From Frenetic Activity to Actual Significance
I am a passionate advocate of church planting. I have a host of reasons for that commitment which I won’t rehearse here. Suffice it to say that I am convinced that church planting forms a vital ingredient in the attempt to engage in mission in cultures of all kinds. However, I am also aware that the wrong kind of church planting activity does not necessarily lead to movement or create momentum towards mission but only results in purposeless activity or to quote a better writer than me, “much ado about nothing.”
What constitutes activity without purpose? Many of us have witnessed situations where a great deal of church planting activity has resulted in the birth of many congregations characterised by the following descriptors. They are small (usually failing to rise above 50 people), sectarian (focussed on the criticism of others), disconnected from their local community or social setting (usually viewed as consisting of very strange people – social misfits of one kind or another), and finally, more expert at persuading existing Christians to move churches than winning new converts from the world (rearranging the kingdom instead of growing it).
That kind of church planting movement demands huge amounts of effort to sustain it (often overseas mission support) but only ever results in the creation of marginalised movements that do not impact society.
Some years ago I spoke with a denominational leader whose denomination had experienced a huge surge in growth through church planting. They had gone from something close to 600 congregations to more like 800. He was reluctant to share the story and I wanted to know why. He told me, “we have merely gone from having 600 headaches to 800 headaches”.
How can we move from the creation of more headaches to a situation of social significance? There are sufficient case histories from around the world, in sophisticated contemporary societies, where marginal movements have become societal shakers and shapers to gain some sense of where we need to be headed.
I want to suggest that the following elements need to be present in order to produce such movements.
1. Exponential growth – leaders generated from within.
We are all aware that multiplication is far more potent than addition in terms of producing rapid growth. One person who plants one church with the capacity to plant other churches that reproduce within five years can see hundreds of churches planted within their lifetime. One person who plants one church every five years that do not have the capacity for reproduction will see less than 10 churches planted in their lifetime.
We all desire that kind of reproduction but it only happens when we succeed in growing many leaders from within the churches we plant. Too many small churches cannot reproduce leaders because their key characteristic is to create and maintain a fellowship of needy people instead of creating a community of leaders.
2. Size matters.
The figure 50 is significant in church life simply because it represents approximately the number of people who we could expect to know well over a period of time. It is in fact a single cell structure.
If our expectation is that the creation of a congregation of 50 represents success we are creating a system that will always be dependent on outside assistance. Now, lets be clear, there are some situations where 50 people is success and that is not to be despised or ignored, indeed they may even be occasions for rejoicing. That is particularly true when we are trying to break into hard to reach communities or we are experimenting with forms of church that are new and different. But when that becomes the normal or only expectation then we generate our own failure before we begin.
It is not that we should be obsessed with numbers, our obsession should be to reach as many people as possible and we do that through the creation of healthy self sustaining communities of people with the capacity to reach many in our community. That suggests, requires and demands an imagination that cannot be satisfied with anything less than congregations that reach beyond the structure of a single cell.
3. Some larger congregations that set the pace and generate resource.
Beyond the expectation that most congregations will be multi-celled organisms, movements also require the development of some congregations that are sizeable. The precise size will be determined by their particular social setting rather than a fixed number and could be anything from several hundred people to many thousands of participants.
I am describing congregations that will be noticed by community leaders who are not necessarily Christians themselves. They will be seen as socially significant because of the quality of leadership that they attract, because of the resources that they can apply (people and money) in relation to particular projects and because of the imagination and creativity that regularly arises from within their ranks. In other words, it is not the number of members per se it is that this set of conditions tends to flow from larger and growing congregations.
4. Broad based co-operation arising from strong relationships between leaders.
Even when one sees the creation of many congregations, some of which are large, if the prevailing culture is one of jealousy, suspicion and competition, it will not be possible to create a missional movement but only a set of self sustaining institutions.
The primary condition is that leaders like one another, talk to one another on a regular basis, help each other, and share together in a common vision that can be accomplished co-operatively but cannot be achieved when leaders work in isolation from each other.
These kinds of broad based cooperative ventures send a powerful signal to the wider community and of course derive their essential strength from the simple fact that they represent a set of behaviours redolent of the gospel itself. Leaders usually do not behave like this unless they are personally secure in terms of their identity as children of God rather than deriving their significance because they are primarily leaders of larger institutions.
5. A generosity of spirit that sees kingdom first
The desire to put the Kingdom before any institutional or party advantage is something that many leaders will sign up to in theory but the reality is more testing, especially when money is mentioned. The actual practice of a Kingdom first focus is all the more complicated because some individuals make “unity” movements of one kind or another their ministry which can in turn engender suspicion and division as various unity movement compete for precious space and resource. Moving beyond these competitive tendencies takes time, patience, maturity and a certain kind of calling. Gaining and keeping trust at this kind of level is a rare and priceless calling.
6. An awareness of the processes that connect congregations to communities.
There is always a tension for Christian communities between the desire to reach everyone with the gospel and the need to be connected somewhere. The tension between congregations that drawn people out of communities into larger regional congregations as compared with those who call people back to neighbourhood has been acutely felt in recent years.
An older version of that tension is reflected in the themes around “gathered” communities and “parish” communities. In reality broader based movements need a mix of both these kinds of churches. Connecting people with particular spaces, such that space assumes the significance of place, is a real skill. Acquiring that skill is a hallmark of churches that become transformational communities, not just growing their own numbers but also shaping the environments that they are able to reach.
7. A theology of mission that sees business, politics, media, education and the arts as particular places in which faith is publically expressed.
Some larger churches in Europe have members, especially younger members, whose careers involve them in business, politics, media, education and the arts, often at significantly executive levels. The constant cry from such able individuals is that they feel un-resourced in terms of how the Christian faith might make any difference to the way in which their public life is lived in these particular disciplines. This is not just a matter of how we can help people to be better evangelists or even apologists for Christianity. There is a much deeper question about how the Christian faith potentially makes a difference to the fundamental structure of these disciplines. That question has hardly been explored and needs to be as a matter of urgency.
8. Confident and creative leaders.
The kind of leaders who can exercise a transformative leadership in the areas we have discussed are rare indeed. We are talking about post performance leaders. We are not just talking about competence so much as verve, not just the capacity to command a crowd, but the grace to develop others. We require a new generation of leaders with the capacity to imagine what a Christian influenced future might look like and the courage to believe that it can actually happen.