Review: Sustaining Grace

Sustaining Grace: Innovative Ecosystems for New Faith Communities, edited by Scott J. Hagley, Karen Rohrer, Michael Gehrling. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2020.

Summary: A collection of articles arising from conversations among church planters, traditional church leaders, denominational leaders and academics connected, in most cases with the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1001 New Worshipping Communities, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Church planting has become a focus in many church denominations. One thing all of them have had to face is the challenge of sustaining the efforts of planters and the communities they plant. The contributors of this book view planting as taking place within an ecosystem of traditional congregations, denominational structures, and the sustaining grace of God.

Scott Hagley, a professor of missiology, opens the collection by explaining the ecological metaphor. He goes further and argues that in a secular age where traditional churches are struggling, new worshipping communities may be God’s fresh breath of life, even as they depend on the resources, and as Karen Rohrer advocates in the next essay, the endowments of established churches. She is joined in this by Barry Ensign-George, who contends for the independent nature of these efforts. Scott Hagley contributes a second essay on stewardship framed in God’s gift economy of interdependence rather than a secular capitalist economy that prioritizes self-sufficiency.

The second part of this collection turns to the formation of those engaged in planting. Michael Gehrling argues for the vital importance of vulnerable truth-telling and truth-hearing among those who lead planting efforts. Aisha Brooks-Lytle emphasizes both the centrality of prayer and the vital importance of play, the enjoyment of God. She highlights four types of prayer–strategic, sighing, spiritual warfare, and silence. Kristine Stache examines the call of Moses, and the critical role of listening in this story as Moses hears God’s call to join him in what he will do for Israel. David Loleng proposes that simplicity of life and margin in one’s time allows for the generosity of life we would cultivate among God’s people.

The final part focuses on leadership development. Michael Moynagh call for the democratizing of church planting, shifting it from the preserve of gifted specialists to ordinary people. Beth Scibienski describes shaping collaborative efforts around the particular mix of gifts and skills in a group. Jeya So describes stewarding the culture of a church to develop the leadership within, dealing with place, pain, and potential.

Some of the essays early in this collection have a bit of an “inside baseball” feel, reflecting the discussions going on within Presbyterian circles around its 1001 New Worshiping Communities effort. Yet if you are engaged in planting efforts, you are likely to have these conversations. Two distinctive themes stood out to me in this collection. One was that of ecosystem, and the idea that the ecosystem within which planting occurs can result either in mutual thriving or mutual unsustainability. The other was that stewardship involves far more than financial capital, and indeed, if not set within the economy of God’s grace in our whole lives, it can easily degenerate into capitalist self-sufficiency. There is the wonderful picture of generosity as the overflow of simple, bounded lives of prayerful dependence on God. This is a slim volume, but one rich in insight for all those in the ecosystem of church planting.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.