plant-164500_1280By the Rev. Canon Dan Alger, Provincial Canon for Church Planting, Anglican Church in North America

“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 an