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What is Sacramental Church Planting?


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“If You Are Into That Kind of Thing”

I once accompanied a friend to visit a church plant with roots in a non-denominational tradition. He was excited to take me because his church shared the Lord’s Supper weekly and he knew I was “into Communion.”

On this particular occasion the Pastor concluded the service with a prayer, the exit music came over the sound system and he walked off the stage. We were gathering our things to leave when he jogged back up on stage, turned his mic on and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to mention that on your way out we have some bread and juice on a table by the door. Christians call this Communion and have done it for thousands of years. If you are into that kind of thing, we’d love to have you grab some on your way out.”

As an Anglican, my sacramental soul shriveled. I literally stood where I was and said a silent prayer interceding for the people as the words of 1 Corinthians 11 ran through my head, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (29,30).” I felt like Moses waiting for a plague to spread like a wave until it stopped at my outstretched hands. It was a profound juxtaposition to hear the lackadaisical language of the pastor “if you’re into that kind of thing” and Paul’s clear language of warning of the importance of approaching the Eucharist with preparation, solemnity, respect and awe, “this is why some of you have died.”

While mistakes like this are common among well-intentioned planters and pastors, new missional works do not always have careless sacramentology. I have celebrated the Eucharist with linens draped over a plastic table in a gym that smelled like sweaty kids and experienced something transcendent and beautiful, something ancient but immediate. What makes the difference in a church plant between an experience of the sacraments that is holy and one that is sloppy?

The Intersection of Sacrament and Church Planting

In recent years church planting has exploded in popularity in our North American context (for reasons both good and bad), and at the same time, the ancient sacramental practices of the church are receiving renewed interest and attention. It was inevitable that these two trends would intersect. As an Anglican church planter, and because the sacraments and church planting are two of my greatest passions in life, I am excited both about the liturgical church regaining its missional side and many mission-filled churches coming home to their roots. My giddiness is tempered, however, by the great variance in the quality of this meeting of mission and sacrament; it is sometimes a beautiful, life-giving symbiosis and sometimes, as previously described, a gory, carnage-filled train wreck.

I do not believe the distinction is simply in practice; it is more deeply rooted in ethos, influence and order. There is a fundamental difference between planting a sacramental church and planting a church with Communion stuck awkwardly onto the end of a worship service. Or put another way; there is a difference between sacramental church planting and planting a church with a sacramental veneer.

Whether or not you are engaged in sacramental church planting is not merely pragmatic or methodological. It is not just how well you celebrate the rituals surrounding Communion or Baptism (although their execution is important). It is not simply a question of how we do the sacraments; it is a question of whether or not the sacraments shape who we are.

In sacramental church planting, Communion and Baptism are not simply “add-ons.” We do not simply make them a part of our efforts because they are hip, trendy or practically helpful; they are the center point of our worship, the primary means of catechesis and discipleship, the undergirding of our devotion, the source of our community. Through the liturgical forms surrounding our sacramental practice, we teach doctrine and we commune with our God and one another. Sacramental church planting means that the identity, function and values of the new faith community flow from our sacramental reality. In a church plant that simply includes the sacraments, the sacraments are only small part among many; in a sacramental church plant, however, the greater whole is fundamentally shaped by our understanding and practice of the sacraments. The centrality of the sacraments means that the church plant takes on the nature and attributes of a sacrament in its form and function.

The 1662 Catechism of the Anglican Church defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God gives us the sign as a means whereby we receive that grace, and as a tangible assurance that we do in fact receive it.” So, a sacrament is a sign, a means of grace and a tangible assurance. The only reason for the significance of the physical actions is the spiritual reality they express and transmit. A sacramental church plant understands its nature in the same way: the purpose of the sacramental church plant is to be a physical working out of the Gospel of grace, a means by which people can receive that grace and the presence of the church should be an assurance of the reality of the redemptive work of God. Thus, all the physical aspects of the plant are determined by the Gospel and are a means of the grace of the Gospel. This has profound implication on the way that we plant a sacramental church.

A Sacrament Is Dependent And Invitational…And So Is Church Planting

Without the initiative of God, Eucharist is simply snack time. Without the spiritual substance, the physical accidents are simply ground grain and pressed grapes. Without the ongoing redemptive work of the Gospel, church planting is simply entrepreneurship. If our planting work is motivated by anything other than the glory of God, the proliferation of his Gospel and the growth of the Church catholic, we are only working to create a paycheck or a legacy or an institution. Without God’s movement our efforts are in vain. Sacramental church plants see the vision for their work as being dependent on the move of God to have any efficacy, but also believe confidently that he is indeed present in the work and is inviting us to participate with him just as he invites us to his waters of Baptism and his table of Communion. So, sacramental church planting understands that our fruitfulness does not simply come down to technique, but rather to the sovereign move of God inviting us and others into his ongoing redemptive work.

