We don’t think of fishing as a team sport. When I think about fishing, the image that first pops into my head is someone standing alone out on a jetty holding a fishing rod and trying to keep themselves warm. At most, they nod and grunt to other individuals who are doing the same thing nearby. Often we imagine fishing for people in the same way.
When we think of worship, we imagine Christians together in something approximating harmony, but when we think of evangelism so often we imagine ourselves (or someone else!) performing a solo. This is to our enormous detriment, and not what Jesus has in mind. The ‘you’ in ‘I will make you fishers for people’ was plural, and he was talking to fishermen familiar with the importance of teamwork. Right at that moment they were mending their nets, and it’s time for us to mend ours.
Teamwork is vital in mission for so many reasons. Jesus said “everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” That’s hard to do alone. Effective mission also involves all the parts of the whole body of Christ. Fruitful mission needs spokespeople (evangelists), yes – but also hospitality, mercy, service, encouragement, teaching, stewardship, pastoral care and leadership. In teams we can each bring our God-given strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses. Teams – at least good ones – tend towards mutual accountability and regular reflection and feedback. Teams can allow a continuity of mission even as individual members move in and out. Teams are the perfect environment for new members to have a go and be developed.
Show me a church where baptisms are common, and I’ll show you a church that organises for team mission. And yet, do many? Even in churches where we feel that most of us are called primarily to individual witness – do we seek the help, support, intercession and coaching of others? Or are we alone out in the cold, happy that at least there’s no-one else to see our empty bucket?
I have worked my cat out and I’m just trusting that he’s not reading this. Whenever I call Ossie he goes in the other direction as a matter of principle. This is a simple power struggle. The only exceptions to this firm rule are if I have been away for at least 3 days, or am visibly offering ham. He has been training me for nearly three years now in understanding my place.
If I seek him outside he will head down the street. Not over a fence, not under a car, but always just out of reach. He is taking me for a walk to give me some exercise. If I seek him inside there will be ten minutes of dashing from under the table to under the stairs and back.
But, fellow humans, the revolution is beginning! I have realised that if I simply sit down on a step (inside) or in the gutter (outside) and look in a different direction, he will come and rub against me within 30 seconds. It’s simple cat whispering. The only key elements are getting down to his level and looking in a different direction. The only surprise is that it’s taken me three years to work this out.
But I wonder whether we’ve worked it out as missionaries? In Australia, talking directly about religion is a cultural taboo. People tend to withdraw, and then if we follow them they withdraw some more. But this doesn’t mean that Australian’s aren’t interested in Christianity or drawn to Jesus. It is culturally acceptable to set up spaces within our culture where religion can be discussed. For example, in a church building on a Sunday morning, Australians would be surprised if it wasn’t.
And there are other, simpler such spaces that also can be set up. A Bible study in the lunch break at work. A Christianity Explored course at someone’s house. A youth (or ex-youth) camp. If it’s not done in complete secrecy – if gentle signals are sent that enquirers are welcome to join – then you may be surprised by how many get curious about this group that is right there at their level, but looking in a different direction.
Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.
Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?
I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.
None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.
And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.
What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?
When I coached my daughter’s basketball team, the first thing I wanted to teach them was how to get rebounds. Having the ball makes a lot of difference in most sports. So I told them what I’d learned from watching Dennis Rodman in the Chicago Bulls’ glory days. I asked them ‘What makes the most difference in getting rebounds?’
Being tall? No, that’s the 4th most important factor. I saw Rodman constantly outdo much taller players. Being skilled? No, I’d say that’s the 3rd most important. Even the cleverest players would come up empty handed when Rodman was nearby. Was it getting in the best position? Well, I’d say that’s the 2nd most – and very – important. But I still saw Rodman pinching rebounds that taller, more skilful players were in the prime position to get. So what makes all the difference?
Far and away the biggest factor is simply wanting the ball. Watching bad-boy Rodman on TV, it was really obvious. No one wanted it like he did. Quite short for a power forward, he lead the NBA in rebounds seven years in a row and his team won five championships.
