We close more churches than we start, and the legacy of current church leaders will be to leave fewer churches behind than they inherited.
To counteract the decline of Christendom in the West, many churches, particularly evangelicals, have developed a keen interest in church planting. But there are problems, church planting hasn’t been very successful. Unsurprisingly, the same issues that the conventional church faces are the same ones any new venture encounters: cultural assumptions based Christendom–a world that has largely eroded.
Although there are a number of church planting organizations and conferences, the models we employ still rely on a foundation of Christendom. In particular, the reliance on professional clergy, and the centralization around a Sunday service. If we can’t move beyond this paradigm no amount of innovation will save what’s (already?) dead.
Here are a few ideas to branch out and increase the number of church planters and churches.
1. Turn the Sunday service into a minor instead of a primary focal point.
When we think about church planting in the West we immediately associate it with a church service. “Where will you meet?” among the first questions people will pose. We calculate the cash investment for the right person, and add the budget to run the service (rent, sound, etc.) We start with service and then figure out creative ploys to get people in. That’s backwards. And even if a church plant has a renewed neighborhood or missions ethos, it still comes secondary to the needs of that service.
Trouble is, our assumptions of the importance of the service are wrong. In a post-Christian world few come to a service on whim. We’re essentially putting all of our resources into an institution that’s only for a dwindling Christian audience. That’s not a recipe for growth. Some church plants get smart and offer programs that are targeted at very specific groups such as young families. It does work, but new visitors wind up being lapsed Christians or church switchers.
(Note: I’m not advocating a black and white scenario where we do away with gatherings entirely, far from it. I am a strong advocate for simple communities to intentionally gather in larger groups.)
By removing the Sunday service as the center you effectively remove the most expensive component while simultaneously opening the door for something else to become the primary focal point of the community. Pragmatically, this immediately increases a church plant’s longevity, but also demonstrates an atypical model of church that requires a renewed focus on the participation of the people, not a reliance on the sponsored programs. By not overly relying on professional clergy leadership we demonstrate, not just talk about, a priesthood of all believers.
2. Reduce ‘qualifications’ for church planters, increase the number of church planters.
We’ve professionalized church planting rather than develop and release people based on gifting.
In the West, criteria to church plant with a sending church, denomination, or para-church organization is steep. It’s heavy on investment hours, money, usually requires some kind of schooling, and goodness, the amount of assessments….. By controlling qualifications we drastically cut eligibility. When someone has an idea to start new community expressions they may think twice because of the years it may take to “qualify” with a denomination. Assessments weed out leaders we don’t like, “not a good preacher,” or “may not handle stress well,” or “not a Type-A personality”.
By professionalizing church planting we essentially negate the priesthood of all believers and also communicate that only qualified individuals with certain skill sets (the CEO type) have what it takes. This is where the rest of the world leaves the West in the dust. Christianity is growing the most in places where professionalization of clergy is NOT possible. Mountains of assessments are never employed, rather simple discipleship criteria take its place and then replicated.
When we lower an unnecessary bar of ‘who counts’ as church planter we increase who can be called church planter. In order for this to work we need to, however, expand what we ‘count’ as ‘church’.
3. Change Metrics of Measurement
Can we move away from attendance and revenues and towards a different expression? Again, not just in conversation, but in application? And do we honestly have the patience for the slow arduous process of new? If we lower the bar on who can be a church planter, then we need to be ready for the expressions they put forward. Theologically speaking we understand ‘church’ to be of the people, but when put into metrics, ‘church’ growth’ becomes how many people attend a service. ‘People growth’ is different as it increases the value of patience, measures transformations, and expands our definitions of discipleship.
Th primary metric that most use to define church plant success is “self-sustaining”, which essentially means, “can’t it pay its own bills and does it mostly look like its sending church?” Unfortunately, there’s is a CRUCIAL element this metric relies upon: Christendom. If we’re paying attention to the repeated failures of most church plants we should conclude a radical shift in the measurement paradigms is in order. We don’t need to worry as much about ‘self-sustaining’ ministries if drastically reduce the COST of new and therefore reduce the need to ‘prove’ viability.
I am assuming, with my ideas, that church plants are generally small and neighborhood based. Tribes based on location seem to be the way our communities/culture is moving. If you’re transplanting 150 of your own people, then your venture is something different.
The interesting thing with these three ideas? If we lower the bar of what ‘counts’, with a buy-in cost that is quite small, it won’t take a lot of time to test it! Leader just need to be comfortable with commissioning people to do what they may already be doing and being OK with the prospect they may never come back to ‘church’.