“Yes I know this iceberg thing looks bad, but at least I’m not my cousin: he’s an empty church pew in Harrogate”
In his new book on church planting, Centre Church, the suddenly prolific Tim Keller makes the following observation:
When a church or a church network begins to grow rapidly in a city, it is only natural for the people within the ministry to feel that God is making a difference in that place. Often, however, what is really going on is “Christian reconfiguration.” When churches grow, they typically do so by drawing believers out of less vital churches. This can be a good thing if the Christians in these growing churches are being better discipled and if their gifts are being effectively deployed. Nevertheless, if this is the key dynamic, then the overall body of Christ in the city is not growing; it is simply reconfiguring. Reaching an entire city, then, takes more than having some effective churches in it, or even having a burst of revival energy and new converts. Changing the city with the gospel takes a movement.
My question: Is Christian Reconfiguration, attendant as it so often is with gospel intentionality and some conversions, actually church planting? Keller would appear to be saying “no”. By his definition existing churches that perhaps go multi-campus becoming the “go-to” place with great ministries, a focus on evangelistic preaching, a solid training and sending culture, and who are filling up with church refugees (and migrants in the case of Perth – Ed), do not meet the definition of “church plant”.
I make this observation because, as I look around Perth, we have a mixture of what Keller would label Christian Reconfiguration and what he would label Church Plants. And as someone involved in the 121 Degrees Church Planting network it is perhaps important for me to get to grips with what the difference is, and what difference the difference makes!
Let me make the following observations about the Perth context:
1. The Enemy Inertia
Church planting is hard – and remarkably so in Perth. The hardest part is the inertia. Church planting is a slow grind and the wheels, caked as they are with neglect, rust and plain old hardness of human heart, turn very slowly indeed. If you are going to plant a “pure” church plant in Perth and see it come to fruition by conversion alone, you had better be prepared for a slow burn. The longer a plant goes without seeing much conversion fruit the greater the temptation to switch strategies somewhat and bulk up the numbers (and the confidence of the core group) with more Christians. Critical mass is often seen as, well, critical! If we get a certain number attending then we are more likely to be able to throw resources and people at evangelism and mission – right?
Key Question: Has the plant decided beforehand on a strategy to employ (or not to employ) if it sees little evangelistic fruit after a prescribed number of years?
2. Campus or Plant
Is an offshoot of a church – a sending out of fifty or so to another location – a campus or a plant? This is another key issue I see in Perth. The great encouragement to me recently is that, after what seems to have been a number of years marking time, several churches have clicked (right pastoral team/right vision/right strategy/THE gospel!) and find themselves in the position to move into the growth corridors of our city. While it is debatable whether or not we are even keeping up with population growth, it is encouraging to see that healthy evangelical, bible-teaching, Jesus-focused (don’t forget culturally aware – Ed) churches are growing and planting out campuses.
Key Question: Are these new campuses filling with new Christians or with those who feel they are not being discipled properly and need to be and were waiting for a church to “arrive” in their location?
3. Discipleship Versus Evangelism
Are we on about discipleship or evangelism? Yes! It is fairly clear, is it not, that everything we do is discipleship? That we are discipling people to something? We call people to be disciples of Jesus, and then we begin the life-long process of overseeing their discipleship (and our own). I say this because I have become more and more convinced that while Church Reconfiguration may not be Church Planting in the so called pure form, we can no longer afford to assume that true, lasting and effective discipleship is going to occur in existing churches that do not open the Bible and teach and apply the Word of God clearly on an ongoing week in-week out (err, how about fortnightly in-fortnightly out? – Missional Community Ed) basis. I think it is time to lose our queasiness about “sheep stealing” if the alternative is sheep dying of starvation. Evangelical Church Reconfiguration in Perth can play a vital role in giving people the solid food of the Word by which they can grow. Solid Bible teaching is not enough to keep you as a disciple, but without it I guarantee you won’t remain one.
Key Question: Do we have a clear evangelistic strategy that positions us to both “make” and “grow” disciples?
I am going to have a further think about this issue and post on it again in a week or so. In the meantime, over to you…