Compared to the New Testament, the way we start new churches today seems backwards. Early churches (the community, not the building) started with people and eventually, if they were lucky, gathered corporately. Even when the apostle Paul traveled as the itinerant missionary, he did so with an entourage and to cities with existing communities.
Today, missionaries/church planters are trained to start with the institution and then add the people. We professionalize the church planter (clergyman) and train them to run the institution (the Sunday service). There are problems with this model, particularly surrounding development costs.
Most sending churches understand the “build it first and they will come” mantra only works within the a culture where people hold at least a nascent understanding of the Christian narrative.
But even with this knowledge it doesn’t stop the training and releasing of church planters with the explicit intent of “doing church”. Even with our track record church planting is picking up speed as a robust strategy for evangelical churches.
Here are different ideas that have less upfront and longterm costs, that are replicable, and may even have greater longevity.
[tweetthis remove_url=”true”]Rather than starting with steeple let’s start with people. In fact, let’s just stick with people.[/tweetthis]
I don’t imagine many would disagree with this theology, but putting theology into practice–that’s a different tension.
What if, rather than spending years developing a single leader whom functions as the defacto ‘lead’ for the eventual service/congregation, we moved away from the charismatic single leadership figure and towards team?
What if the last aspect we planned in church planting was starting a Sunday service?
What if instead of pouring resources into the weekly gathering, we gave resourcing to a group of people to be ‘missionaries’ in the neighborhood they already live in?
What if we changed the success measure of church plants from the size of the Sunday service and towards transformative witness and discipleship in the neighborhood?
For these ideas to become real it would inevitably mean releasing people at the expense of the main Sunday service. That’s a tough pill to swallow because leaders put so much prestige in the service that ideas built to intentionally dwindle attendance are met with trepidation. Leaders selfishly cling to glamour of packed sanctuaries even in an age where, as a whole, we close more churches than we start. The ship is sinking but we’re still wary of giving up our little piece.
Think about this, being more liberal with releasing congregations to become missionaries in the places they already exist, connecting them together in smaller groups, requires less training, time, and money while simultaneously increasing overall reach and ‘church planting’ activity in the neighborhood.
This would shift the strategic model of leadership development from slotting leaders into centralized programming, to releasing people in a decentralized fashion to be the hands and feet of the church away from its physical gathering point.
Gathering corporately is still important, but we’ve become too guarded with our weekly events. It’s time to try small expressions that require decades to develop with a greatly reduced buy-in cost even if it means ‘losing’ 25% of our attendance.
Not everyone will be interested in this kind of move, but I’m willing to bet you can find people already doing things in their neighborhood without permission. Find those people and surrounding them with others in their vicinity.
These are only ideas, but in an age where the Sunday service is only for the dwindling number of faithful, it may be worth a shot.