Cutting the Cost and Updating Development

*Originally re-posted in May 2015, edited and re-posted.*

I took an initial church planting assessment tool online and failed…. Turns out I don’t have what it takes. Despite planting two churches, a career as an entrepreneur, and theologically trained, I fall short. I can’t argue with the results either. I’m not sold the conventional ‘build a service and they will come‘ is the way to go. In a post-Christian culture they church function needs to thrive alongside culture, not apart from a defensive posture.

Here’s why I think most church planter assessments and programs need to change so the church can raise its effectiveness from the margins.

Let’s be frank. Traditional methods of church planting are simply unsustainable. Not only are they costly in terms of people and money resources, they also don’t work well in a post-Christian context (especially when the majority only come in one form). Let’s look at problem one: money for the type of church planting typical denominations pursue.

The amount of resourcing that goes into a single church planter (and accompanying wife) is staggeringly high. Here is an incomplete tally:

  • Some kind of degree is usually required. (30-40K in tuition alone.)
  • Cost to develop, mentor, and assess prospective church planters including salary during development.
  • In a bygone era you could build a church, (today it’s not build but have a Sunday service), and it would fill with people, the vast majority being Christians. Today this strategy is less reliable, but the majority of planting maintains centrality around Sunday worship service.  This means most expenses are devoted to running the core gathering. Costs also include a form of full-time salary. 40-60K a year for 3 years = 120K-180K. Also, the sunk costs for the service. Rent, audio equipment, other admin costs, not including volunteer hours. 30K-100K a year.

Even before the first service you’re hundreds of thousands in the RED.

Given the $$$ we spend planting churches it’s no wonder sending organizations have an interest to be good stewards of their “investment”.

I don’t know the stats of how many conventional church plants stay alive after year 3 or 4, but the overall track record probably isn’t great. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, but we should seriously question whether or not the models we use are suited for the church in post-Christendom.

What can we do instead? Change the model and change the way we identify and build church planters. The first question I’d ask is: what kind of church do we want to build?

Are we planting churches to share the Gospel, or are we creating communities to take care of lapsed and transfer Christians?

What’s rare for any church, plant or not, is growth by new believers (births don’t count). Instead, we plant with 100 people from a sending church and call it something new. If the service is awesome, transfer growth kicks in, and eventually you hit the “bearing fruit” threshold of self-sufficiency.

In this model, one can be self-sufficient and never grow by conversions. 

This is a problem, especially for a church on the margins. It’s the reason for church planting–the church is on the margins and needs to reach beyond. Yet all of the work and money to build the average church planter is rooted in a faulty assumption: the church exists in a culture where building a type of pastor to lead a new congregation (centered on service and programs) will work. We continue to both measure and build church planters under this old paradigm. Doing so simultaneously exacerbates the problem of consumer Christianity by creating churches dependent on a single leader while denying the “priesthood of all believers”.

We are building more of the same kind of church, ones that remain weak in core attributes of discipleship and embodying a mission that would see us grow.

The second question is connected to discipleship, or the lack thereof. Pouring the bulk of resources into Sunday worship means embracing a function that trusts process over relationship. We can manufacturer church planters (and pastors) using a formula measured in achievements, while treating character and connection in the existing neighborhood and people secondary. (This is changing in many assessments, however.)

If relationship and connection was first, and how well you can run a service second, would the people “in charge” of releasing new leaders permit far more “under-qualified” planters to make an attempt? To accommodate this kind of development a relationship/mentor model that’s rooted in the local church is ideal. The alternative is to rely on “one size fits all” testing that an umbrella denomination or para-church administers. This format is  flawed as it’s disconnected from the crucial element of local incarnate ministry.

The third question is about questions. I failed the online test because the root of my ministry isn’t the worship service. I need a different set of questions. Something along the lines of, “how are you involved in meeting direct needs in your neighborhood?”, “describe how you have contributed to life transformations in your community”, “do you know the names and have a relationships with your literal neighbors?”, “in what manner are you offering a foretaste of the Kingdom of God for those who have never been exposed to the gospel message?”, “what aspects of social justice in your community are you actively participating in and what kind of injustices have you turned ‘right’?”

If we’re interested in developing leaders who will be effective in capturing, understanding, and dialoguing over the needs of communities then we need to stop using a rubric rooted in Christendom. My second church plant, Cypher Church, has only worked because of relationships developed years prior. This was no parachute church plant (something that struggles to find longevity). Relationship is the root to build the body in post-Christendom. Attractive services, and the skills we build the average church planter to have, are not.

Moving forward we need a fundamental paradigm shift in mission. It is the foundation that informs the function of the church. We must walk away from the narrative and activity that the church needs to retain its cultural privilege in order to succeed.

If we don’t adjust we’ll just end up creating more church leaders with great skills to manage the flock, but few to connect into a new generation. At 250K for each attempt, that’s an expensive mistake to make.