission congregations. We share it in hopes that it will help you.
Here are some actions that we recommend for groups starting “remnant” churches.
Psalm 25:5: Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.
Start in prayer together. For most groups this is a self-evident starting point, but it bears repeating. For most of the people we have talked to, the decision to leave their home church and start a new mission congregation is very difficult. It requires much prayer that seeks God’s will.
Most remnant groups have done this through a series of meetings where options are carefully talked about. There is no way to predict how long this decision process will take. It varies considerably from group to group. The primary purpose of these meetings is to study Scripture together and pray for God’s guidance. Between meetings members of the group continue to pray individually and seek guidance in the study of Scripture. The group carefully compares the results of their individual prayer and study when they gather. In almost every situation remnant groups have reached a point where they have felt confident together that God is inviting them to take the next steps in forming a new congregation.
Joshua 24:15 — But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.
It is important that some form of covenant be established by a group deciding to form a “remnant” mission congregation. The covenant may be formal or informal. It should establish answers to a number of important questions:
It may be helpful to write the covenant down so that it can provide a point of reference for the group as it moves ahead. This should not be seen as a legal document. Its purpose is spiritual. It is designed to help the group communicate about what God is calling them to do in this new congregation and how they plan to respond to that call.
Matthew 18:19-20 — "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."
It is important to remember that large numbers of members are not required for a new congregation, since the minute you have more than one believer you have a church. However, numbers of people and available resources should be taken into careful consideration as you decide which congregation model you will use for the new church. There are many ways congregations can be organized, but three main models seem to have been useful for “remnant” churches.
Goodness! What to do…
A small number of people can form a vibrant, healthy and successful congregation meeting weekly in a home. All aspects of worship life, Christian education, discipleship and mission can be effectively accomplished by a house church. WordAlone is working together with Lutheran Evangelistic Movement (LEM) to create a Lutheran house church network called “Life Together Churches” which provides resources and pastoral support for house churches. Learn more about this at http://wordalone.org/ltc.shtml.
If the group is too large for meeting in a single home but still wants to gain the intimacy and evangelical power of house churches, it is possible to organize a church that meets in multiple homes, called cells. Cell churches often find a public location to gather all cells together for worship once or twice a month, but the main emphasis for worship, education and discipleship remains in the cell group meeting weekly in homes. The Lutheran house church network, “Life Together Churches” is well equipped to support the development of cell churches. Learn more about this at http://wordalone.org/ltc.shtml.
Often, larger remnant groups will immediately begin thinking of weekly worship in a public setting. This often involves renting facilities, bringing in worship resources like hymnals, and providing a preacher. In choosing this model it is important to make sure that the remnant group has the commitment and resources necessary to implement it.
Ephesians 4:11-13 — It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Details! Details! Details!!
Organizing for action is one of the places where remnant congregations tend to set themselves apart from other kinds of mission starts. This is because members of a remnant group tend to have established gifts from their work in the church they are leaving. They are already known as musicians, worship leaders, teachers, administrators, technicians, planners, hosts/hostesses, and other crucial ministers for congregational life and mission.
However, in a new mission start there is a great deal more work to be done by individuals than in an established congregation. Often that work is complicated by not having the physical infrastructure that a church building provides. It is important to organize carefully to establish “good order” for the congregation and its worship life.
From conversations with newly developing mission congregations, we recommend that groups organize themselves into a minimum of four teams. We suggest that all three models of congregations—house churches, cell churches, and mission starts in public settings—consider these four teams:
Colossians 3:14-17: Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The remnant group should begin to worship together on a weekly basis and enter into serious study of the Bible as soon as possible, supported by prayer. It is vital to set regular times and to stick with them if possible. Even though the initial impetus for the new congregation may grow out of anger and frustration with a former congregation, a new congregation will not survive long on this sentiment. It is crucial for members of the new congregation to find a new foundation for faith through a shared worship life and mutual study of the Word. This is so that “the peace of Christ may rule…” as the apostle teaches.
Regular, faithful worship and study of the Word is the remnant group’s best avenue to overcoming their past in confession and forgiveness. It is the strongest method to develop a community that will survive into the future. It provides a public witness to the Gospel for the real work of the church to make disciples in obedience to the commission of Jesus. Through faith in Jesus and a modest commitment of time and resources any remnant group can establish weekly worship and Scripture study. Once this happens, the rest of the processes of establishing a new congregation can fall naturally into place.
