I am on the last day of three weeks holiday (23 days to be exact, but hey, who’s counting? – tanned, relaxed Ed). As a family we had great down time, with just enough “me and Jill” time and just enough “we’re all in this together” time, plus an extra teenager for a few days thrown in to make it all happy for our teen!
23 days off. That means tomorrow it all starts again, doesn’t it? Or does it? From the vantage point of experience each year of the past four church planting has been vastly different to the previous years. Every one of those years has taken us places as church planters that we did not envisage.
So this week I start my fifth year working for our church, Providence Church, and although I am fairly sure of how things will pan out – or at least how I think they might – who is to say? After all, we are not called “Providence” Church for nothing. What the past four years has taught me is that we need to do two things: We need to hold tightly to the gospel and we need to hold loosely to our form. Let me explain.
Hold Tight To the Gospel
At one level this is the easy one in the sense that it is obvious. Our primary role in planting a church is to see the seeds of the “once-for-all” gospel germinate, grow and bear fruit in the lives of people. Discipling people is what we are on about from day one through to however long this thing runs.
We have many exhortations from Scripture to hold on to the gospel. And not just any gospel, but the gospel that has been handed down to us. 2 Timothy 2:2 is a crucial verse for the faithful church planter.
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
That statement by St Paul immediately puts to the sword our notions of changing and tweaking the gospel and its ethical implications, regardless of what the culture dictates and directs. And boy is the culture starting to dictate and direct! Grace and truth have always been anathema to a world that rejects grace (because it is self-righteous) and truth (because it prefers to believe the lie), but there is a definite pressure on Christians to conform the culture in ways we had perhaps not anticipated twenty years ago. In that context we are reminded to hold tight to the gospel.
Church planters are not required to be Paul (so lets lose the false notion that burning ourselves out to do everything for everyone all of the time is a godly aim- Ed), but they are required to be like Paul and Timothy and whoever Timothy handed the gospel on to. When it comes to the message church planters are NOT innovators. NOT innovators. We have no right to tweak or change the gospel message to suit the times. Why? Because the gospel never suits the times. So hold tight to the gospel.
Hold Loose To the Form
Here’s the interesting thing. What I thought we had signed up for four years ago is very different to where we are now at Providence Church. Not worse, not a shocking change, just different.
I remember standing in front of Providence’s gathered missional communities four years ago in Perth’s CBD with Jill and the kids as the elders prayed for us and our ministry as we commenced. Much has changed since then. Let me map it out.
2011: Part-time (one day per week) associate pastor of an urban-based missional community expression of church with three missional communities clustered around Perth city that meet monthly as a gathering. The possibility was there that we would, as a family, eventually move to the city to work.
2012: Part time (two days per week) associate pastor of an urban-based missional community expression of church with four/five missional communities – three in Perth city and two in the eastern suburbs where we live. Once a month we would travel to the city as missional community to gather with the other three/sometimes four missional communities. By the end of the year we had switched to meeting as a gathering in the Midland (eastern) suburbs as we now have too many people for our lounge rooms. We also made the decision – correctly – that we would grow by ditching the long-cherished household model in our region. A part-time staff member begins with me one day per week in Midland.
2013: Part time (two days per week first half of year/three days per week second half) associate pastor. The BIG shift. After prayer and thought we shift our Midland expression of church to a weekly service in a well-resourced sports complex. There are only 25-40 regulars and we maintain (or at least try to) the missional communities meeting for food and prayer time during the week or Sunday lunch times. We do notice that more people start to come – some Christian, some not Christian, and more than a few who have not been to church for a long time. Half way through 2013 the founding planter of Providence announces his intention to resign from the role at the end of the year. I commit to taking on a caretaker senior pastor role for the first half of 2014. My part-time helper goes to two days per week.
2014: A second full year of meeting in the sports complex which sees rapid growth (by our standards), with occasional services over the 100 mark. I am now four days a week, and helping with the preaching at the city congregation also. The commencement of a local leadership team in Midland separate from the Perth city eldership, though still under the city oversight. By this stage we are phasing out missional communities in Midland and organising smaller discipleship groupings that fit people’s life stage. We have a NO PROGRAMS policy, and we determine that the main Sunday gathering is our key discipleship event. It still runs tightly, with one or two musicians at most, catechism, the “long” prayer, Bible, sermon and weekly communion, followed by another hour or so together afterwards over food. Counter-intuitively it is designed to run longer rather than shorter. This works!
During this year we take on a senior pastor complete with a congregation of 180 people that, with their own church’s blessing, shifts to Providence Church. We now have a morning Providence congregation in Perth of about 60-70 that meets fortnightly for missional community and fortnightly as a gathering; an evening Providence congregation (180) in Perth that meets weekly as a gathering, and the Midland morning congregation that meets weekly and averages around 75.
And so to 2015!
Perhaps my point is simply this: As church planters we need to relax a little as we go into a new year. There is going to be change. There is going to be change to things that we thought might stay the same. But here’s the rub: Make sure any change is to the form of church and not to the content of the gospel. It’s easy to make the mistake of holding so tight to a form of church as a planter that the form starts to rival the message in importance. It’s not. The irony is that many churches – and mainline denominations are a key example – start to hold tighter and tighter to the form of church the more loosely they hold to the gospel content. The gospel gives us great freedom to experiment with form if – and only if – that form continues the work of handing on the gospel intact to the next generation.
So, church planters, go on out there and enjoy God, his people and his work in 2015.