There were five breakout session options at the summit on Saturday, and I took the one on church planting. This was led by Paul Gordon, pastor of Terra Nova Church in North Adams, MA. This is of particular interest to me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the impact it had on me as addressed earlier this week.
The session was basically broken up into three parts. The first addressed some of the particular issues with small place church planting, the second went into practical notes on doing that work, and the third was a question and answer time. I took no notes on that last section so it will not be addressed here.
Church plants are nearly always high-risk ventures. There's usually very few resources available at the onset, and what resources are available frequently fall into a short window of support. There are only so many people willing to invest their time in joining the core planting team, and the average is that half of whatever people sign on to a given team will not last. Church plants in cities are often assumed to be well on their way to being self-sustaining within five years, and commitments from supporters reflect this expectation.
Small town, rural, and other unstrategic locations for church plants get even less than that. There are fewer agencies, churches, and individuals willing to take the risk to invest in a church that might never grow beyond 20-50 people simply because of location, and the few that are willing to give may still hold to their 3-5 year expectations for a plant that may take a decade or more to get to the same level of financial stability. The reasons for this longer timeframe vary, of course, by location. I had already had discussions with a pastor about how some urban (but still considered unstrategic) contexts take longer simply because they're slow to trust, while churches in rural areas may grow incredibly quickly among the people nearby but only have ten households in a close radius.
For this reason, small-place church plants require a certain degree of creativity that may exceed that demanded of large-place church planters. With less money, fewer people, fewer places to meet, and presented with an unrealistic timeline, the work is marked in a big way by how a planter sees the opportunities that exist and acts on them with the limitations they have. But, ultimately, it comes down to the work of God; beginning with the work in calling the planter.
Gordon's central thesis was that a church planter, indeed any Christian doing the work handed down to us, is called first and foremost to a place and the people in it. The church plant isn't the primary objective, it's a means of reaching the objective. In the end, the goal is to make disciples among the people to whom we are called; church planting is one tool among many available to us in the work.
One bit that came up during conversation was the frequency with which church planters appear to be focused on fulfilling the goals and requirements of their sending agencies more than dealing with the specific needs of their context. This concern may or may not be as common of a problem as it was being presented by the man who asked about it, but I can't deny that there is a degree to which this model of being called to a place first runs against what I've been taught in other church planting programs. The contrary view, that a church planter is called to the occupation first, is more obvious in some places than others. The most overt was the flagship class for my church planting minor, where choosing a town or neighborhood came a few steps into the process of preparing to plant a church. Get called to church planting, then find somewhere to do it.
I've had some reservations about this approach for some time, though I've rarely had need to state as much or even really clarify it for myself. I must admit there's a certain degree of reality to it, after all, my wife and I believe we're being called to be involved in church planting, and each place we've ended up from that point onward has had some degree of consideration about what that call might look like where we are. In that way, the call to be church planters came before a few towns we've lived in, but I think the point is in how we think about it more so than chronological order. If we make the practice of church planting our primary focus, we invest in the church plant more than we invest in the lives of the people around us. A plant that leads to the creation of an established church surely must include some investment in the community, if only to get people in the door, but where we put our focus is where we will put our hearts and I believe God loves the people we are called to serve far more than He loves the idea of having a hip new congregation.
We need to be willing to let go of the plant if it means more people will come to Christ and God will receive more glory. We need to be willing to not even start a plant if there is another avenue available that God would prefer us to take. When we enter the community with the primary objective of planting a church before we invest in the community and learn what God would see done there, we run the risk of leaning on our own understanding and ideas to get the results we think are best. I've been guilty of it. I think what Gordon articulated is something we need to hear more often: we are called to a place and the people in it, for the glory of God, first. And if God wants to plant a new church, then we should eagerly do so, in accordance with His design for it and the needs and unique traits of that community. But if we come in with our detailed plan for starting a new church in a town where we know nothing but the stats we downloaded from a community profile, we need to seriously ask whether what we're doing is our idea, or God's.
