February 26, 2014

Church Planting For The Long Run

Here’s my Gold Coast Marathon program for July (all 1624 kms of it), and the singlet from the run club that I belong to.  And no, it’s no coincidence that the club’s slug line is “run with endurance” from Hebrews 12, as the coach and founder of the club is also the coach (pastor?) and founder of local Perth missional church plant The Big Table, which meets around a, er, big table!


Nervous?  A little.  Excited? Yeah, especially if I manage to get it under the 3:07 the program is built for.  But to be honest, if I get the 3:07 I am aiming for I will be more than satisfied.  Why?  Because that’s the run I am training for, and the first thing I noticed about the manner in which Simon my coach has put this together is that it is solely focussed on that 42.2km on July 6th on the Gold Coast.  Sure there is speed work, and the famous bellwether Yasso runs (look it up non-runners), but the spine of the program is a constant 4:25 minutes per kilometre.  Because if there is one thing Simon (and others) have realised about me, it is that I have a tendency to injure myself busting out every run.  I love the speed work and am always aiming towards lowering my 5km and 10km PBs.  What  Simon wants is for my body, my cadence to so “get” what 4:25 feels like, that I will lock into it over time, and especially during the race, when adrenaline, the roar of the crowd and the smell of coffee-flavoured GUs takes over.  Go out at 4:10-4:15 and I will burn out well before the end.  But 4:25 for km1 and 4:25 for km42, with a whole bunch of 4:25s in-between?  Running 3:07 with endurance beckons.

You know, church planters, being the pacy beasts they are, just love those 5km and 10km races. It’s true.  We want everything on the fast track.  We want results quickly.  We get high quickly when people turn up.  We get low quickly when they don’t.  And why haven’t we baptised someone this year?  I want answers!

My prayer for me in church planting – and for you – is that you church plant for the long run.  Know what your 4:25 per km is and stick to it. Get it into your bones, and avoid the distractions.  Distractions such as church planting conferences by elites who just make your gig seem that little bit slow, that little bit off the pace, that little bit too populated by people still wearing KT26s when they should be in Mizunos (let the running reader understand).

So throughout this running program I am going to reflect on my blog on what it means for me – and you – to church plant for the long run.  And here are my first two observations:

1. You Cannot Fast Track Maturity in Your Congregation

I know this to be the case because I have tried.  And it came close to burning out a few people.  I had come back from being involved in church planting in the UK with a whole bunch of notes and ideas and experiences. The core group I gathered I gathered quickly. I then tried to transplant the values framework of my UK experience onto the new guys here.  Not only that, I also tried to shift them along in their Christian race at a pace that was supposed to be reflective of a missional church plant in a high density urban UK city, filled with uni students and refugees, here in Perth: the loneliest city on this lonely planet,  steeped as it is in late modernity, hard secularism, dormitory suburbs and long-distance commuters.

What happened?  Confusion. Mixed expectations.  And something worse. Somewhere along the way I crossed the line from viewing the transplanted “THE VALUES” of my old network (yes, I meant to use capital letters) as an expression of how the gospel works, to viewing them as the gospel!  Not that I would ever articulate it that way, being a good conservative evangelical.  But I responded to them that way!  In other words, the adherence or otherwise to THE VALUES by the core group shaped me emotionally in a way that should be reserved only for the gospel.  So I felt great joy – not in the gospel – but when people finally found a way to get involved in the life of someone who wasn’t a Christian and had a “gospel intentional” meal with them.  And I felt mortified – not by my self-focussed sin – but rather when that meal didn’t work out, that person didn’t turn up or the “gospel” conversation didn’t happen. Rather than be looking for the marks of grace in the lives of this new bunch as they got to know each other, feel comfortable with their differences, and demonstrate humility, love and other-person-centredness, I was busy trying to get them activated.  A wise observer on the inside of our group said later when it had, inevitably, gone belly-up, “It was starting to sound a little bit like law.”

Of course it did.  Because when I am asking people to run 10km at pace when they have only started to do Couch to 5k, they are going to fail. They are going to get injured.  They are going to break.  Just because I had been thinking about church planting ninja-style for four or five years didn’t mean to say they had.  And just because they had said they were up for the race and understand how much energy it would require, it doesn’t mean to say they did.

The great danger for church planters is to assume that people are trained for what you want them to do, rather than for what they are capable of doing.  The great thing about my marathon program is that it minimises “risk”.  Yes, yes, I know, every second missional church book is calling people to “take a risk”.  Well cosy church planting book writer, guess what?  They are already! Life is a risk every day when your kids are struggling at school, when your job is not secure, when a parent’s health is going downhill, when your wife is suffering PND. Most people’s lives contain enough risk each week, so it wouldn’t hurt for their church experience to at least have the safety net of grace underneath it, would it?   Not that they won’t be called to run the race with endurance, but it won’t be a 3:07 marathon on day one.  The biggest – and riskiest – race was won by Jesus already (Hebrews 12 anyone?), and we run the race knowing that he has won it on our behalf!  That’s the gospel folks!  So allow people to take time to understand the grace of God in their lives together before you throw a half marathon at them.

Which brings me, perhaps inevitably, to my second observation:

You Cannot Fast Track Maturity in Yourself

How do I know that I am running too hard too soon?  I break!  I have been running for just over two years and it is only in this third year that I have learned to read the warning signs and stay away from injury.  One of the speediest blokes in our club gave me extra kudos on the Strava site simply for running a recovery run at a tortoise-like  six minutes per km. “That’s more like it!” he said.

How did I know I was running too hard too soon with my church plant? I broke!  I got angry and frustrated at the lack of pace in others.  It bordered dangerously on “Hummph, that mob that does not know the law…etc, etc”.  Praise God, in this second iteration of church planting I am generally avoiding the mistakes of the first, not because everyone in the church is maturing, but because I am!  The downtime from running – for a slightly addictive person such as I – can be frustrating, but it surely makes you assess your motivations, what went wrong, what to do better the next time and, most importantly, what NOT to do!

And the return from injury took time.  God had to do a work in my heart that dealt with motivations that were about self-worth and success (although i could have framed both of these things positively and theologically to anyone who asked), and he had to repair the injury through the only means possible – the gospel.  It took some time for me to get back on the track as I ploughed through the issues about gifting, idolatry, and the hazy line separating hard work from drivenness.

Here’s the beautiful thing though.  A broken heart, when it’s combined with being contrite, is exactly the type of heart that God loves – and that he can work with.  Ministering of out gifting is one thing – it’s all Personal Best times and podium finishes – but ministering out of brokenness means that the only reward you are looking for is to hear “Well done good and faithful servant.”  When you hear that you won’t be worrying whether it was 3:07:00 or 3:02:32.  So it took a a year or two sitting on the sidelines watching everyone else, and learning to be content with that, before God allowed me to step onto the road again.

Though come to think of it a 3:02:32 would be nice, wouldn’t it?  All I have to do is shave off about five seconds per km and that would set me up for a sub-three next time!  Er, see how we think? See how we get ahead of ourselves? See what we are like at our core?

The solution? Keep coming back to the long run.  Keep coming back to the way God has wired and gifted you.  Run the  gospel race with endurance and gently and slowly train others to run it with endurance too, “and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” (1Peter 5:4)

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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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