In A Sacrament, The Spiritual Grace Is Ultimate, But The Physical Sign Is Vitally Important…And So It Is In Church Planting

As previously stated, the sacraments have no value without that they are the visible Word, pointing to the glorious work of the Gospel. Although the spiritual truth is primary, the nature and quality of the physical sign that expresses it has great significance. Haphazard celebration of the Supper caused sickness and death in Corinth; this was a spiritual issue of a lack of repentance and respect, but it was reflected in the improper physical expressions of drunkenness and disrespect. In other words, the how is as important as the what and the why. This has bearing for the sacramental church plant because we see our churches as the physical sign that points to the spiritual grace of the Gospel, so if we are a sloppy sign, we reflect a disfigured truth. Our ends do not justify our means. We do not grow or succeed in church planting at any cost, but rather our practice of planting must reflect the message we are teaching because in many ways just as the sacraments are the visible Gospel, so are our methods our message. This attitude causes us to reflect on all of our means for gathering, strategizing, advertising, organizing and pursuing planting according to how they mirror the Gospel they are meant to be an assurance of. The sacraments then become our handbook for planting second only to the Scripture and before any other writings, books, coaches or conferences.

In A Sacrament The Aesthetic Is Valued…And So It Is In Church Planting

The importance of the physical sign as a gateway to the experience of something greater naturally leads to a valuing of things of beauty that connect us with a sense of a deeper reality. Sacramental church plants then should take great care not to simply be a proper physical sign in the quality of our planting methods and example, but also in our creative and artistic expression of our endeavors. For example, worship is the activity commanded of the church, but it is codified in one way through musical expression. So, if worship is important, then our music is important. Our music is more than simply entertaining or nostalgic, it is a present offering of praise to the holy God as part of a great tradition, therefore it should be theologically rich and aesthetically beautiful. It should be faithful and good quality. We do not simply adopt what is trendy or popular, we vet things according to their quality and substance. Part of our mission and purpose is to offer our best.

The experience of sacramental worship is rich in symbol with both deep history and contemporary expression. We are rooted and relevant. We value beauty because it is not beauty simply for the sake of beauty, rather we believe it points us to the splendor of the Creator. Our worship services, our websites, our music, all our creative expression should all be done with our best effort for the glory of God. Understanding aesthetics sacramentally, that our aesthetics also point to a greater reality, adds value to what is created and the creation process itself. We are not simply trying to “brand” our church or “market” our efforts. We are not trying to be hip, cool and relevant in our worship services. A sacramental understanding of the aesthetic means that we have a responsibility for quality and integrity in all of our graphical, musical and artistic expression because how we express ourselves reveals the value of the object the expression is pointing to. So, in sacramental church planting we need to have a high value on the quality and holiness and effectiveness of all of our outward expression be it symbolic, print, audio, digital, or any other medium.

A Sacrament Is Communal…And So Is Church Planting

“Community” is an oft-used word in the church planting world, and rightly so. We must, however, have a biblical understanding of what that means. In a sacramental church, community is defined by and practiced in the sacraments. It is not simply left to social gatherings, small groups or even primarily defined by activities such as accountability or pastoral care. How community is entered and how it is sustained are not dictated by systems or the latest book on assimilation. Our covenantal understanding of community as the people of God who are recipients of his promises, co-heirs with Christ and participants in his sent-ness is entered into through baptism and practiced in the Eucharist.

A Sacrament Is Catechetical…And So Is Church Planting

For the sacramental church plant, the sacraments are our primary source for catechesis and discipleship. The liturgical forms surrounding our practice of the sacraments teach the doctrine of the church in a living way. Liturgical forms introduce doctrine through factual tenets, narrative form and recitation of Scripture, but they also reveal that our doctrine is meant to be shared communally, experienced corporately, lived-out personally and proclaimed externally. Sacraments break down the walls between intellectual learning, personal experience and missional outreach. Although other books and curriculum are good and important, the sacraments remain our principal teachers of the truth of Scripture.

A Sacrament Is Missional…And So Is Church Planting

Christ gave us two sacraments- Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Communion is the family meal where members of the covenant community come together in relationship with one another and Christ himself. It is a meal for believers only because to share in this intimate time, one must first respond to the invitation of the host. This has been the practice of the Church for thousands of years. There is an exclusivity in the Eucharist. At the same time, however, there is an open gate for all who wish to come in; while only those who belong to the family can share in the meal, the beauty of the Gospel is that an invitation to belong is extended to all who will ask, seek and knock through repentance and belief. The exclusivity of Communion is meant to reveal our need for Baptism, to show that to take part, one must enter in. Christ gave us Baptism as an entrance into this family to experience his presence through reconciliation. The sacraments when seen as a pair reflect the truth of the Gospel that intimate relationship with God is possible, but that relationship is not entered into by our own presumption or initiative, rather by a way prescribed by God- no one comes to the Father except through the gate of the Son. We come to Communion through Baptism, just as we come to relationship with God through faith in Jesus, being washed by his grace. The sacraments are a visible Gospel and, therefore, bring definition to how we are truly a part of the people of God and how the Church can brings others in.