The first session was delivered by Stephen Witmer, pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship and author of A Big Gospel in Small Places, and focused on why small places warrant care and attention.
Which isn't an entirely unreasonable question to ask. As addressed in the previous post, there are good reasons so many resources are spent on places that will have a big impact on a lot of lost people very quickly. Fulfillment of the Great Commission requires that the gospel spread fast enough to reach the world, and with the size of the world's population and the rate of its growth we need to step up that effort some. Being strategic and looking for the places with the fastest growth and largest reach helps ensure as many people as possible hear the gospel as quickly as possible.
The problem is when we only put resources into those places. Because the fact is, if the gospel is going to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible, someone needs to be going into the places between the strategic launch points. Whether they go from the hub cities, or from neighboring communities, or rise up from within, the farm towns and small places will need to have someone going to them. The model that relies on pouring resources into hub cities cannot then remain in hub cities or its entire justification breaks down. If these are points chosen for their ability to expand then they must expand into the places that were not chosen. If we're focusing on Boston for its ability to impact places like Townsend and Sturbridge, at some point we need to be sending people and resources to Townsend and Sturbridge. That's the point.
Which is fine as a logical and logistical explanation for why there must be investment both in large and small places, but Witmer, as befitting a speaker at a conference for ministers, focused instead on scriptural reasons.
The primary thrust of the argument Witmer presented is not that the hub city model of church planting is wrong or that it relies on expansion, or even that it fails in some way. The argument was firmly rooted in the claim that ministry in small places is, itself, an expression of certain truths about the gospel that simply are not represented by ministry in large places. Where large-place ministry showcases the universal reach of the gospel in its scope, immediacy and power in its rate of expansion, and the wisdom of the gospel through its careful consideration of method, small-place ministry shows how the gospel is also small, slow, and unstrategic.
One of the condemnations of the gospel message I have actually received in my life is that if an all-powerful and all-wise God wanted the world to know the truth of Himself and His message, He should have had the foresight to deliver it somewhere other than a backwater corner of an ancient empire. And I've heard the counterargument that Galilee and Judea actually sit on fairly important trade routes and would therefore have some strategic value to the spread of such a message, but Witmer would appear to argue that the atheist has noticed something about the gospel that we are too quick to dismiss: that Galilee really is a backwater corner of the Roman Empire and really should raise some questions about its utility in a global mission.
Perhaps the answer is that the gospel isn't, at its core, utilitarian.
Is that not what we see in the life of Jesus Christ, anyway? We take for granted that Mary and Joseph were of the line of David, so He fulfills that prophesy, but have we just been assuming that David had no descendants at that time in a more noble position who could have raised the Son of God in some degree of pomp and splendor? Why pick the great-grandchildren that live in a dusty little town doing menial trade work? Why make arrangements for this child to be born in a stable away from the hub city of the region? They run off to Egypt and make no impression on the people there worth recording, then return to Nazareth where Jesus lives in obscurity until His mission begins in earnest and He spends most of that mission wandering around places where crowds could find nothing to eat. He consistently whittled down the number of people following Him, to the point that despite having a massive following at various times and whole cities that wanted to declare Him king and appearing after His death to hundreds of people at once, only 120 are still hanging around waiting for His promise to be fulfilled at Pentecost. How often we consider a church of 120 people to be too small to notice!
Witmer notes that the Kingdom begins very small in scripture, and that God consistently shows concern for what is small. The small places like Bethlehem, the smallest son of Jesse, the smallest bit of faith, the jots and tittles of the Law. In ministering to the small places, we are continuing the work that God has always had for these locations.
"The gospel gives us permission to have slow ministries." One thing that strikes me is that, while we do have moments of explosive growth in the church in Acts, the way in which we read the book can sometimes make us think it was always like that. One story right after another, with Paul being saved outside of Damascus and then going out and beginning to preach and going home where he's pulled by Barnabas to Antioch and then turned around and sent on their first missionary journey. But we know from his other writings that Paul spent at least 12 years coming to understand the gospel with which he had been entrusted before the vast majority of that even happened. How often we try to rush things to fit our timetable, this idealized version of the story in our heads, when God intends to take the time to make sure it's done right.
