Category Archives: Church Planting

A New New Deal?

Monument to the New Deal, Washington DC. Photo Jim Bown (flickr.com)

We should measure spirituality by flow, not volume. It’s not “How much of the Holy Spirit do you have?” but rather “How much of you does He have?” Scripture speaks of God’s Spirit blowing like the wind, or pouring like water. He moves, he flows, he doesn’t merely inhabit. When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink, he immediately says that from those who do, ‘streams of living water will flow.’Jn7

So the question is not merely how much are we receiving, but how much are we giving? God’s ideal is for free flow: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’Mt10 The servant put in charge of feeding other servants is in trouble if he considers himself rich rather than responsible.Mt24 The servant who receives mercy is in trouble if he doesn’t in turn pass it on.Mt18

So what happens when the flow stops? In the Great Depression of the 1930s a fascinating and awful spiral occurred. People stopped spending. Those with work greatly feared losing their jobs, and so instead of spending their income they saved as much as possible, living as frugally as they could. This meant that sales plummeted and firms making and selling things went out of business, and indeed people did lose their jobs, creating more fear, more self-preservation mentality, and round and round the spiral went. The flow of money stopped, poverty bit hard, and instead of a trusting, trading society it was each person for themselves.

If only people knew that they were going to be OK! If only the fear was overcome, the spiral could begin to reverse. Indeed the new US President Roosevelt famously told his nation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The only way to reverse such a fearful spiral was for someone, somewhere to begin spending money with optimism they didn’t feel – in faith. It ended up being the US government, with a scheme called “The New Deal”. It borrowed enormous amounts to guarantee citizens paid work on massive infrastructure projects and bring hope and certainty.

How does that speak to sacred agents? I believe that fearfulness about the prospects of Christians and churches in our society is giving us a defensive and survivalist mindset. There is a narrative of Christianity in decline which is simply not true but widely believed nonetheless. Churches fear closing. We’re reluctant to take risks like adding staff, planting a church or commissioning members to service elsewhere. Even as individuals, when we privatise our faith and begin drawing on God ‘just to get through the week’ rather than to bless others abundantly – we’re continuing a negative spiral in contrast to God’s will.

How do we reverse this? It takes some courageous sacred agents to give more than they can afford to. (I’m not primarily talking about money – but not excluding it). When we give more than we can afford, it leaves us in deficit. But we then call on others to flow blessing to us. And on the Father himself to measure to us with the generous measure that we have used. Do we not know that we are going to be OK? Should we not be the most confident and least fearful of all people? Let us gospel ourselves once more. When we call on the Lord to “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out his blessing” – do we not realise that we ourselves are those gates, and that he is seeking to once again open us?

We Come in Peace

“Don’t be afraid!” It’s the most frequent command in the Bible. God’s messengers – angels and other agents – are all ultimately on a peace mission.

It’s remarkable how many Bible passages about gospel proclamation also mention peace: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, announcing peace… (Isa 52); When Jesus sends his disciples on mission their first words are to be Peace to this house! (Lk 10); All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5); we’re to have feet fitted with the readiness that comes from gospel of peace (Eph 6). And plenty others.

Sacred agents do well to meditate on this. We can often think of the world (and specific individuals) we’re sent to as hostile; let’s bear in mind the fear so closely linked to that hostility. Our challenge is to be faithfully present to them, neither buying into their hostility with a ‘fight’ posture nor withdrawing timidly with a ‘flight’ reflex. It’s not easy. But cheek-turning, enemy-loving, open, vulnerable witness to God’s kingdom opens up amazing possibilities for powerful transformation.

We could all do much worse this Advent than to memorise 1 Peter 3:8-16. It outlines a community life dedicated to peaceful witness in a hostile world, determined to take the stance of Christ and sharing about his coming kingdom with the gentleness and respect that’s worthy of him and most likely to win over those he loves.

For a ministry of reconciliation will never be effective from a safe distance (flight) or a position of strength (fight). Instead, we share the vulnerability of Jesus, his heartache and his joyful reward. Let’s not be afraid to come in peace!

Social Focus is Your Frenemy

Many churches have two mission contexts: A local neighbourhood (mostly strangers who happen to live close to the church building) and a social network (friends, family and connections of church members, most of whom live a long way from the church). In my observation, churches have increasingly neglected the local and rested their hopes on the social.

Here are six reasons to pursue strong local connections – finding effective ways to be present with, partnering with and inviting in the local community.

  • It makes your church more Christian. If you love those who love you … do not even pagans do that? If your church is a church just for you and people that you like, it’s becoming a country club. Why pay a pastor when you could have a greens-keeper?
  • It keeps your gatherings public. If your church only meets in your suburb, and doesn’t interact with it, it will be perceived by them as a private group, and Sunday content will drift towards sustaining long-term believers, reinforcing a ‘members only’ culture.
  • It diversifies and so strengthens your church. A church where everyone else is the same ethnicity/wealth/education/personality is not heaven, it’s hell in disguise. God has something far better and far stronger in mind, but if you don’t love strangers you’ll keep Him out.
  • It builds local community. The church is meant to operate as one interdependent body, which is hard when you’re spread all across the city, doing ‘life’ over here during the week and ‘church’ over there on Sundays. Facebook’s OK, but we’re called to more than just comment on our neighbours’ meal or lawn. The Word became flesh electronic and lived liked among us?
  • It grows your church by conversion. Churches that deliberately reach out to, love and invite strangers grow by conversions. And And social invitations. Ironically, members are more likely to invite a social contact to a church that is focused on welcoming locals.
  • It sifts your leaders for you. You want your church leadership to be more of the pull-over-to-help Samaritan type and less of the swerve-to-avoid Levite type. When a church focuses locally, the difference between those who roll up their sleeves and those who turn up their noses becomes obvious!

The Story of Hiramais Endmie

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.

Embryonic Church

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’.

Catchment or Catching Churches?

How do you feel about a new church opening just a kilometre from your church? We all like the idea of church planting in general – just “not in my back yard.” How can we make sense of this? How do we ensure that a spirit of territoriality doesn’t block the extension of the gospel?

Let’s think about how we think about church territory. If we assume that there is certain number of “church likely” people in our city, a fixed number (say 144,000!), then the more churches that are planted in our city, the less share there’ll be for each church. It’s like rainfall. If you have a large catchment area, you can gather a lot of water into your dam. If someone else builds a dam upstream, they’re robbing you, because there’s only so much rain.

But I don’t think the gospel works like that. Churches aren’t meant to sit there expecting streams of people to flow into them. What if we thought more like farmers than water barons? What if we saw that our viability rests not so much on how much land we have, but on how well we work it?

When churches think about their “area of influence”, they usually draw a circle on a map representing a 20-minute drive to their building. If you step back and look at all the circles drawn by all the churches, it appears that Adelaide is well and truly covered! But driving time is not influence.

Each church should draw another circle – the area in which it is actively engaging its local community. Where is your church regularly prayer-walking? Where are you letter-boxing or door-knocking or active in the local school? If we did that, most churches would draw tiny circles, and we’d see how much room there really is for more pro-active gospel work.

So when a church plant is mooted and a nearby church cries foul, my question is this: When was the last time your church really engaged that particular neighbourhood? Are you thinking catchment instead of going catching?

We don’t need more catchment churches, but God’s always raising up catching ones. The issue isn’t how close that new church is, but what sort is it? And what sort is yours?

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