Anvil journal of theology and mission
Richard N Pitt, Church Planters: Inside the World of Religion Entrepreneurs, (New York, NY: OUP, 2022)
by Rev Kate Seagrave, currently the Church Planting Missioner for the Diocese of Winchester
Much ink (virtual and otherwise) has been spilled in recent decades on the topic of church planting. Methods, location, funding models, theological imperatives and inspirational stories have somewhat flooded both the academic and popular market. In this work, Pitt takes an unusual approach of a sociological survey of planters, with the starting thesis that this is a group of people who might be best characterised as Religion Entrepreneurs. The result is a fascinating set of insights into both common and divergent personality types, experiences and subcultures of American church planters.
Refreshingly, Pitt focuses chiefly upon planters in two Pentecostal denominations who are not usually represented in scholarly literature (The Church of God in Christ and Assemblies of God), together with those who are in smaller denominational networks (with a range of theological and social positions from conservative to liberal) or in the non-denominational context. This provides a broad view of experience from planters from across racial and social backgrounds, as well as from those who might be very critical of each others’ theological, ecclesiological or missiological perspectives.
Considering this diverse group of planters with the starting assumption that they share similar ground with those who start businesses rather than seeking employment raises all kinds of questions around the (sometimes uncomfortable) role of vocation. In planting a new church is the planter responding to a clear call of divine origin, or are they frustrated by a lack of opportunity in existing structures, unwilling to serve under another pastor, or reacting against past mistakes by forging a new path into the future? To what extent would they have become a business entrepreneur if they had not entered ministry? Most uncomfortable of all are the questions around the social standing of planters’ church life. Pitt dares to talk out loud and explicitly about the elephant in the room: that in many circles, becoming a church planter is an ambition which, if realised, confers status in a congregation, a platform on the conference circuit and the aura of success. It is only through addressing this that the impact of the inverse fears of public and personal failure can be explored.
Inevitably the book is extremely USA-centric, and many of the situations of the planters are unique to that cultural and religious landscape. It would be fascinating to see similar interviews conducted in the UK as a comparative exercise. There is an inherent danger in taking starting assumptions, questions and conclusions from one side of the Atlantic and applying them to the other. That said, with appropriate and careful cultural filters in place, there is much to be learned for those of us outside of that context to learn from the work here. We too are in a church cultural context where there are incentives to plant which are often dressed up as vocational, and yet are so much more complex than presented. We too need to understand that some of these complexities may be part of the package of vocation, but equally may be rooted in the more negative realms of hurt, frustration, entitlement or desire for approval which are ever lurking in our mix of motivations.
The lens of the Religion Entrepreneur is a narrow one, but provides some fascinating insights and enables questions to be raised without judgement which in another approach might have been viewed as judgemental or even taboo. In and of itself, I am not convinced that it is an adequate sole framework for understanding the motivations and drivers for church planters. It is, however, a valuable additional perspective and deserves hearing and engagement from those who are planting new churches themselves, those who select, send, and fund them, and the Christian subculture which encourages and prays for them.