(some people take this stuff way too seriously)
I’ve written on this before, but church planting in Perth (and beyond) is in serious need of some motherships. That topic was part of the conversation between Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s Mark Dever and about 18 church planters over a great dinner the other night in Perth, hosted by 121 Degrees Church Planting Network. It’s gonna be a bit of a mind-dump so excuse some of the excesses and blanket statements (or don’t, but don’t expect me apologise for them either!).
More on the motherships in a moment – but first, a big thanks to Mark Dever in the midst of a huge Perth schedule, to make time for that dinner. He was warm, effusive, helpful and gave the impression he really wanted to be there. First rate night.
And now, those motherships. Where are they? Who are they? There is a distinct difference between a big church and a church planting mothership. A church planting mothership, whilst it is big, is not focussed so much on in-drag and growth as it is on providing the right soil within its garden for church planters to grow and flourish. Currently there are several big churches in Perth that fit the bill by being large, well-resourced churches. The need in Perth is two-fold: first, move the big churches towards being church planting motherships; and second, attempt to build up some medium-sized churches that have a planting heart towards the mothership size.
Why do I see this as a need? Why do I see this as more important – or at least more practical – than planting out little individual church plants that will scatter throughout the community until every space is filled in with growing healthy, small church plants? Simply this: I don’t see it happening – anywhere. I do see a lot of isolated small churches, poorly resourced, with tired pastors and congregations. I am hopeful that the breezy optimism that swept through disaffected pastors who decided to plant because the “traditional church was in bad shape” have come to their senses. I know I have.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If you want to plant a church and you’ve got the “gift” go out and do so. But, as Mark Dever noted the other night, there are far fewer people with that gung ho rugged individualism who have all the gifts needed, and simply require a map, a Mac and a long macc to get going (a Bible might be helpful too – Ed). Of course that hasn’t stopped a lot of people following the lead of some serious alpha male US pastors in trying that, and crashing on the rocks below. The evidence in Australia – and the US according to Dever – is in: the solo gig based on sheer weight of personality ain’t cutting it.
If you have planted a church solo, don’t get me wrong about that either. I think Perth – and Australia – is in the invidious position of having very little Christian infrastructure upon which to hang. Where are the finances for the two year start ups? Where are the church planting teams of fifty people ready to go? They are few and far between. Bi-vocational is the general rule. However, my rule of thumb would be that unless you have a well-paid job that will grant you the flexibility to work a couple of days per week and earn what many others earn in a week, then don’t delude yourself that bi-vocational will keep the wolf from the door (not in the tenth most expensive city in the world anyway).
Of course this is not a call for every church plant to be a mothership. It is, rather, a call for SOME churches to become motherships, churches with capacity, funding and personnel. Churches that become training centres in and of themselves. Churches that, by the time they send their guys to college, have shaped and formed them theologically. Churches that invest in guys who are going to take those precious gifts and talents elsewhere within five years.
What will that require? Bravery for a start. Bravery from the mothership to realise that by giving time and resources to their best people in order for them to leave, they are not killing their futures, but are in fact guaranteeing them. Such an attitude would not only see the best people being sent out, but the best people being drawn in. A mothership committed to church planting will find that it has the gravitational pull to attract people who want to be trained and equipped to plant. Motherships also have to be brave enough to step up and tell people who want to plant, but shouldn’t for gifting/character reasons, that they won’t be supporting them to do so. Believe me it is better for the gospel and the individual if they hear that from people who know them well and work alongside them. It may well be that the mothership can harbour that person’s gifts effectively elsewhere, allowing them to serve “in their sweet spot” so to speak. I have seen a number of people planting who are outside of that sweet spot, and it is not pretty.
It will also require cooperation. There are a number of big churches that have spawned plants here in Perth, some accidental, some incidental and some deliberate. But there does not appear to be a sense that they speak to each other that often, or share resources at all. Some of the reasons for this are historical and some are denominational. I also sense that any new motherships, unencumbered by such ties will find it much easier to work together and utilise resources. These newer motherships will see these ties as cross-pollination rather than cross-contamination. I am not advocating for denominations to be done away with, but simply that motherships start to recognise other motherships on the basis of philosophy and practice of ministry, rather than simply their perspectives on the Lord’s Supper or Baptism.
Church planting motherships are great testing grounds for gifting. An assessment tool can only say so much about a person. Three to five years of working alongside someone, under the watchful gaze of a senior leadership, is enough time to determine whether someone has what it takes to plant. The current “democratic” path in which someone plants because they feel called to or want to, and then finds that they have to back-engineer the whole process is time-consuming and potentially disastrous, for planter and plant alike.
Are we there yet in Perth? Not by a long way. I think that the current generation of 35-45 year olds who are involved in planting churches will be the ones who sacrifice themselves on the altar to break the inertia. I am hopeful that in ten years time we might have a good strong cooperative of about five such motherships who share resources, train together, cross-pollinate and send out teams of well-trained young men who, while forward looking, pioneering and brave, also have a safety net behind them that provides them with ongoing support, joint conferences/coaching/mentoring and a platform for recruitment.
One final thing: Capitol Hill, by any USA estimation is not a big church, certainly not mega, with around 900 members. But look at its influence! Much of that is down to the gifting of Mark Dever and his ability to draw up and coming leaders around him, and then to empower them. I get the sense he isn’t threatened by the brilliance of others. That’s the sign of a man who doesn’t have an ego problem. Motherships need a captain to lead, not a commandant to dictate.