April 16, 2013

Church Planting: A Two Speed Economy Or Bust

I have written in the past that if evangelism is going to be truly effective it must be driven by a two-speed economy; it’s both long-term, low-key, relational, and it’s FIFO – door knocking, quick conversations on trains, planes and automobiles.  Whilst the risks of only operating FIFO evangelism seem immediate (abuse, derision, death by embarrassment – Ed), the risks associated with long-term, low-key relational approaches are less apparent, initially at least.  Hence it’s only when you are five years in to your evangelism strategy that you realise that it may not be working in the manner you thought it might at the start. Put simply, no one has become a Christian, or at least there is no more fruit from your approach than to the church down the road and its programme-driven strategy! The answer, of course, is not to stop one model and use the other, but to utilise both methods of evangelism. Each strengthens and encourages the other, each keeps the other honest.

The same thing is true of church planting itself. Contra the recent polarising approaches we see from church planters in books and conferences, the answer is neither big, nor small, it is neither Missional Church nor Mega Church, it is neither post-institutional nor re-instituational.

Church planters – in Australia at the very least – need to raise their sights above their model and survey the Australian post-religious landscape. Check out the latest National Church Life Survey figures.  Here we are growing a nation rapidly through immigration and an increasing birth rate, and at the same time seeing a decline in percentage and numbers of those who attend any evangelical expression of church.

So what do we need in this situation? We need church plants that are large, well-resourced, slow-burn evangelistic church plants, run by leaders who have “big church” gifts in the areas of executive oversight and long-term planning.  But we also need church plants that are, in the memorable words of Alan Hirsch, “like Al Qaeda cells”; highly manoeuvrable, decentralised, flexible and resilient, with no discernible head office. Whilst both sides of the debate will argue until they are blue in the face for the benefits of their particular model, the combination of these two approaches is required.  Which is a pity, because it seems that evangelicals in Australia have tended towards polarisation on this point.

Why has it reached this impasse?  I believe that it is because one party is committed to a strongly hierarchical, theologically highly-trained staff leadership as the solution to the problem, whilst the other party believes that a strongly hierarchical, theologically highly-trained staff leadership is the problem. In other words the former believes such a model is the way forward for effective (read “evangelistic”) church plants in Australia, whilst the latter believe it is bottlenecking evangelistic efforts. The converse is also true.   The latter group espouses strongly egalitarian, sufficiently-trained lay leadership as the solution to the problem, whilst the former group sees such a model as inherently flawed, cursed by the law of diminishing returns, and prone to theological waywardness.  If the former model is viewed as not flexible enough, the latter is perceived as too malleable.  The problem of course is that if, using one of these two strategies, we hit upon the evangelism jackpot (often for demographic, sociological, cultural reasons), the risk is that we universalise our experience, rather than admit that local factors come strongly into play.

Meanwhile, for whatever reason, evangelical reformed theological colleges in Australia are not producing risk-taking, entrepreneurial church planters of any persuasion. This is not to say that people do not end up as church planters who go to college, but it simply isn’t on the radar of the brightest and best students.  Bi-vocational church-planting is not first-cab-off-the-ranks for graduates, and why would it be when the debts have run up, your family is looking for some stability, and there are few, if any, ex-church planters championing its cause among the faculty?  Indeed, on this latter point, it is often the other way.  I well remember the first time I spoke to a theological college about church planting and my plan to get involved in it. One faculty member wandered up to me after my talk and he initiated the following conversation:

“I remember ten fine reformed men who, on the advice of one man, went off to plant churches.”

“Oh,?” I replied, doing the polite thing, “You do?”

“Yes, yes, back in the early 80s.”


“Of course they’re all apostate or divorced now.”

And with that he walked off, before we had a chance to shake hands.

All too often I find that it is those in ministry who have wearied themselves “doing church” who start to ask the questions about where the culture is headed, and why they struggle to corral increasingly busy and privatised congregation members to turn up weekly, never mind put themselves on a roster.  At that point the solution is NOT  to plant a church or radically switch models of ministry. Such solutions are short term and do not take into account the difficulties with church planting. If, after ten years, you’re burned out by the ministry machine, church planting is not the path to recovery!

Unless….unless of course there is a halfway house; a place which both offers the secure framework of a larger church and its leadership structure and gifts, (oh, and some pay – Ed), which at the same time provides an umbilical cord to baby church planters who want to give it a go in a smaller, manoeuvrable setting in a specific locale.  One that provides in-house training that is specific to the needs of the planter, and has the freedom to release gifted people from among its congregations to go with that person.  In short, the Australian evangelical scene desperately needs some “mother-ship” churches that readily and willingly spawn church plants that are different in make-up, culture and process than they – daughter churches that have the attributes of the mother, but are vibrant, different, and comfortable in their own skin.  Such a model requires a pre-determined commitment by the mother-ship that it will not spawn clones, but true daughters who need to find their own way in the world and do not need to borrow everything from their mother’s wardrobe.

There’s more to say on this, and in the next post I am going to explore how such a mother-daughter model could operate, and the roadblocks to it.

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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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