Matthew 5:14-16 — "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
There is a reason Christian worship is public. Even house and cell churches are public. It is because of God’s insistence on His people being light. We never know who God will draw to the light of his Word through our worship. So a Christian congregation should not and cannot remain a secret or private affair. It needs to become public. It needs to be announced. This means several important things for a newly developing congregation.
First, a congregation needs a name. This is one of the first things a worshiping group should do together. They need to consider some options and then pick a name that has meaning for the congregation and will give it a public handle.
A congregation should also seek public legal recognition as a church. There are actually several ways to do this. One of the simplest and fastest ways is to vote as a congregation to affiliate with a known church association or denomination. At WordAlone we have three excellent options that we recommend.
Finally, we recommend new congregations seek public recognition through listing in the telephone directory, (affordable) newspaper ads, a website, and other public announcement opportunities.
Matthew 22:18-21 — But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
Organizing the financial aspects of a new congregation is a clear case of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. By this we mean that setting up financial records carefully with a good system for recording gifts is crucial. Government regulations need to be carefully observed, and the trust of congregation members needs to be protected. At a bare minimum the congregation will need:
Setting up a bank account requires an address for the church. Some new churches use the address of a member of the congregation for their official address.
Leadership should devise a careful process for two or more people assigned each week to count the offering and deposit it in the bank. A member of the congregation will need to serve as treasurer to manage the books and pay bills. Someone needs to do gift recording each week. Offering envelopes are helpful for this purpose, even for very new congregations.
Once a pattern of giving begins to emerge from Sunday offerings, the leadership team needs to prepare a budget for the congregation to guide spending and planning for the congregation’s future. Congregational leadership should also check with other congregations in the area to see what practice is common for annual audit of the books for the local area.
Most remnant groups have talented business people that well understand the issues regarding financial organization. We only offer these suggestions as a checklist to help with covering the bases.
1 Corinthians 3:5-7 — What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
It may puzzle some that we have left the matter of securing pastoral leadership to the last of the actions we are going to address. Many times this is the first thing that people think about. It is hard to imagine a congregation without competent clergy leadership.
However, as we have watched the phenomenon of “remnant” churches, we have noted that most of them are carried by strong lay leadership. We think this is a very good thing. We believe that a strong laity will help the church of the future to avoid some of the problems of the past.
In many “remnant” churches, the laity has wisely drawn upon the counsel of retired clergy or area pastors. Still, the primary leadership for these new and developing congregations is coming from laity. They are clear about what they want the congregation to become and are willing to work hard to help it become that. This is really an exciting development for Lutheran churches. And we want to encourage it to continue in any way possible.
Congregations that grow rapidly or start with significant numbers and resources will soon be able to call a full-time pastor. This is happening more often than would seem possible. But such is the potency of some of these new remnant congregations.
However, there are still plenty of settings where it will take time to build a congregation with the income to call full-time clergy. Some settings may never reach a resource level that permits the calling of a full-time pastor. Throughout Christian history many congregations have been highly missional and effective without the benefit of full-time clergy. However, qualified clergy leadership of some kind is especially important for Lutheran congregations, who depend strongly on the theological strength of Biblical and catechetical preaching and teaching to shape their mission and ministry.
Here are some suggestions we would like to make for finding part-time pastors:
As a final note on the process of securing pastoral leadership for today’s congregations, it is important to note that the process for determining the suitability of a pastor has now become the responsibility of the congregation. Congregational leadership should be ready to check references and to do background checks on candidates to make sure they are accurately representing themselves.
John 13: 34-35 — "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
We are deeply thankful to the remnant groups and new congregations that are sharing their stories with us. Stories about how they are working together to follow Jesus’ command to love one another in Christian fellowship that seeks to make Jesus known. Anchored in the Word of God, they are venturing to establish faithful communities where discipleship to Jesus is evident. We know that many more groups will join them in the future in forming remnant churches, new congregations dedicated to the commission of Jesus to make disciples. We offer this web series, “Starting Over – Starting a New Congregation,” along with our prayers that it may help in the mission of God to raise up the faithful congregations he needs to make the name of Jesus known in our land.