Rethinking… Church Planting…

I know I have no business writing about church planting. In fact, I have retired from the painstaking task of being involved with the venture and adventure of church planting. There are numerous places, however, where my story and the story of planting churches intersect and so, I share the following to inspire, to find commonality, and to offer hope. Hope to the disillusioned. Hope to the disenfranchised. Hope for humanity in North America. And hope for my own heart. And as I share these intersections with others, it may be worthwhile for you to take a look at my ‘church-eology’.

At the risk of offending those I care about, those that are in the trenches of the church world I am no longer in, and at the risk of offending those that aren’t, I thought after several years of being involved at a fairly high level I would take some time to process my view point. From Youth Pastor, to Church Planter Wannabe, to Church Plant Resident Director, to Executive Pastor of Church Planting, to Kids Pastor, my journey has been extensive and relatively short compared to those who managed to persist in what being a leader in a church means.

I have several friends who are church planters or were at some point in their ministry career. I love each of them, and hope the best for them as they either embark or disembark on a journey that is difficult, painful, lonely, and sometimes, career and marriage ending. I love their families. I love their kids. I have watched them hurt, cry; some have seen incredible success, and I have observed their painstaking tackling of an elusive goal of sustainability. And hopefully, each of them live to tell of their ventures.

I wanted to be a church planter, a long time ago. I can remember believing maybe God was calling me to plant a church; one that was different, one that was going to actually reach the culture surrounding me (See Savior Complex).

My aim was to plant a church that was real. Authentic. Like the early church (I think that’s what every church planter thinks at some point). Remember,I was going to ‘save’ the world. That dream has long since ended and different dreams have come and gone. But I am still fascinated with those that would dare to go and ‘plant’ a church. I still follow people on facebook that are in the planting stages, or the pre launch stages and see what they are up to, how things are going, and track their progress from afar. I love to see new churches make it, and see many people get involved in those churches and experience their own version of life change. But I don’t see a lot of those stories.

Sure, there are the churches that explode and have wonderful growth because they have a niche or they have a great communicator or they have different rock and roll music from the church down the street. But I haven’t been able to find a church-plant that is successful without the ‘cult of personality’ or the ‘niche programming.’ There are successful churches we deem ‘thriving’ in our North American entrepreneurship and we have a lot of different measurements to determine this. We measure size, rate of growth, budgets, staff members, leadership training, and church planting. American pastors look around at other churches and see others as more successful or impactful than they are. Pastors feel the pressure of growth, whether implicit or explicit, because it is the current cultural mark of success. If a church isn’t growing and it has ‘plateaued’, they think,it may be time for that church to do another ‘awesome’ sermon series, or have a ‘building campaign’; or maybe it’s time to inject some ‘vision’ into the people. Going to the extreme, maybe it’s time to ‘relaunch’, start anew, and come up with a different name, different mission, or different trajectory. Maybe it’s time to fire the Lead/Senior Pastor and start fresh with someone that can lead through, and away from, the certain decline the plateau would lead the church toward. Most churches, according to research, have plateaued or are declining in attendance in North America, and so I dare say that these techniques have lacked the intended outcomes we have tried to produce by doing some of these things.

The New Testament was full of church planting. And I believe that the early church apostles were wonderful people, dynamic even, so it makes sense they would plant great churches; wonderful, growing, thriving, mega churches. But as you study the New Testament, you find that these planted churches were not fast growing. They were amazing at everything they did but they weren’t the fastest growing church in the middle east or in Europe, or east Asia.

The movement happened, where Jesus was proclaimed over and over again to many people, but there was not an organization that was quickly developed. Instead, an organism was formed; one that would revolutionize the world, and lead us into the present where our North American church is trying to reinvent what it looks like to have growth the slow steady growth that forever changed the planet. We have decided that digging in our heels and becoming ‘evangelical’ will be helpful to our quest to ‘evangelize’ the world. Smarter people than I have documented quite well, the demise of the church in North America (notably evangelicalism as well as Catholicism and Anglican faiths). Missiologists agree that our churches are dying faster than we are planting (except, the mormon church). And in good North America fashion, our denominations are responding by answering the question of death with ‘new life.’ If we plant more churches, maybe we will outdo how many churches are dying. Maybe if we plant them faster than we are losing them, we will succeed and be seen as winning in North America instead of losing. We hate losing, don’t we? We hate the idea of death.

But the early church wasn’t afraid of death. They couldn’t have been. They weren’t trying to ‘stay alive’ (Point #3),as Ed Stetzer makes a case for.   If we put ourselves in the place of anyone in the early church, the realities of the day would become quite overwhelming.

