June 24, 2013

Church Planter Commandment #11: Thou Shalt Not Cajole

Meet Your New Core Team 

You know what it’s like.  Your church plant of 40 people (25 adults and 273 toddlers) has been sorta plateauing for a month or three.  A few new people have come. And gone.  None of them really stuck for some reason. What that reason is you are not quite sure, but it wasn’t the preaching, was it? Or was it?  The whizz bang start is a distant memory, it’s mid-August (southern hemisphere winter – Antipodean Ed), the music has been fairly ropey lately, the round of flu/cold/Bubonic Plague is taking its toll each week,  and to top it all off one of your leaders is starting to get fidgety about your decision to close down one of the less “functional” missional communities and merge it with another one.  You’d call it a gospel decision.  He’s calling it “downsizing and outsourcing.”

Then one Sunday morning they turn up.  The two of them.  Just the two of them!  Not a toddler, one year old, or babe in arms to be seen. You resist the urge to bring the church ultrasound machine out just to make sure, but for all intents and purposes they are free, gloriously so, of children.  A couple!  A real live, youngish, couple!  And what’s more, he’s wearing that funky Ben Sherman shirt you saw in Myer, you know, the one with the Mod-ish bullseye on the front (the last couple that fronted up looked more Am-ish than Mod-ish, but that’s a different story – Ed).  She’s got that short pixie hair thing going on, and together they look…, well, they look like a funky church planting type of couple, whilst the tattoo on his upper arm gives the impression he might play guitar.  And what if she sings?!  What if she sings?!!! You resist the urge to cry.  You resist the urge to clear the room of children. You resist the urge to send someone to a local cafe to get two long maccs. Now all you have to do is to resist the urge to cajole. Resist the urge to cling, weeping, to their legs on the way out afterwards. And definitely resist the urge to drive off in convoy around them, waving them goodbye.

That’s right. Resist the urge to cajole them to stay. It is so so easy to come across desperate when newbies turn up – especially ones who look like the kind who will help break the inertia. Why? Because it is so easy to be desperate when such types turn up.  They could be the key to unlocking the whole shebang! Which, of course, they are not.  As Ben Sherman-man and his lady sidle in and take a seat your mind should not flit across to all the reasons why they might not stay:  Middling Music – check. Annoying person – check. Not slick enough – check. Rubbish building – check. In other words, so many of the things that are central in your mind as to how you might cajole people to come back for a second serving are actually peripheral to why you would want them to stay. You don’t feel that right at that moment, but take my word for it, it’s true.

So what should you do if you are not supposed to cajole them? Well stop self-loathing for wanting to cajole them, for a start. Just own up to it, put it in its place and move on. After so many years of pooh-poohing the attractional church approach, many church planters find themselves in exactly the same position when they actually get around to planting a church. And that’s perfectly natural. Why should our music/meeting style/building not be worth wanting to hang around?  But ultimately working so hard – too hard –  on these to the detriment of what really matters betrays that you are overly-reliant on your “Cajole-Factor”.  So face up to the fact that we do want to cajole people, put it on the back burner, and get on with what really matters.

So what really matters?  Jesus!  How did you go presenting him to people in your words, songs, sermon/teaching?  Jesus is the desire of the nations after all (Haggai 2:7). If you are proclaiming Jesus from the pages of the Bible, painting him in kaleidoscopic colour, extolling his virtues, showing his love and compassion, his mightiness and his humility, how he is hope for the hopeless, rest for the weary, then you are on the right track. Demonstrate together what life under King Jesus looks like, model it in small ways, plan to do it in big ways,  then be confident that the rest will take care of itself.  Let people be convinced by Jesus, not cajoled by you.

Don’t believe me? I recently experienced the perfect storm in which the usual music leader was away for the weekend, and then the service leader texted me his apologies early on Sunday morning in between vomiting fits.  I was going to have to lead the singing. Did you hear me? I…was…going…to…have…to…lead…the…singing! Some people’s Stress Dream is the one in which they have missed a whole semester of a unit, only to find themselves sitting the exam – in their underpants. Perhaps that is you. Not me. My Stress Dream is finding myself in front of an adoring concert crowd, guitar in hand, about to launch into the first song, knowing that I can neither play the guitar nor hold a note. I glance down at the back of the guitar, yell out “Hello Wisconsin!” before waking up in a cold sweat.

I led the singing. Badly. It was toe-curling – for me.  Death by fire would have been preferable halfway through one particularly high-pitched number.  We got through, after a few apologies from me, sympathetic smiles from my lovely wife, and two litres of curdled milk. And what did the young bloke who has been visiting us come up and say to me at the end? “Don’t worry about the singing, it was great to hear you preach like that about Jesus.” Really?  You mean Jesus convinced you better than I cajoled you? Sure did!

Take care of Jesus and the rest will take care of itself. That’s a hard thing to say to a church planter, but to some extent it’s true.  I know, I know, there is the whole “church planting gift thing” to figure out, but you really can’t sweat that one. You might never move beyond being a church of forty or so disciples of Jesus who love each other, serve their community and live in such a way that generally disinterested people are sorta interested. It bounces up to fifty sometimes, then down to thirty, but forty is about right. You might strike the jackpot and ride a church-population boom, in which, for sociological, demographic and cultural reasons, you grow to 400, and make a big splash in the suburb. It might be that over time, for one reason or another, your church plant dwindles, as people are forced by work and other commitments to move on, or it becomes apparent that your primary gift is not church planting.  Whatever happens, “success” or “failure”, ensure that people are convinced by Jesus, rather than cajoled by you. Ensure that wherever they end up, in your church plant or another church altogether, they are enamoured with and compelled by Jesus.

That desire to cajole can betray the fact that we don’t really believe that God is sovereign, that he is growing his church, and that he has our best interests at heart whatever the outcome. It can also be hiding a desperation borne out of a misplaced justification, in which our functional saviour is the church plant itself rather than the One who is building the church in the first place.  So let that newbie young couple find a seat, treat them well, but not sycophantically. Chat to them over coffee, but not to the exclusion of that rather irksome loner who wandered in a few months back and decided to stay. In fact, introduce them to him.  Test the theory.  Are they here for Jesus or are they here for something that can never truly fulfil? In other words, don’t want them too much. Cos let’s face it, you are not their Saviour and they are not your Saviour either.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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