By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) -- At a Friday night service in the unadorned sanctuary of CityReach Pittsburgh, a North Side church, men and women in jeans and T-shirts raised their hands and sang worship songs before watching a drama group depict Jesus healing the sick and exorcising demons.

On a Sunday morning in Garfield, Pennsvylvania, participants of a church called the Open Door gathered at the church’s hilltop urban farm and mixed farming chores with the singing of hymns and the sharing of communion bread, baked on-site in a wood-fired oven.

On a Sunday evening in Troy Hill, Pennsylvania, refugee worshipers at Pittsburgh Myanmar Church called out prayers in the languages of Burma and sang hymns in the amped-up style of modern American praise bands.

For all their differences, these churches have key things in common. They’re new, and they were created to reach people that other churches weren’t.

In dozens of new congregations across Southwestern Pennsylvania in recent years and thousands across North America, entrepreneurial pastors and lay people are starting to re-map the ecclesiastical landscape through “church planting” — a term increasingly on the lips of Protestants who say that whatever reached people in past generations isn’t reaching them now.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with an existing church, but I always compare it to a tugboat versus a battleship,” said the Rev. Cliff Jenkins, an urban church planting catalyst for the Southern Baptists’ Pennsylvania/?South Jersey convention, which has several new congregations in and around Pittsburgh. “It’s a lot more difficult to turn [a battleship] around.”

Added the Rev. Rodger Woodworth, pastor of New City Church, one of several area plants in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead in some cases.”

Churches have been planted since biblical times, and in much of 20th-century North America, denominations built new sanctuaries to greet their adherents in expanding suburbs.

But today, when people talk about church planting, they talk about it in evangelistic terms, trying to get people to accept the Christian faith in the first place.

In fact, with a fifth of American adults and a third of young adults saying they have no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center, some church planters say they’re borrowing the models used by missionaries who embed themselves in foreign cultures.

It requires “learning their language, learning their loves, their hopes, their dreams, their hurts,” said Rob Maine, pastor of Renaissance Church, a two-year-old plant that meets at a school where Garfield, Stanton Heights and East Liberty meet.

“It would be pretty arrogant to come in, start a service and say we have everything figured out,” he said. “We want to engage the culture in a way of saying, ‘We have a lot to learn about you.’ Looking at America as no longer a primarily Christian nation ... a lot of pastors have had to rethink their methodology.”

Mr. Maine was a schoolteacher in his native Ohio when he began to feel the call to ministry. He earned a master's of divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and got involved with ministry at Sojourn Community Church, a large Southern Baptist congregation that launched the Sojourn Network.

Sojourn itself was a church plant, launched in 2000 in rented spaces around Louisville's Highlands neighborhood before finding a permanent base in a renovated school and church on the Germantown-Shelby Park line, with campuses in surrounding communities.

While some of Mr. Maine's colleagues there encouraged him to plant a church, he was reluctant for a while, having attended a church plant in Ohio and seeing that all wasn't rosy.

"You’ve got a bunch of sinners interacting with a bunch of sinners," he said. "A church community never is a perfect community. Typically when authors write about church planting they talk about the big vision, and they paint it as this lofty and admirable goal, which it is. But oftentimes to their detriment, they don’t share the struggles, like: How do you raise financial support? Do you need to be bivocational (hold a second job)? What do you do when your entire core team leaves you?"

But when he and his wife took a vacation trip to Pittsburgh, which they had also visited several times when they lived in Ohio, they fell in love with the city and sensed a call in Pennsylvania.

First he wanted some confirmation from his colleagues at Sojourn.

"I think it was the community around me believing in me," he said. "Having my leaders around me affirming those things. It wasn’t just something I was making up out of thin air."

Renaissance Church was launched with sponsorship from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Kentucky-based Sojourn Network, one of an array of cross-denominational groups that train, mentor and support church planters.

Often, new church plants meet near older, struggling churches and sometimes under their sponsorship.

“New churches are considered the best evangelistic tool we have because there’s something exciting and empowering about being part of something at the start,” said the Rev. Amy Wagner, director of congregational development and revitalization for the United Methodists’ Western Pennsylvania Conference.

While many congregations have “heritage that we value, church doesn’t change quickly, and our culture is changing so quickly that it’s hard to keep up sometimes,” she said. “Often when younger people come into our churches, they have a hard time finding people like them.”