Witmer repeatedly noted that we should "want revival more and need it less." By wanting it more he wasn't saying we don't desire it hard enough; rather, the point was that we too often treat the big explosive moments as the whole picture and judge ourselves and others by whether or not these experiences are happening. But our validation shouldn't come from how quickly we outgrow our buildings or double our baptisms. These things are great, and we should value them and seek after them, but we cannot treat them as the whole picture of God's work. We should want to see everyone we've ever met come to church and make a profession of faith this Sunday; but when we consider ourselves a failure for having any less, we lose sight of the fact that our entire role is to be faithful in the task. Faithfulness is always marked more by time and consistency than by results.
According to worldly wisdom, the gospel is a mess. Sending your own son to die on behalf of people who hate him in order to win some of them over is a terrible strategy by any human standard. Having all of the work in establishing your religion happen in a place that has no strategic, economic, or cultural importance just seems like poor planning. Pouring yourself out into the lives of a handful of illiterate fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot while turning away scribes and people ready to install a new king almost sounds like planning to fail.
But this is the foundation of our faith. The gospel, and the ways it gets worked out, isn't always going to seem like it makes sense or that it's aimed at making the biggest impact in the fastest way possible. The nature of the gospel actively stops us from thinking that we can only justify the use of resources on the best available options. It gives us permission to focus and really spend time and effort on people who can bring nothing big or new to the table. In fact, it basically requires us to do so. To do anything else not only fails to showcase the way God has consistently worked across the centuries, but also kind of suggests that we think we're big enough deals to have warranted His attention. We misrepresent God and ourselves and only encourage heightened egos if we act like the gospel only belongs to the strategic few.
The last thought I have in my notes from Witmer were his words, that "if you are viewing your people as a stepping stone to somewhere bigger and better, you cannot be loving your people." Is this not what it call comes down to? If we will not love the handful who gather in the small church an hour outside of anywhere, how can we think we deserve to be shepherds over the thousands that gather under a dome in the city?
On Saturday, October 19, I attended the Central/Western Massachusetts event for Small Town Summits. As I've started to do with sermons and other studies, I wanted to blog through my processing of the things I saw and heard there. While not officially part of this series of posts, I did also blog about some pretty personal struggling I have had that were addressed by God through the event. Before I do posts on specifics, though, I wanted to paint the big picture of the day and explain what Small Town Summits is.
I've been involved in church planting, in some capacity or another, since 2008. In that time, in my experience, the focus has been on strategic placement of new churches or revitalization efforts. If you want to get a sending network involved or a church to give money or a team to come together, you've had to sell them on how big the impact of that church could have. Talk about the millions of people that live and work and pass through the city. Talk about the colleges that bring in large numbers of students from around the world and then send them back out, hopefully (with your church's help) carrying the gospel with them. In a pinch, you can sell the town's impact to its smaller neighbors and role as a hub of commuters that work in the bigger, more important city.
There's good reason for targeting these locations, and Small Town Summits explained at the event that they recognize their importance. The problem being raised, however, is that there are millions in America, billions around the world, who do not live in nice strategic locations, and our laser focus on making a big impact has left far too many of these people without a gospel witness and so many small town pastors feeling like they have no support.
The instinct is to read the description of small places and assume they're rural, but it was explained that that isn't always true. While a great many rural communities would qualify, so can cities and regions within cities. The best definition for their target communities would seem to be a negative one; if the community cannot be described as a hub of culture, economy, influence, government, or education, and would therefore be overlooked by strategy-focused church planting efforts, they want to be there. The summits are designed to be affordable and easy to access, hosting them across New England. Their next listed event is a Bible Training for Women in March 2020.
