Ten years ago yesterday my heavily pregnant wife, our young daughter and I stepped back into the heat of Perth from a year away living in the UK, a year in which we were looking at church planting models with a plan to church plant back home.
I was a mere slip of a lad, freshly turned 40 years of age at that point. Now, having just turned fifty, I wonder where those years since that day have gone.
It was a warm day back then in November 2007 when we arrived, with a fresh afternoon sea breeze, the kind Perth always gets in late spring. It’s a warm day today too, November 2017, with summer sniffing at the edges of spring, ready to pounce. And a sea breeze too.
My in-laws live on the beach. A great beach. Actually all beaches in Perth are great. We went straight to the beach. Why not after a year in drizzly grey England? Don’t get me wrong, we loved the city of Sheffield and still miss many aspects of it, but when you hardly ever see the sun….
I took this picture of our then six year old Sophie, that first day back, full of vim and vigour and raring to get back into Perth life. She’s about to start her last year at school. She’s been with us the whole church planting journey (as has our son Declan).
And Jill and me? We were raring to get on with church planting. I think we both felt a little like Sophie did, although at eight months pregnant, Jill wasn’t all for leaping about at that point.
So it’s been ten years, and church plants and church planting are still uppermost in our minds when we think about church. I won’t go into all the details of the past decade, but here are some point-form takeaways from the past ten years. Ten from ten if you like.
1. Church planting is an untangleable ball of hard, fun, tearful, rewarding, daring, frustrating, scary and exciting. Don’t even try to tease those strands out. Pull one out and you pull against another. It comes as a package and some days it will be all of these and other weeks it will be one without any of the others.
2. People will let you down.
3. You will let you down.
4. God will not let you down.
5. Church planting within a network adds a strength to your ministry that is incalculable. Our experience is that few church plants that plant outside networks flourish. Those that do work hard to establish a network by planting again. When that happens and there are suddenly two or three churches in the network, there’s a je ne sais quoi about it that takes away some of the scary and lonely. If you can’t grow a network, team up with people you know who are planting and get one off the ground as soon as you can.
6. Your children can enjoy it! Our two children have loved the small household model that we started with AND the larger group that meets in a building that we are currently with. Part of that is down to the fact that, despite the struggles and tensions, Jill and I have modelled to them how to love the church and God’s people. Watching my daughter move from being a child who soaked up ministry service from others to a young woman serving and helping in a variety of ways is a joy to behold.
7. There’s nothing new under the sun. If you’d told us ten years ago we would be doing “big church” again, then we would have scoffed, baulked or both. But maturing a plant to a larger church, with a view to planting again from within the network is just as exciting, complex and radical as meeting in our lounge with fifteen people. And God still does His work through his church, whatever its iteration.
8. No planter is the full package. There was a rugged individual church planter doing the rounds for a while. We all wanted to be that guy. Most of us weren’t that guy and backed away. For some of us who weren’t and didn’t back away, we burned out. Not all of us. The myth of the solo planter is pretty much a myth, but there are exceptions to the rule (I know at least three!), but that’s off a much larger base of blokes who tried and decided that wasn’t the only way to plant.
9. You are justified by Jesus. Not by church planting. Not by church plants failing. Not by church plants succeeding. Not by how you feel about how you’re going. Justified by Jesus and Jesus alone. Knowing that is true and living the truth of it can be very different things.
10. God builds his church. Things I thought would work great and see growth, somehow didn’t. Things I wasn’t even looking at, or people I wasn’t even searching out, suddenly came across our path and God did His work. That’s how He gets the glory by the way.
And here’s some other stuff you can have for free for the next couple of years…
I used to think that church planting was a young person’s game. I’m more inclined to say it’s a mature person’s game, whether they’re young or not. You need some gospel and life maturity in you. In another ten years I will be sixty and although I can’t see me doing another household from the grass roots up church plant any time soon, being involved in church plants still excites me. Part of that is due to my particular gift mix, and part of that is the thrill of seeing a baby church birthed with all of the possibilities we haven’t yet imagined.
One other thing I have learned – and this goes for all ministry not just church plants – you need to be a safe person for other people to be around. The way that happens, the way you become safe for others to be around, is usually by God’s breaking and remaking of you. Jill and I feel that God did that to us in painful, but necessary ways, in order that we wouldn’t be culpable for breaking God’s people to realise our church planting vision.