Think like an entrepreneur

Several longtime church leaders said the mid-20th-century model was to give a minister one-size-fits-all training and a “parachute” to start a new church in a new community.

Rev. Woodworth said when he got started in ministry three decades ago, “I was handed a church-planting toolkit. Just add water and you’ll have a church.”

But he didn’t like the formula — finding like-minded people in a wealthy, fast-growing suburb.

“My heart was not in suburbia,” he said. “My heart was in the inner city.”

He helped launch New Hope Church, a multiracial North Side congregation where he was involved for 18 years and where his first funeral was for a teenage shooting victim.

Rev. Woodworth launched New City Church in a Downtown location, trying to reach a mix of college students, artists, the homeless and those moving into new residential high-rises.

Most church plants remain small, and like new businesses, a fair number of them fail.

“You really have to be an entrepreneur and figure things out as you go along,” Rev. Woodworth said. “Church planting is not for the faint of heart.”

Some new congregations focus on niche groups such as immigrants, addicts or, in more liberal denominations, gays and lesbians — groups that often felt out of place in traditional churches, if not rejected entirely.

United Methodist plants include Connect Church, which is being opened at a Route 22 storefront in Indiana County. It’s supported by four area congregations and aims to reach students, recovering addicts and others.

Many older members of the sponsoring churches “lament that their children didn’t stay in church,” said the Rev. Scott Shaffer, church planter for the venture. “Their first hope is that they would come back to their own church, but they were inspired by the idea of a new church that would reach their own.”

Church planting has also been a primary way of organizing immigrant and refugee groups.

The Rev. Roding Lian of Pittsburgh Myanmar Church, founded in 2013, came to the United States in 2010 after years of persecution in his native Myanmar (formerly Burma) and then in a refugee camp.

He spends much of his time visiting refugees with similar stories, praying with them in their apartments and helping them with practical problems.

He’s grateful that Grace Lutheran Church in Troy Hill offered space for the independent congregation to worship on Sunday evenings.

Life in a new land is “difficult for us,” said Rev. Lian. “But we trust in the Lord.”

Listening to ‘the people God sends us’

The current wave of church planting began among evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, who have identified Pittsburgh among its 32 “send cities” across North America as they break out of their Bible Belt base.

“First the evangelical Protestant wing realized that they were missing large portions of the U.S.,” said Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and an author of multiple reports on church growth. “The mainline has finally awakened to the fact that they need to plant churches as well.”

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary launched a Church Planting Initiative last year to train future pastors in an era when fewer of them can count on landing a position at an established pulpit with a secure budget.

“There’s no formula or recipe you follow,” said the Rev. Christopher Brown, coordinator of the initiative and himself a co-founder of the Upper Room, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation meeting at a Squirrel Hill theater. It’s one of several recent plants within the Pittsburgh Presbytery.

“The primary skills we’re learning are how to listen attentively to God and to the people God sends to us” and then “discern what a new worshiping community looks like in a given context,” he said.

Many planters receive extensive training, mentoring and subsidies from a combination of denominations, independent networks and individual congregations.

CityReach on the North Side works with churches in the Assemblies of God and other denominations, as does Reach Northeast, based at the Allison Park Church in Hampton. They have launched scores of congregations, mostly in Eastern states. “There are a number of younger leaders out there that are longing to make a difference, and we have given them a place and permission to do so,” said Jeff Leake, lead pastor at Allison Park Church.

Given the many players involved, it’s difficult to get comprehensive numbers.

But the Southern Baptist Convention says it has planted more than 4,600 churches in the past five years alone throughout North America. The convention says the newer churches have higher rates of growth and conversions, although many of them are small, and the denomination is losing members overall. A 2013 internal study found that 80 percent of those founded in 2010 were still in business.

In another study for the Center for Progressive Renewal, researcher Marjorie Royle identified nearly 1,000 congregations launched since 2001 and still existing in 2013 in six Protestant denominations.

Based on responses from 260 congregations, the survey found that church plants are generally small and slow-growing, with an average attendance in 2012 of 55.

“You don’t build a new church in five years anymore, if you ever did,” said Ms. Royle, author of the 2014 study “New Congregational Development in an Age of Narrow-Casting.” The denominations surveyed were the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Canada and United Church of Christ.

All are suffering chronic membership losses and were eager to learn about church planting.

“There’s been so much talk about decline that it’s wonderful to talk about growth,” she said.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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