The summit was a great time. I met people who came from southern Vermont, the Berkshires, the Worcester area, and southeastern Massachusetts. I was able to meet the new pastor of a small church I preached at during their pastoral search and get some updates on how they're doing and exchange information. I made a lot of connections and had some great conversations and picked up some ideas that we may be able to adapt in our church. I got to catch up with some friends I haven't seen in a while who came in for the event.
As will be discussed in the following posts about each session, we basically had two main speakers and they both did a great job of presenting the importance of small place ministry and some practical concerns that arise in that context. The worship was very good and, while I had only heard one song before, any confusion on my part was my own fault for forgetting to listen to the tracks I was emailed in advance. The food was great and the hour given for lunch gave us plenty of time to meet the people sitting around us.
The brevity of the event does mean that there were a small number of topics that could be handled well, but the ample time to make connections with people serving across the region should prove to make up for that over time for anyone who wants to put in a little effort to do so. All in all, I feel it was a day very well spent, I was personally impacted in a big way by the summit, and I look forward to pursuing some of these new relationships and attending more summits in the future. If you are in New England, I encourage you to go to their website and try to attend an event near you as soon as it becomes available.
Recently I was struggling with a situation and I tried to jot down on my personal blog how I was feeling and it ended up being a lot longer and more personal than I'd expected. But I posted it anyway, and some people started to respond that it has resonating with them in some way or another. And I realized that I need accountability and encouragement on this matter, and that people reading this blog may also benefit from the things I said.
So I decided to cross-post it here with this disclaimer. I also want to note that part of it takes place at or in response to an event hosted by Small Town Summits, which is an awesome work happening in New England that I would encourage you to check out and support and learn from. A link to their website appears in the story below. I also took notes at that event that I was planning to explore some more and share what I learned on this blog; so I wanted to make you aware that while I touch on some things here that I will also touch on in later posts, the focus here is on the impact those things had on my story. Note that because this was originally written for my personal blog rather than this site, it has a somewhat different feel than some of my other posts. I have not edited it in any significant way, only added media and one little note I realized I had missed.
Click "Read More" below for the rest.
Between my experiences in church planting over the last decade, and the people I know at school and at various gatherings, and just my life in general these days, I meet a number of people who take some measure of interest in church planting. Which is great! I love talking about it, and expect that I'll be talking about it a lot here. But I have picked up the habit of beginning by warning people that if they intend to get involved in church planting, one of the most important things they need to do (aside from prayer and normal planning matters) is adjust their definition of success.
What I mean by that is actually fairly simple: success in church planting is more about faithfulness to the call than about money raised, or seats filled at launch, or baptisms in the first couple months. These things are important, we should strive to be actually making an impact on the lost in our cities, but for a church planter the primary means of measuring our success is whether or not we are doing what God has called us to do. Let me point you to some examples.
One church that was deeply important to my growth as a Christian and to my move toward full-time ministry was a decent little church in the middle of the Pioneer Valley. This church was planted about ten years before I arrived at it, and wasn't what most people would consider a successful church. It still relied on donations from outside (and still does, to some extent), people mostly in Texas and Oklahoma that believe in the mission and faithfully give month after month. Why? Well, when the original team came to the area, they had very southern ideas about church planting methods, and none of them worked. But in working near a major college campus there, they found themselves acquiring a handful of students. At first, the temptation was to turn these students around and use their energy to recruit adults and get the type of people they had been told to get: stable families who can invest for multiple generations and can be convinced to give enough in tithes and offerings to get the church financially sound within a few years.
But nothing they did in that sphere worked, and more students were beginning to show up. The day came when they had to take a step back, realize that God was actively giving them a body of new believers that needed to be taken seriously as disciples, and give up on the idea of making a church that looked like what they had always been taught was a successful church. In the years since redefining their idea of success, that church has never reached full financial freedom, still holds more students than locals, and watches its population turn over almost completely every four years. But hundreds of people have come to Christ, been put on mission, and sent out as maturing disciples to impact the world wherever they went. The church has seen massive returns on their investment in the lives of people who would have been largely ignored in a different model, and God has been glorified throughout.