The sacraments show that we cannot assume we are members of the covenant community any more than a stranger on the sidewalk can presume that he has inherent claim to come to our family’s Thanksgiving Dinner. The invitational and missional nature of the sacraments, however, implores people to not remain in their isolation and exclusion, but to experience the joy of welcome to a new family. “Come, be a stranger no more! Enter, eat and drink!” exhorts Christ through Baptism and the Eucharist as does the church plant in his name.

The church is reminded of our missional purpose over and over as it is embedded in the entire structure of our liturgy: every Sunday our liturgy proclaims the primacy of the glory of God in the opening acclamation, reveals our need for grace to come before a holy God through the prayer for purity, gathers us together in the collect, proclaims the Word through reading and preaching, invites response to the Word through confession and prayer, offers a time for relational reconciliation at the peace, allows us to experience the reality of our new family through the communal meal at the Eucharist and sends us back out into the world to do the work of mission that he has given us to do for that week with the dismissal. On the next Sabbath, the cycle repeats- gather by grace, receive grace, be sent to give grace and bring others in. The liturgy and sacraments show us that we are the church both gathered and sent. For the sacramental church, the sacraments are not only actions that are a part of our work, but in them we find the very nature of our missional purpose.

A Sacrament Is An Act Of Submission…And So Is Church Planting

We cannot take the sacraments and do whatever we would like with them. They do not belong solely to us. Agreeing that the sacraments are right and good and relevant is to agree that what our missional efforts need is to be submitted to something greater than our modern innovation and local preference. We cannot embrace the concept of the sacrament without adopting the form, practice and tradition of the sacrament. Submission to God, to the Church, to the Great Tradition and to one another is central to the sacraments, and we need more of it in our church planting efforts. This does not squelch creativity or spontaneity or contextualization or the work of the Spirit, rather it brings accountability to our own whims and roots us to a tradition that is greater than ourselves. We are not the first Christians to live, nor the first church planters to ever practice the art of starting new congregations. Sacramental church planting agrees that those who have gone before should have a voice in the work we do today. We are allowed creative fidelity, and adherence to the form and nature of the sacrament provides boundaries to that effort so that we do not innovate beyond the scope of faithfulness. Sacramental church planting recognizes that church planting is not a blank slate upon which to build our own kingdom by our own methods and desires, it is simply our time to carry the torch that many before us have carried and many after us will carry on. Submitting ourselves to the proper practice of the sacraments encourages humility and constrains the modern sense of entrepreneurship that can lead to idolatry while also giving us a sense of time and perspective in our mission.

All of the implications of sacramental church planting I’ve laid out in this short article can be summed up in what the English Reformers called “similitude.” Writers including Cranmer and Ridley taught that Christ’s choice in the particular physical signs in the sacraments has significant value because of their symbolic likeness to the spiritual truth they represent. Augustine said it this way, “If the sacraments had not some point of real resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all (Letter 98:9).” We submerge in the waters of Baptism due to its similarity to washing and rebirth. In Communion, we use bread because it breaks like the body of Christ and it nourishes our physical bodies as Christ’s body nourishes our souls. We use wine for its likeness to the poured out blood of Christ and the fact that many grapes coming together to make one cup of wine shows the unity that is created through Christ’s sacrifice. Most of all, both the grain and the grape had to die to give us life through their sustenance just as Christ gave his life so that we may live. There is a reason for the choices of water, bread and wine because they are similar to what they represent.

Just as there is similitude in the sacraments, there must be similitude in our work of church planting. Our concrete and temporal actions in the work of planting have no value lest they are properly empowered by and bear great resemblance to the truth of the Gospel. Using a dissimilar sign would nullify the nature of the Sacrament and to plant a church dissimilar to the Gospel would violate the nature of the church. Therefore, in sacramental church planting we put great effort into the sanctity and propriety of the celebration of the two sacraments ordained by Christ in order to glorify God, edify the church and reach the lost. In doing so, the sacraments are not one part of the work that we do; rather, the lessons we learn and the reality of God we experience in the sacraments shape and form every element of the practice of ministry. In this way, the sacramental church plant is a physical sign of Christ’s grace, a means by which the world can receive that grace and the community and work of the church are a tangible assurance of the truthfulness of the promises of God. That is sacramental church planting, and we’re into that kind of thing.

In this way does God make known his secret purpose to his Church: First he declares his mercy by his Word, then he seals it and assures it by his sacraments. In the Word we have his promises; in this sacraments we see them. –John Jewell, On The Sacraments

The Rev. Canon Dan Alger, Provincial Canon for Church Planting.