August 31, 2018

Church Plants: Rehab For Worn Out Christians

The primary role for a church plant in Australia, indeed around the West, is Christian rehab.

I know, I know.  It doesn’t look as sexy as saying we’re going to plant a church to “evangelise this neighbourhood/suburb/city/nation”, but my experience shows me that rehabilitation is the primary result of church planting, not evangelisation.

This is not to say that people do not become Christians in a church plant.  They do. Some who never were Christians and knew that to be the case become Christians.  The stats show this.  Some who thought they were Christians, but over time realised that was not the case, also become Christians.  Praise God for the fruit we see.

But it’s not at a rate that would grow a church to a sustainable size to plant another one.  And it’s the same whether you do house church/pub church/hipster vintage church.

So, if we’re honest, we’re not evangelising churches into existence, we’re rehabbing weary, worn out and confused Christians into newer churches, and giving ourselves a blank slate – as much as we can ever do that – to figure out what needs rehabbed out of these folk, and what needs rehabbed into them.

For the average conservative evangelical church, the question of what needs rehabbed out of  Christians who come their way seems easy.  Sad to say, the answer is poor Bible teaching that has no Christological focus.

Indeed most evangelical church planters are almost gleeful at how easy it is to spike the interest of Christians who have never heard deep, convicting, warm sermons based on a biblical theology framework.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who come up to me at one of our church plants and say things like: “I never knew that the whole Bible was pointing towards Jesus.”, or “I am only just realising that the gospel isn’t just phase one of the Christian life, it’s everything.”

And that warms the cockles of my heart, assuming that organ contains such curiosities.

The second thing that we rehab out of Christians is the laissez faire attitude they take to church itself.  A generation of “everything is worship” or “everywhere is church” has led people to the unwitting conclusion that nothing is and nowhere is. Regular attendance is one in three weeks.

We’ve worked so hard at killing off the idea of sacred spaces, lest – shock, horror -, our people become confined by the protective bubble, we have failed to grasp just how deeply religious our secular culture is in creating its own religious spaces.

We have failed to see that everything actually is worship – including false worship: the worship of the created things rather than the Creator.

We’ve made a huge tactical blunder.  At the very time the secular frame’s discipleship program was ramping up the language of worship and sacredness to describe what it is offering in that shop or this venue or with those experiences, we junked the language that we once owned.

We did not see that people are seeking transcendence in something, and if we don’t provide a framework for what that is, they will find it elsewhere.   Which they are doing.  In droves. The rise of thicker liturgical practices among many millennial Christians, bored to death by the Jeez-burger and chips of their boomer parents and their seeker-sensitive services, bears this out.

Oh, and as a result, we did manage to let our people imbibe the language of worshipper-as-consumer that the secular culture was offering them, so that has to be laundered out of them also.

So far so good.  If you’re of good solid evangelical stock and you’re nodding your head with all of this, hang in there.

But here’s where we need to push this further.  Poor theology always leads to poor practice.

Hence when I hear preaching that doesn’t focussed on the “done” work of Christ, that doesn’t offer the gospel of grace, that doesn’t do anything with the Old Testament other than allegorise it and show you how it’s really about how leadership/giving/church growth works, I fully expect worn-out Christians to need rehabbing.

They’re going to be on an endless cycle of justification unless they’re convinced that they’re fully justified already.

So I expect such tired sheep to land on the shores of a church plant feeling fairly exhausted by the merry-go-round of activism that thin cross-less theologies leads to, especially when the practice of such places can be tied to numbers, worship styles, and building programs.

And giving.  Always the giving.  The stories I hear of how long the giving talk is compared to how long the sermon was!

What I don’t expect is for a theological astute, gospel-focussed church plant to do is miss the opportunity to rehab the busy-ness out of such Christians.  But often that’s what I find.

Church plants always needs lots done – or at least always need more done, given the visionary eye of the planter and the planting team.

Church planters can be so one-eyed that they believe that everybody should swap the busy-ness of what they are doing – for a different kind of busy-ness.  A more noble kind of busy-ness. One that matters.  But that’s a pretty ropey theology in and of itself.

Now I do believe that the works for ministry are important for all to be involved with.

But my job is not to equip my congregation to do my job better in church services on a Sunday: My job is to equip them to do their job better in Babylon on a Monday.

