August 1, 2018

Church Planting: An Overnight Ten Year Success Story.

We’re often told wryly that it takes ten years to become an overnight success.  It’s the case with many suddenly popular bands, such as new Orleans Band, the Revivalists, who had a big hit in 2017 with Wish I Knew You, a mere ten years after launching themselves into the music scene.

It was a case of “Hey, where did they come from?”

If that’s the case for musicians, it’s suddenly become the case for church planting. A decade after it hit its stride, the mainstream media in our country and beyond has suddenly discovered church planting and its use of houses, community buildings and start-up technologies.

So within the space of a few weeks we have a report on the Australian public broadcaster, the ABC, about church start ups, along with podcasts on high profile new media broadcasters, This American Life (and excellent piece) and Gimlet Media’s Startup, (which I have yet to listen to) that takes on the next chapter of the story that TAL covered.

It’s been twelve years since I started down the church planting route; with friends such as Hamo, Simon and Nigel all starting off either before me or around the same time.

And oh! The myriad books and podcasts that have been written in the Christian scene on this.  The conferences!  It hasn’t been done under a bushel.

Indeed the first book I read about anything church planting related was The Shaping of Things to Come, by Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost, which proved to be a huge game changer in my thinking and practice.   While I would push back on some things (and that’s the point of a game changer book), perhaps the things they said were coming, have now come, and now that they have, they’re starting to shake the secular tree a little bit.

All of these mainstream signals and points of contact are encouraging, even in straitened times in which the church is finding itself in a Babylonian experience. Perhaps because the church is so finding itself.

And at the very time that the mainline denominations are tanking, the same mainlines who were the go-to for most mainstream media for a comment about Christianity, the church plant shoots are growing and starting to show.  God is not leaving himself without witness.  Never has. Never will.

Church planting has changed the nature of the church in the West in the past fifteen years.  True, there have been many failures along the way, but with much of the philosophy that church-planting was re-establishing a beachhead on a hostile secular landscape, that had to have been expected.

I was alerted to the latest podcasts by a whole bunch of friends, some of them church people and some of them not.  That tells me that the concept has entered mainstream.

I read with interest the ABC report as it deals exclusively with Australia, and features a mate, Dave McDonald, the very able national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, who is of solid church planting stock himself.

This has to be encouraging, especially as the culture is turning against the Christian framework.  It’s a sign that the decline is being dovetailed by a recovery, but a recovery that is upending the expectations of both the culture and the church.  And in that sense church planting is part of the cultural landscape: we’re in a time of upheaval generally for sure.

The ABC report does the usual stuff of short narratives about evangelical groups that start up in towns in the bush and cities around Australia.  There’s almost a naive curiosity about the report in that, as outsiders, they look in and see what the hard secular world often refuses to see in the church; deep multicultural diversity and a willingness to experiment.

But what they perhaps do not see – yet – is the unwillingness, indeed refusal, by church plants to dump evangelical or orthodox theology.  And that’s perhaps the bit they don’t get.  GT ABC report states this:

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Note that header: Modernising the bible’s teachings. Not at all! That’s exactly what is NOT happening in church plants.  That would be the last thing they’d want to do. IF they know their church history they know that such a move is the death knell of the church.

Any church growth in Australia, including 100 per cent of their church plants that are in any way growing in a vital manner, are not modernising the bible’s teachings.  Rather they are making such teachings plain and available again in preaching, and putting them in to practice.

The church plants that are growing are the ones that hold to traditional views about creation, God, salvation, the nature and authority of Scripture, heaven and hell, and then a way of doing life that reflects that.  And all of this at a time when the culture is telling churches and church institutions that the actual practice of what they believe in the public square is increasingly unsavoury and is to be restricted.

Perhaps it just sticks in the craw of the ABC to say that. Either that, or they just don’t get how religions work.

The churches that are in decline? Well they’re a different story. Among them many Anglican and Uniting Churches, along with other mainline denominations that have “modernised” the bible’s teachings; a vain liberal attempt to keep pace with the culture, or at least hide the fact that they are always half a step behind (Sexual Revolution anyone?)

But it’s been ever thus in liberalism, which began in earnest in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as an attempt to make the Christian faith more acceptable to scientific modern man by doing away with miracles etc, demythologising the faith.  The results speak for themselves: empty churches and even emptier seminaries.

Fast forward one hundred years and the vain attempt to complete this task of making the faith acceptable has led to a complete collapse among mainlines in adherence to biblical sexual ethics.  And for much the same vain reasons; making the faith acceptable to individualistic, identity-driven multi-gendered peoples.  If the definition of madness is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome then….

In short, if a church that is now meeting in a lounge room has no orthodox theology in its tank, or indeed is hostile to it, it is either a church on the way down, rather than on the way up (that is, it is shrinking), or it is going to find itself small and in that lounge room for a very long time.  No one ever converts from paganism to liberal theology, they only ever de-convert from orthodoxy to liberalism on the way out.

Now if you’ve never met Dave McDonald, he’s a refreshing, blokey, rugby loving Ocker, who makes me look like the skinny, anaemic city boy I am.  But he’s smart.  Here’s a taste of what he thinks, as quoted in the ABC article:

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Dave’s pretty much what it says on the pack, nimble and adaptable (though he looks less nimble than he is these days!)

But note what he said.  evangelical church plants are disruptive, they’re designed to be.  What they don’t do is tinker with the product – the central spine of God’s salvation plan in Christ.  At that point they know they’re on to a winner.  Jesus IS the only way of salvation and he brings a joy and peace and purpose to life that our culture desperately needs.  That’s why church planters plant!  If you’re in it to showcase how good you are and not showcase how good Jesus is, you’ll never last.

So they don’t change the product, but they do experiment with the platform.  In other words, they are ecclesiastically radical while being theologically orthodox.  They’re constantly looking for ways to be manoeuvrable in times of rapid, discontinuous change.

And according to the Foreign Affairs Editor of The Australian newspaper, Greg Sheridan, who has just written a book on Christian faith in Australia; God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, it’s that mix; radical ecclesiology and orthodox theology, that will be the future for Christianity in the West.


In writing his book (which I will review in the near future), Sheridan interviewed me and my church planting colleague Rory Shiner.

In the process Rory and I realised that what we had been stressing for many a year to the Christian crowd, risky church but solid theology, was exactly what Sheridan was observing  as necessary for the church to thrive in Australia in hard secular times.

I know we are not proven right by the opinion of those outside our fold, but the confirmation of that after a decade or so of doing this job, does warm the heart.

And in saying that I want to pay tribute to the Andrews and Danelles, the Nigels and Lizes, the Simons and Fionas, the Marks and Elizabeths, the Damons and Beckys and, especially, the Jill to this Steve!

These have been fellow foot-soldiers in the trenches of church planting, with all the attendant joys and sorrows, failures and successes.

If you want to know more about church planting in Australia, see The Geneva Push website.  It’s a wealth of help and information.

Let’s see how this planting thing flourishes in the next ten years.

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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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