It also got me thinking about evangelism. If there’s one thing we could work on, what should it be? Do we need people ideally shaped by God for evangelism? Yes, but it takes more than that. Do we need to train people in the skills and techniques of evangelism? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make it happen. Do we need to position people in just the right place, working, befriending, eating and drinking with sinners? Definitely. We’ve worked on all those things and I hope we continue to.
But my question is: Do we really want the lost sheep like the Shepherd does? Is the bottleneck to evangelism not so much in the skills of our hands and the knowledge of our heads but in the desires of our hearts? Do we talk and pray about this honestly? Because if deep down we prefer our warm fellowship not to be disturbed by outsiders, what will happen is this: We’ll go through all the motions of attempting the rebound – wanting to be seen to be trying in the eyes of the Coach – but never coming up with the ball much.
Meanwhile, God uses the Dennis Rodmans of our churches – often uneloquent, amateur odd-bods – to win people for the kingdom. And their point of difference is just this: They have in their hearts God’s heart for the lost that he fervently loves.
When we think about church planting there’s often a particular story that plays in our imaginations. It goes something like this: A church has a terrific pastor or pastoral team and grows to a place of real strength and vitality. It senses God’s call to multiply, and finds a young emerging leader around whom to build the plant – perhaps the youth pastor or an intern. Other young adventurers rally around as the excitement builds for this radical adventure!
Does it sound familiar? I’ve lived that story, and sometimes it ends well. But I wouldn’t mind editing it a little. Here are my concerns with that particular plot:
Firstly, we send lambs out among wolves. Church planting is generally the most challenging of pastoral leadership assignments, and we give it to novices. We ask members to rearrange their lives, even relocate their families, backing (and supported by) a leader who is quite unproven. We ask individuals, churches, denominations to place significant financial resources in the hands of a rookie and wonder why the response isn’t enthusiastic.
Secondly, and just as concerning, is what happens to the sending church. It loses a cadre of emerging, innovating leaders, whilst retaining its existing senior, settled leadership. This creates a greater gap between the senior leaders and the next layer of nascent leadership.
Would it not be a stronger model, a more compelling story, for churches to send their best? A mix of ages by all means, but what if more senior leaders put their hands up to go? They would take a lot of leadership credibility, theological depth, and financial experience into the plant. And it would be a smaller, more natural step for younger leaders in a church to step up to take the helm of a ship with which they are familiar.
This was the story in of Parkside Baptist which in 2013 released their Lead Pastor David Smith with a small team to missional adventure. But should it be more the norm more than the exception? Is church planting really just something for those young guns? Or what about the story of Hiramais Endmie? You’ll find it in Isaiah 6:8.
We all lie about our age. Since we only count our years since birth, rather than conception, those first 9 or so months of our life end up hidden in more ways than one. We make out as if we suddenly popped out into existence in a single day, when our mothers know there was much more to it than that! Why doesn’t our gestation period count?
It seems to be the same with new churches. Is it because we tend to use the word ‘planting’ rather than ‘birthing’? In doing so we greatly downplay the role of the mother church and the patient work of parenting. Either way, we can fall into a myth that new congregations suddenly appear in an instant, and we don’t give nearly enough thought and attention to the critical process of church gestation.
New Christian congregations form in different ways, but there is enormous strength in a model when a new community forms gradually, initially within the body of a mature church. It may begin as a missional home group, become a congregation of the mother church on site, and develop its own leadership team and structures before moving off-site and becoming visible to the world as its own identity. Even then it may come under the governance and financial and logistical support of the mother church for some time before reaching self-sufficiency.
(That said, why is ‘self-sufficiency’ or ‘independence’ so often the ultimate goal for a church plant? Far better would be to aim for “others-sufficiency” – not simply being less dependent on the mother church but becoming dependable as a mother church in turn.)
When church planting is rushed it can be very much like a premature birth – just surviving is a huge challenge. We look for stereotypical ‘church planters’ – heroic leaders with superpowers to sustain such a vulnerable creature singlehandedly. I can’t help but wonder whether so many more churches could be formed by ordinary communities, not requiring super-leaders, if we simply paid attention to and committed ourselves together to the long, patient process of intentional church parenting – both sides of the celebrated ‘birthday’.