“Does the Eucharist setup your chairs?” Brainstorming about sacraments and mission in Southern California, a friend of mine asked me this rather cheeky question. We were exploring what it meant to plant churches sacramentally. That is, not just starting new churches that celebrate sacraments, but what it means to start new churches in a sacramental way. How, for example, do you plant a church with the Eucharist? Or even better, how does the Eucharist bring about a local worshipping community?

There are a few aspects of this idea that are worth unloading and inspecting, including what we think the “church” is and also what we really believe about it being “planted.”

This is precisely what I found myself wrestling with when my diocese asked me to host a seminar on “The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting” at our retreat in Dallas. I was happy to do it but felt like I’d be a big disappointment as I prepared to tell this room of extremely sharp colleagues, “You can’t plant the church. It’s impossible.” I’m not a curmudgeon or a pessimist, at least I hope not, but it seemed that the best advice I could give was that the kind of churches we’re able to plant aren’t the kind of the churches the world needs. Nor are they the kind of churches the mission of God seems to be calling for.

So, what is the church and how is it planted? When we ask this question we tend to think of strategies, social media, fund-raising, services, vision, and measurable results. Search amazon for church planting books and you’ll see what I mean. These things are wonderful and necessary, but the truth is, you can have a whole bunch of people, a pile of money, a bullet-proof strategy, and still not have the church. Our collecting of church artifacts, money, people, and buildings does not plant the church. Only the real presence of Christ, his own life and being, brings about the church. As the late Archbishop, Michael Ramsey, observed in scripture,

“Hence to call the Church  [the body of Christ] was to draw attention to it not primarily as a collection of men, but primarily as Christ himself in His own being and life…We do not know the whole fact of Christ Incarnate unless we know His Church and its life as a part of His own life.” (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, 31). 

How do you “plant” the real presence of Jesus, the reconciliation of all things, the body of the Incarnate God, apart from the Sacraments of the Church? You don’t.

A Visible Encounter with the Body

The sacraments aren’t merely tools for church planting, nor are they another “resource” for ministry, they themselves are the encounter of the living Christ in visible form, “the saving mystery in earthly guise.” (Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, 45,) The church, is the sacrament of Christ himself, the realization of his salvation visibly and materially in this world, “the external sign of the redemption a visible prolongation on earth: the visible Church.” (Schillebeeckx, 50, 62, 63). In other words, the Eucharist isn’t a style among others to begin and grow churches, it is the reality of the church itself—and we celebrate it not because it’s amazing (though it is), but because it’s true.

So the church planting question becomes more like, How do we participate like midwives in the birth of a local expression of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church? How are we co-opted into the mission of Christ’s real presence in our neighborhoods? We’re reminded just how sacramental Jesus’ commission was to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18)

The Eucharist is Mission

To be sure, I’m suggesting the least novel approach to church planting. To answer my friend’s question, the sacraments don’t set up chairs or a sound system; they don’t write budgets, raise money or draft strategies and timelines. Let me reiterate the main point once again: you can have chairs, microphones, budgets, and strategies, and yet never have the church. Technique, the delivery of certain religious goods and services—none of this brings about Christ’s church. What makes the difference? The real, objective presence of Christ, “Worship in Word and Sacrament,” as our catechism rightly explains. (To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, 55).

The sacraments are not a liability to evangelism and mission but in fact the instruments of God’s work in the world. Simon Chan digests Orthodox rock-star theologian Alexander Schmemann, “As Christ makes himself available to the world in the sacraments, the church, in turn, makes itself available to the world as the ‘embodied Christ.’…One can see why mission sustains the closest relationship to the Eucharist: The Eucharist is mission. It is mission in that it is making the church, the embodied Christ available to the world” (Liturgical Theology, 40). A sacramental imagination for church planting resides in the worshipping community that is caught up in God’s Eucharistic work in and through His church.

Interested in this topic? Check out what Dan Alger has to say about sacramental church planting.

Photo via Shawn McCain