July 23, 2014

Church Planting and The Slow Fix Solution: Part 1

I have an injury that is hampering my running. For a while there I thought I had the quick fix solution, a cortisone injection in my iliotibial band at the side of my knee. Injection done, off I would run. It didn’t quite work out that way. The quick fix didn’t fix it. All the quick fix did was mask the symptoms for a while, without resolving the problem. Result? Pain returned and I ground to a halt again.

What transpires – as I had feared all along – is that my knee requires the “slow fix solution”. And what’s more, the issue isn’t really with my knee, that’s simply where the deeper, more intrinsic problem presents itself.

My body needs the slow fix solution of building up some core strength, especially on my right hand side over a period of weeks and months, and a gradual return to a crazy number of kilometres per week.  I am now booked in to do a Pilates class for runners, as well as the usual physio and rehab at home routine.  It will drag on for a month or two yet and I will have to hold myself back in order for the slow fix solution to do what solutions do – solve things.

(image may not be actual representation of Steve running)

Church ministry, and church planting in particular, is in desperate need of the slow fix solution. It struck me today that if church planters and other church leaders wish to embed their people deeply into a Christian life that not only counters the tsunami of late modernity in the Western world, but flourishes in the face of it, then only a slow fix solution will do.

Let’s face it, the culture has been doing Christians slowly.  It’s easy to tick all the right boxes, especially if you know which boxes people are looking for you to tick, but the confusing world of consumption and choice, the manner in which the hard secular framework squeezes the breathe out of the Christian’s lungs in the public square, the seemingly implausible nature of the gospel message in the face of “facts”, not to mention the gradual cultural temperature increase that is “boiling the frog in the pot”, risks hollowing out many Christians long before church attendance drops off or they question their faith.

Faced with a crisis of gathering pace in the West, church planting was forwarded as a great way to challenge this retreat.  After all, church plants, especially in their first five years, on average garner more people evangelistically than established churches. The boom in church planting through the West, and here in Australia, has based its raison d’être on this reality. The solution therefore was to get lots of churches started quickly, and have them reproduce quickly.  The institutional frameworks of the older established churches were hampering progress, or so the narrative went.

But if the culture has being doing Christians slowly – and deeply –  then only a slow turn around is going to do what is truly required; a deep, long-lasting and total transformation in thinking and practice among the Christian community. However for many leaders – especially eager, apostolic-type church planters – this is counter intuitive.  Partly that is because many are quick fix people; always looking to change up, or get things started, or get things shut down and restarted in a different way.  Church planters, by their very nature, shy away from something that might take forty years to sort out. Forty years is for disobedience desert wanderings, not effective, replicating church planting networks.

But as with my knee, a quick fix solution may only touch the surface of the malaise. Worse, it may (also like my knee) lull you into a false sense of security that will require a longer rehabilitation if the underlying problems are not addressed.

So, for example, you plant a new church plant with a new crew. An excitement is engendered by planting in a new suburb and things bubble along for a while, but over time, the deep seated issues that have percolated the church in the West over the past forty to fifty years start to show their heads.  So suddenly one Sunday morning you find that one of your core families just isn’t there. When you catch up with the parents later that week they are slightly apologetic, and a little embarrassed, or perhaps defensive. It turns out they have decided to allow their ten year old to join the local footy club, which since matches are on Sunday mornings, necessitates one parent being away each week of the footy season. What do you do? You’ve been running a narrative about being missional since you planted, and the need to embed yourselves in your communities, and so when pressed, those are all of the answers they come back at you with. They are going to seek to reach people with the gospel by befriending them long term (aka: for the next ten winter seasons). You try to counter their reasoning with a reminder of their commitment to God’s community, but it begins to sound like a legalistic request.  Besides they have made up their minds, and they’re not going to “allow their son to grow up hating church because it kept him from football.”

What can you say?  You want to believe they have gospel intentionality, but it still rings a little hollow. Their non-attendance leave a huge dent in your weekly gathering. And if it was a gospel decision, how come they didn’t discuss it with their gospel community?  How come they never came to you to pray about it?  What made the family consider that it was a decision solely for them to make in light of the commitment they have to God’s people? For all of the books you read together, the meetings in your lounge room discussing mission in your suburb, the times of prayer for people you have named who need Jesus, it should feel like a strategic decision, but somehow it doesn’t. What is going on?

In the aftermath of the decision, and the ensuing weeks in which they are not there, and you are – again – lumping sound gear into the hired hall after a sleepless night during which your youngest decided to get gastro, your immediate response may be grumpiness, disappointment, even a touch of bitterness or anger.  It’s at that stage you need to realise that church planting is not the quick fix solution to re-engender gospel zeal among Christians, and rekindle evangelism among your suburbs.  The decision to attend footy rather than church is fed from a spring, the source of which is deeply subterranean.  As with my knee, there is no quick fix solution, because as with my knee, the presenting problem is symptomatic of a deeper and more intrinsic problem. It is a problem that requires something longer, deeper and more radical than anything a mere church plant might offer.

So what are the beginnings of the slow fix solution?  Can you wait until the next post to find out?

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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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