When it comes to the hows and whys of evangelism a new church plant has the chance to be more like a swing than a merry-go-round.
Evangelism in established churches in the West has traditionally been like a merry-go-round. The church get a program up, then spends time gaining some interest and picking up some momentum. A six week course gets started with all that energy, and everyone hangs on for the ride, before the program – or the energy – runs out and we start again.
That’s the theory anyway. Increasingly, however, in these hardening secular times, the merry-go-round in traditional models contains less and less people. Programs are presented with fewer and few non-Christians signing up.
Christians are finding their friends unwilling or uninterested in jumping on board, especially to a six week course – that’s way too much time to give. Christians themselves are finding they have less and less energy to gather the momentum needed to make the evangelism merry-go-round spin for long enough.
Swings are different to merry-go-rounds. Unlike a merry-go-round, a swing only goes forward the further back you pull it. The further back you pull a swing, the further forward it will go. That’s the law of physics right there.
Church plants – indeed any churches – that take evangelism seriously, self-consciously pull the discipleship swing further back than it has ever been pulled before. They do so in order to propel the discipleship swing further forward than it has been before all the way into evangelism. That’s the law of metaphysics right there.
The initial pull-backs do not seem to make much difference. True, the latest stats from Lifeway Research indicate that more conversions happen in church plants than established churches, but not many more. The survey states:
The annual average for the number of new commitments to Christ in new church works surveyed is under five for the first few years in Australia.
Up to five converts per year for many established churches may raise suspicions of revival. But up to five per year for the first three years of a church plant won’t grow it spectacularly. It certainly won’t evangelise that plant into existence. That simple maths.
Now no new church plant initially wants more Christian growth than non-Christian growth. At least it doesn’t want the “dreaded’ Christian growth in lieu of conversion growth. Their narrative is often more strongly missional and their goal is more obviously outreach than many traditional churches to reflect this. Yet initially that evangelistic fruit seems hardly worthy of the effort to plant, it certainly won’t grow it to self-sustainability.
But consider this: over time church plants that behave like swing sets will gain evangelistic momentum by first pulling their Christian people back into deeper discipleship, before propelling them forward.
This pull-back is, I believe, a necessary first stage one of a two stage process. Church plants raise the tone, language, goal and commitment of discipleship in a context in which discipleship has fallen off the radar.
Church plants announce that the swing is going to be pulled further back in order to be propelled forward. People that come to church plants regular say that discipleship and evangelism are plonked onto their radar all of the time.
And what happens? This pulling back produces momentum. Slowly, but surely. Over time people are propelled further forward on the discipleship swing. Bit by bit they are pulled back deeper. Bit by bit they are propelled forward further. Until, eventually, they are pulled back far deeper and propelled forward far further than could possibly have imagined.
By that time, what seemed novel and risky now seems normal and safe. Just like a child on a swing whose initial fears when the swing first went gently back, starts to laugh as she feels the wind in her hair.
Experience bears this out. I know a city church plant that began in order to push forward into evangelism, but discovered, as they hit various hurdles, they lacked the pull back of deeper discipleship required to sustain it. To their credit they stuck to behaving like a swing-set rather than resorting to the tried and true method of merry-go-round.
While they had planted to evangelise their community widely: they ended up discipling each other deeply in the process. As they realised just how hard it was to reach their neighbours, the school parents, their work colleagues with the gospel in community, it pulled them back into God and each other. Pulled back in order to propel forward.
This pull back/propel forward process started to sweep away the scaly detritus of the late, modern, deeply individualistic world encrusted onto their lives. The wind started to sweep away late modernity’s cultural cobwebs. It exposed them spiritually, emotionally and relationally like never before. It made life, this life and life in the age to come, seem more urgent than ever. If Christian discipleship were television, they were colour in a world of black and white. And it gave rise to costly and sacrificial efforts to see new disciples made.
Pulling people further back into discipleship cannot help but make them fall in love with Jesus more deeply, and over time, propel them further forward than they could possibly have imagined for the sake of his name and the glory of God.
As the culture hardens against the gospel ethic in the public square new church plants are being given a blank slate to pull back into discipleship like never before. The initial evangelistic fruit may be slow, but I believe such plants could position us for a gospel propulsion that would make “five a year” seem like loose change.