July 20, 2015

Church Planting and Feeding Starving Sheep

If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.  

Gotta love that Alan Sorkin line from The Social Network.  There they sit, the North-East Coast millionaire Winklevoss twins, fresh from their weekend in the Hamptons, taking it from “da man!” – or in this case the pasty white, middle class boy, Mark Zuckerberg.

He’s just gone and stolen Facebook right from under their pointy, identical WASP-ish noses, and they are determined to bring him to heel like the dog he is.  And then he unleashes that killer line (or at least he does in the movie.  Real life was probably a letter from his lawyer starting off, Dear etcetera, etcetera..).

But the point of the killer line is this; if you guys had done it you would have done it.  Get the emphasis on the right words in that line, it’s important.

And it’s important for what I am about to say now.  But first some background.

I have never met Gary Millar* or heard him speak, but from all accounts he is a godly guy and from the reports I hear, I intend to be in the room next time he is speaking here in Perth. He is, I hear, a first class preacher, teacher and a humble man (and from Northern Ireland to boot, so I look forward to sharing the craic). But I must confess I feel somewhat ambivalent about his article at The Gospel Coalition Australia site, regarding church planting and evangelism.  You can read it here.

The gist of his article is not against church planting per se, but concludes that church planting in the Australian setting (or is that Sydney setting?) can run the risk of stopping evangelism in existing churches.  I think I am understanding him accurately, and indeed he states this:

But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up. If we are honest, we’ll know in our heart of hearts that the people most likely to show up aren’t real outsiders, but those who have moved to the area, or who are on the lookout (for all kinds of admirable and not so admirable reasons) for a new church home. This is the default setting of most established churches – if we don’t make evangelism a priority, we will slowly but surely revert to the easier position of adopting a silent strategy of relying on transfer growth. That in itself is a massive issue – albeit hardly a new one. But when this mindset creeps into church planting networks, it is even more toxic.

Gary begins his article by stating that when he first visited Sydney from Dublin some 13 years ago, evangelism was high on the agenda of the Sydney Anglican scene. And now, somehow that evangelistic energy has dissipated.  He is, of course, too expansive a thinker to simply make a direct and causal link between church planting and the decline of evangelism.  Except, of course, there’s no point to his article if that is not  what he is saying. He is saying that.  And it is that that I wish to push back on.  So here goes:

1. Thirteen Years is a Long Time 

Gary points out that 13 years ago Sydney Anglicans were big on evangelism.  How long ago? 13 years.  What has happened in those intervening 13 years?  A lot.  A lot socially, culturally, and religiously. The house of cards that was the assumed cultural underpinning of Australia has fallen away in that time.  Sydney – protected as it was in a bubble of Bible Belt – hasn’t felt the force of the blow as much as other cities, and in some way it is like the USA. But like the USA, the higher the house of cards, the further and faster it falling.

Secondly, 13 years ago the so called Decade of Evangelism in Sydney was about to really kick in.  Sydney Diocese was looking at reaching 10 per cent of the city population with the gospel.  The actual figures are sobering.  In that decade – or a bit since – average weekly attendance at a Sydney Anglican church has dropped by four thousand to around 62 thousand people. I am not sure a “more-of-the-same-please” second decade is on the drawing board.

2. Something has Changed

We’ve probably all heard the Tim Keller talk about Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones and his observation that something has changed.  “The demon is in too deep” in the culture said MLJ back in the 50s in London, “The same old methods don’t work.”  Keller picks it well – and he said that about six years ago.  Something has changed again, or as The Wire would put it “changed up”.  Here’s what Gary describes seeing those 13 years ago:

Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly. I went back to Dublin humbled, challenged and refocused on getting the gospel out more courageously and effectively. But 13 years on?

You don’t have to be too astute a reader of the culture to figure out that 13 years on those seemingly cutting edge methods are not cutting it.  And here’s the point.  Evangelism effort on this front didn’t dry up first, evangelism fruit did.  I well remember speaking to someone at the quintessential copy of Sydney Anglican churches right here in Perth, next to a university in the western suburbs, who asked me why I was getting involved in church planting.  I told him that it just seemed important because no matter what churches did in the traditional way, evangelism fruit had dried up.  His response?  “I know what you mean, we put on another guest service and no one turns up again.”  Think about that.  Think about what that means.  It means that in the best Bible teaching church in our city with a huge outreach to students and funky young things, which had aligned itself to the Sydney model er, religiously, evangelism fruit was nix, nada, nothing.

Doing evangelism is not the same as evangelistic fruit.  And no evangelism fruit starts to wear people down.  Starts to get them thinking, why is there such little return for all of this effort?  And when that kicks in, it’s the law of diminishing returns as far as putting on evangelism events is concerned.  The energy versus the outcome does not seem worthwhile.

The result?  Many people went back to the drawing board, not of evangelism, but of church. They asked hard questions about the link between church and evangelism/mission.  Many came to the conclusion that the church itself IS an evangelism strategy. They then looked at the churches they inhabited and were no longer confident that their own churches saw it that way, or were willing to see it that way.  Whether or not that is justification to leave, or stay and help, it is a debate worth having.

