If Only We Could Franchise Christ’s Church – Fall Issue 2008

On the face of it, one could say that the vision of The Free Methodist Church in Canada “to see a healthy congregation within the reach of all people in Canada and beyond” sounds like a franchising plan to put cookie cutter congregations in every part of Canada and scattered around the world – something like Tim Hortons or McDonalds would do.  In other words, everywhere you encountered a Free Methodist congregation you would be guaranteed the same experience.

In this edition we are discussing the theme of multiplication of congregations – a theme that flows out of the heart of the vision that God has given to the FMCiC. As I look at what the Lord is doing in our movement, if setting up franchise units is what He desires, we are either an abysmal failure or He has something else in mind.  It’s the latter.  

When our vision statement uses the words “within the reach” we are not talking about replicating cloned congregations in geographical areas.  We’re talking about understanding the cultural context of communities and responding to what the Holy Spirit is doing in their neighborhoods to bring about transformation in people’s lives.  Before we even begin to think about partnering with others in other parts of the world, we recognize that there are many different sub-cultures within Canada alone, especially in light of the arrival of folks from other parts of the world.

It’s naïve to think that “one size fits all”.  Instead we’re seeing that different contexts require congregations in a whole variety of formats.  It’s complicated, and some times when we think we have things all systematized, God (not Satan, but God) disrupts our plans.  For example, we presently worship weekly in the following languages:  English, French, Creole, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Urdu, Tamil, Arabic, Amharic, Assyrian, and Persian. Add in the diversity of regional cultural values, generational preferences, 24-7 work schedules, the availability of meeting space, etc., and it’s clear that “one size” won’t fit all.

I like what missiologist Craig Van Gelder says when he observes the activity of the Holy Spirit in all of this.  1He writes: “…two patterns are evident in the book of Acts.  There is intentional, planned activity that leads to growth—a strategy as illustrated in the work of the apostles and Paul’s mission team.  But there is also the Spirit’s leading of the church in or through conflict, disruption, interruption, and surprise into new and unanticipated directions that resulted in growth.  When considering the ministry of the Sprit-led church, it is essential to utilize wisdom and planning to develop a strategy, but it is also essential to consistently exercise faith and discernment in the midst of unexpected change.  A congregation experiences the leading of the Spirit through both processes.”

So if we are seeking to be a Spirit-led movement rather than mechanical franchisers of religion, where do we look for guidance to inform our vision?  I personally get help from Jesus’ agricultural parables.  He talks about sowing the seed, the mystery of germination, the unpredictable factors at play while the crop is maturing and the anticipation (when it’s good) or the angst (when it’s disappointing) of the harvest. 

Of course, the classic is the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) where Jesus said: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Sometimes we are not immediately clear about the meaning of Jesus’ parables, but in this case He gives the disciples an explanation.  He starts with “the seed”.  Every seed is created to reproduce itself and many of us have seen vast bare prairie fields transformed into flowing fields of grain.  It’s because the seeds took root – many of them. 

But as Jesus explains, sowing the seed of the gospel and seeing a kingdom harvest also have the elements of risk and failure.  (My view is that everything that He says about the planting of the seed of the gospel in individual hearts applies to the planting of congregations in neighbourhoods.) 

There’s the risk of impenetrable spiritual resistance from demonic oppression. 

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. There is the carelessness of inadequate discipleship where people do not cultivate depth in their relationship with the Lord.

The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.

There is the ever present discouragement and distraction that comes from worldliness.

The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.

In spite of all these realities, we’ll keep trying anyway and we’ll stay realistic that though the level of response will vary from ministry to ministry, there is a harvest!!

But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

But let’s keep in mind something called  the “all by itself” mystery that we read about in the parable of the growing seed in Mark 4 where Jesus says:  “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

It is evident that though human effort is required to see the good news of shalom (wholeness that comes from God) planted in human hearts and neighbourhoods and communities, the Holy Spirit is active before, during, and in the culmination of the harvest.

In The Free Methodist Church in Canada as we have been seeking to be faithful to this vision, we have been risking and investing in planting churches.  Not all of our church plants have made it, but many have.  At General Conference we learned that 72 % of the 47 attempts to plant new congregations since 1995 are surviving.  When I use the term surviving, this does not mean that they are thriving nor can we predict that they will become strong, established ministries.  We’ll know that in about 25 years. But, as God raises up teams of disciplined, spirit-led planters and as the resources are provided, the FMCiC is committed to the multiplication of congregations.  It’s the only way to obey the vision “to see healthy churches within the reach of all people in Canada and beyond”.

Rev. Keith Elford is Bishop
The Free Methodist Church in Canada