My concern is that we can unwittingly baptise the same frantic busyness these Christians experienced in the past, with a newly minted busy-ness, only with a different theology.  Is the burn-out rate, frustration rate among evangelical, reformed pastors any less than among pastors of a different theology?  The theology’s not the problem.

So, to put it crassly, if the “sexy church” that these people previously attended kept them on the merry-go-round of “excellence in worship”; nights out at a variety of meetings to ensure that Saturday night/Sunday morning was knocking it out of the park, then here’s the risk we run: Replacing the busyness, not with gospel rest, but with other forms of busy-ness.

And we are still, after all these years of spinning the merry-go-round faster and faster for lesser and lesser output in our evangelical churches, trying to “busy” our people into Christian maturity.

And our particular term for that is deeply theological – it’s “every-member ministry”. Who could argue with that?

Ministry is not all about the pastor and the paid staff, you know.  We need to train/train/train.  We need to train small group leaders, we need to train worship leaders, we need to train communion leaders, pastoral carers.   We jump on the training train and off we go.

Now some training is well and good.  And some people are fitted out to be trained to focus on church-based ministry.

But my experience with the modern day Christian person is that the training they most need has little to do with what goes on in our buildings, and a whole lot to do with what goes on in theirs.  Their offices, their university lecturers their family homes.  Because those are the places they are coming a theological/moral/psychological/existential cropper.

Those are the places where, if something goes drastically wrong, a whole lot of your pastoral time is going to be taken up. So it makes sense on a practical level at the very least, to make sure your people are fit and ready to face those challenges “out there”.

The most important small group many adults will ever lead is their families.  If we’re not equipping them to do the long term, low-grade grind of family life in a godly manner in these hardening times, then they can be the best Bible Study group leader you’ve ever head, but the end result in the small group that matters will be chaos.

The most cost-effective strategy, in terms of time, money and effort, to help that particular family small group might simply be to provide them with a simple catechistic strategy to use around the kitchen bench at 6:30pm.  You know, that time when everyone is finally in the one space together for that brief twenty minutes, and they slump exhausted into a chair in front of a half-processed food /half fresh food meal.

Most Christians in church are not lazy.  And it’s a cop out to say so. Many are very busy trying to figure out how the office politics is going to affect them and whether they might have a job in a month’s time, given what automation, globalisation and politicisation of the work place is doing.

Your job – whether you’re in a congregational-led church, or an elder-led church, is probably far more secure than theirs.  Oh, and maybe you don’t get those long weekends, but you wouldn’t trade that for the discretionary time during the day you get that they don’t.

Of course many do serve in church, but their capacity has greatly diminished in recent years.  Just ask how many volunteers under 40 you’re expecting to sign up to help in kids’ ministry over the next decade.  Not only do they have reduced capacity, but without a teaching degree the pedagogical approaches required these days to simply keep kids’ attention is bracing.

So be gentle with people. That people give any time at all to a volunteer organisation called “church” is anomalous in our current context, in which volunteerism in mediating institutions has fallen through the floor.

Their time is precious.  Use it wisely.  And be as theological about what constitutes a growing life before God as the Bible is.  Look at Paul’s charge in Colossians 3-4.  The proof of godly maturity in a worker is his or her commitment to excellence in the workplace, and a heart attitude that reflects their belief that Christ will reward.  Celebrate those things in your church.  Publicly.

The proof of godly maturity in a boss is that they treat workers with dignity and respect, knowing that no matter how far up the ladder they themselves go, there is a Master above them.  Celebrate those things in your church. Publicly.

We will simply assume that the fruit that a church plant wishes to bear most will align with the fruit of the Spirit.  Hence a church that is light on program, but heavy on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control among its people is knocking it out of the park.  It may not be able to put a well researched marketing badge on a dozen programs it runs, but the crown of life at the end of the age is looking pretty good odds.

And most of that stuff will be lived out outside the confines of a building, indeed outside the confines of structured church activities.  It will be lived out in families, friendship connections inside and outside church, in the offices and the places of study that take up such huge swathes of our congregations time and energy.  It will be lived out in times that are increasingly tougher, angrier, more hostile and more uncertain.

That’s the true work of rehabilitation needed in the life of God’s people in the Western world today.

So, church planters and pastors.  What are you rehabbing out of your people?  What are you rehabbing into them?


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