If you put yourself there, for a moment, you are no longer a church attender rather your very identity is that you ARE the church. You are the ‘people of God’ or ‘people of The Way’ Every social construct is out to get you: whether it be the religious establishment, the government the civil structure, or the atheist construct. Even your own color scheme is out to get you. You are different. You are radical. You are by far the weirdest person anyone has ever met. To get close to you personally means risking one’s life, and one’s livelihood, and might even get your family killed. You experience racism, hatred and fury, and find that most of your tribe wants you dead. Your very life is always at stake. And the person that you follow, they say, is dead (you believe he is now alive) and he has said, ‘go and make disciples’—people that will become part of ‘the way.’ You have to speak your faith to the culture that wants you hanging from a noose. That seems different than what we are experiencing today as the North American Church. Again, it was done as a living, moving organism, not an organization.

The first time I walked into a meeting of those that were attempting to recover from alcohol use and abuse, I found this same type of gathering. I found people that were outcasts from society. They were different; they were rejected by those closest to them, and were found to be imperfect, judged by the cultural norm around them. Many of them are brilliant; some of the smartest people I know. And yet, they have chosen to gather with those that are similarly afflicted. They have a common hope. The only stipulation for being a part of these groups is a desire to stop drinking alcohol. Those in the church are hoping for some kind of change,too. Maybe I am not comparing apples with apples. Gathering around a like minded choice may be different than choosing to be a part of the ‘local church.’ Or maybe I am comparing apples with apples… The early church seemed like minded, gathering together and sharing struggles. The group I have become a part of does the same. And we gather around the text, sometimes the bible, sometimes man written texts. I understand that my life is not at stake each and every day as it was in the early church (Though they say that alcoholism ends in one of three ways…Death…Jail…Or in a mental institution…).  I also see, as a parallel, that the early church was open, honest, and true to each other and themselves. When a church decides they need to split because of different beliefs and values, something valuable is lost. The organism that was the church, split in two, and then created itself into two organizations. And the church has since split thousands of times —in the matter of a couple thousand years—, sometimes for very good reasons, I suppose.

There are other strong parallels between AA and the early Church. The early church viewed their gathering as a life giving event that afforded them the opportunity to see another day to live, just like each and every day that I choose to live free of alcohol.

AA isn’t perfect because, it is made up of people. No group is. There are very few people who attend AA who haven’t been through a lot of pain, or a lot of life lived. When these types of folks gather, there is friction, and often sparks from that friction. But, in the groups of which I have been a part, the hour is spent with like motivated people allowing for another day, and another opportunity to live life to a fuller measure. These groups breed life, smiles, laughter, tears, and other wonderful human realities. It sometimes breeds discord but the keeping of the group is left to the care of the folks that are attending; to continue in their desire to stop drinking.

So, maybe you want to plant a church? I don’t have a lot of advice for you, as most of the churches I have helped start, have not been successful. (There are only a couple of churches that still exist from when I helped planters through a local church.)

With all of that said, two things I know to be true… They are confirmed almost weekly; daily in many ways. I’ve told these two things to several pastors and leaders.

  1. “When planting a church starts to hurt your family and marriage, get out.

And

  1. “Go to an AA meeting, observe it, pick out the principles you can translate into planting a local church and see what the outcomes are. You may be surprised. Things may be different for you. Sure, you may not have a mega church. But you might be a part of a living, breathing organism.”

I no longer dream of saving the world through planting of the organizational church. I still attend one, because it is a good place to meet good people, sing great songs, and listen to a wonderful, often riveting sermon.

These days, I keep on dreaming of being part of something far greater than me, that captivates people’s hearts and minds; that deals with the very inner space of the soul, and recognizes, confronts and deals with brokenness, grace, mercy, and soul care.

It is well documented, in both secular and religious writing that the church is growing by leaps and bounds in other cultures, contexts, and geographies around our globe. It’s fascinating to me how the organism of the church can spread, when it is placed under such strong hostility. But it did then, and it does now. Maybe it’s because the early disciples weren’t focused on outplanting the rate of dying churches. Maybe they weren’t focused on how much they ‘shared together’ in the offering plate. Could it be they weren’t focused on having the best music in town or the latest lights? Or perhaps, just maybe, it was because they gathered together daily and reminded each other of the reason for their actions. They reminded each other of why God had chosen them to be who they were. They focused on the God, who chose them, and not on what they could offer the world. Maybe it was because they didn’t need big buildings, big screens, bright lights, loud music or a wonderful, riveting communicator. Instead the early church met with those that were like minded even having ‘closed meetings’ to preserve the life they were infusing into their organism. They had secrets they would not tell outside the room of gathering and they had a common language in scripture that they gathered around. My recent experiences remind me of the early church at some level. I would like to insert here a short prayer a good friend of mine shared with me daily for a few months. He prays it each day before he pulls on his jeans to take on the day.

“Good morning Lord thank you for loving me with such incredible love. What do you have going today?  I’d like to be a part of it.”

To me, this expresses the essence of the early church.