3. I’m Not Silent About Transfer Growth (Or Numbers Growth for that Matter)

And I don’t know many church planters who are.  And nor should they be.  Numbers DO matter.  Not that we chase them slavishly, but they do matter.  Gary seemed to be saying there is something silent, almost ashamed, about church plants growing by transfer.  As if it’s being sneaky.

Well, perhaps in Sydney it’s a problem.  I have been to Sydney few enough times still to be astounded by it; by its beauty, its pace of life, its sheer brashness. And by its churches.  Both the number of them, and the evangelical tradition of them.

I am a runner.  If I were to map out a training regime that restricted my weekly long runs to the distance and back between two evangelical, Bible teaching, Jesus-focussed churches in Sydney I would crack out a great 5km race by season’s end. There’s be no three hour 35 kilometre long runs, that’s for sure.  But to do the same thing in Perth?  There’s a good sub-three hour marathon program right there.

Simply put, here in Perth we don’t as much grow by consumers eager to find the next best thing, but by starving sheep staggering up and pleading for food.  I am more than happy for transfer growth if it means sheep that haven’t been fed by the Word of the Good Shepherd for many a long year end up getting fed.  And guess what?  When that happens, they do tend to be more excited about evangelism! We have had evangelism growth.  Not much and nowhere near as much as I would have liked, but I firmly believe that there is a strong “regrouping” focus for many of our church plants who are gearing people up for an evangelistic strategy in a world much more confusing and further in understanding from a gospel framework than from say, 13 years ago.

But further to that point, Gary points out that from day one church plants are under pressure to grow.  That seems to be true of every church, plant or not.  However that does not mean we want it at all costs.  I certainly don’t in ours.  I want the church to grow in maturity and spiritual health far more than in numbers.  I am confident that if it gets the first two right, we will have a better chance at tackling the third (I also believe that the way to tackle the first two is to start doing the third one, but that’s a topic for another post!).

4. The Devil Steals Sheep, Not Churches

Again, I hear what Gary is saying about sneaky sheep stealing, but in reality they are not our sheep to steal. The sheep are Jesus’ sheep to look after, feed and care for.  They are there to help to direct into ministry and mission, and show them that a life for Jesus is far more rewarding in eternity, even if it seems a tough journey in this age.   The devil is the one who steals sheep, and he does it to kill and destroy them.

The idea of sheep stealing leads to the idea of fences.  If you fear that another church is going to steal your sheep then you should ensure that you put a fence around the sheep to pen them in.  But here’s what I have observed: If you feed the sheep on the Word, pastorally care for them as Christ would have you do with his return as Chief Shepherd in mind; if you can offer them a grander vision of life that is beyond the good life the best suburbs in your city can buy them; if you can offer them an opportunity to share Jesus with other Christians and with others who don’t know Jesus, then you won’t need to put a fence around them because they will not  want to wander off!

My experience in church planting is that sheep who arrive at our church have wandered off from other places due to lack of food or care.  And to be honest they are not always the easiest people to have.  They are often tired and burnt out, having exhausted themselves wrestling with why their old church seems so stubbornly unwilling to open up God’s Word on a weekly basis, or  follow that up with responsive sacraments, prayer and praise.

Our music is nowhere near as polished as the churches they come from, we have no building, we have to set up and pack up each week, we run no formal programs, we have a couple of us working part time, our kids ministry is ad hoc and our welcoming is non-existent. Wanna join?

My catchphrase is “I don’t cajole”.  Do we grow?  Yeah a bit.  But to be honest I could do with a little bit of slow-down to get our leadership healthy and those who do attend more clearly in line with what we are doing.  Boom and bust growth just wears people out.  I don’t know a church planter that wants too much boom to be honest.  My experience is that it is not all about numbers.

Anyway, there’s heaps more to say, and perhaps I’d like to sit down with Gary and say it over a Guinness! I do think that what he has said has added into the conversation, but from the context of the rest of Australia outside the Sydney bubble, it does not seem that representative.


Perhaps that line from The Social Network is the kicker. If we had wanted to do evangelism we would have done evangelism; church plant, missional community, traditional church, whatever. Privately, publicly, corporately, individually.

Personally I think there is a bigger matter going on than not caring about evangelism. I think people do care about it, but they just are at a loss as to how to do it at the moment. There is deep uncertainty.  There is a level of animosity being directed towards the Christian framework that is stinging people.

There are heaps of questions being raised:  How do we reach this turning culture with the gospel? How do we do it when many churches have exhausted themselves – and their people –  with every method possible for at least 13 years?   When that happens, evangelism then becomes something to tick off what is the true unspoken issue: the “evangelical law list” that we all congratulate, or beat, ourselves up over in church. We need to have a conversation about that.  

Some self-assessment in light of these things is long overdue – in established churches and church plants.  And I think that Gary would probably agree with me on that one. We need to put some heads together in evangelicalism in Australia, not simply attend a conference here, listen to a podcast there, but to determine what the church is going to have to attend to in the coming cold decades.

Now if anyone has Gary’s number I might phone him up for that Guinness!

 * – Gary wrote a good comment about this post today so make sure you read that too.  It’s a conversation that we will try to keep going.

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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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