My third church planting work was also the first one that I led. My wife and I returned to a town that had already seen a church plant fold after the planter walked away from the faith, because we knew the work wasn't done and that we were being tasked with doing something about it. We went in with high hopes. God was going to do amazing things in that city through us! It was going to be awesome, we were going to really make an impact and start a church that would be in a prime position to send new plants out throughout a region seriously lacking in active churches. We met regularly with another family who had signed on to the work. We did the legal stuff to make it a real church. We bought supplies and started doing meetings outside and inviting people to join us. And...nothing happened.
In our prayers, we felt convicted to really give the task our all, for a short time. We didn't know what would come of that, but we were willing to do it. I was working at a college and got laid off every summer, and it was appearing that my time at that job was coming to an end anyway, so we talked and prayed and pondered and came to the understanding that when I got laid off, instead of picking up sporadic hours or looking for something else, I should devote my time to the work for the entire summer. Treat it as my job until September, and then revisit and see what God was doing. So we did. We bought some more supplies, especially Bibles, and I began making daily trips downtown and praying over the city and talking to people and seeking opportunities to share the gospel. An opportunity came to attend an upcoming conference as a church planting pastor, and I leapt at it. It wasn't until the following February, but man, think about how far we may have come by then! And then my health rapidly deteriorated. And problems started arising, and by the time September came around, we seemed to have actually gone backward.
When we took all this to God and got confirmation that our time working in that town was over, at least for now, it was heartbreaking. I felt like we'd failed. I didn't know why God would have even called us to the work if He didn't intend to do anything with it. But then some other things started to happen.
We had had what many would call a real failure under our belts, and it tested us in a big way. And it wasn't until we were dealing with that that we found ourselves more committed to church planting than ever. This was the first real confirmation that we weren't just following a fad, but that God had really placed something on us that could burn bright and survive even a catastrophic collapse of everything we thought we knew. We needed some time to recover, but we were hungry for what God had lined up next. The months passed, and I had trouble finding a new job, and our reliance on Him became ever more apparent, to the point where what resolve we had to make things work for ourselves was broken. We came to really understand that God will provide, even if we don't see any way for Him to do so.
When I went to that conference, wearing a badge that labelled me as the pastor of a church that no longer existed, I was confronted with a host of opportunities and lessons and was able to connect with God about the mission and my place in it in ways I never had before, and I realized I never would have been there if it hadn't been for that plant. And then, when we had the chance that summer to meet with another church planter and offer our help if needed, and our brief lunch meeting turned into a two-hour blast that revealed that this was where God wanted us next, I learned that God had not wasted any effort. The supplies we still had from our plant met needs this new plant had, and my experiences gave me insights that pastor was eager to hear. We were a month into working at that plant when we realized that our closed church had, among other things, prepared us for this specific opportunity, and our willingness to follow every step He laid out for us and then apply it all where He intended meant that we had been, in the end, successful. We faithfully did the task set before us, and there is nothing more that could have been asked of us.
I wrote the following a year ago in an attempt to explain one aspect of this:
Consider the church in America.
There are places in this nation where the land is soft and yielding, where you can throw a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and a thousand weeds, and the church will praise the massive amount of growth.
And there are places in this nation where the land is rocky and dry, where you can throw out a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and they will stand alone in an otherwise barren field.
And it is growing increasingly frustrating to see people from the first land mourning how hard it is to see growth in the latter, and proclaim that they alone can farm it.
People come to church planting with settled ideas on what success looks like, and as someone working in New England, this is nowhere more apparent than in the people who come from the south and expect their systems to work here the way they do there. I can't count the number of times I've listened to people from the south talk about how churches in the northeast are dying and need some of whatever is working in the south when they first arrive, and then bemoaning how hard the soil is and how the gospel just can't penetrate the culture after they've been here a little while.
Listen: the ground here is tough, but it will always feel more tough when you use the wrong tools and expect a crop that doesn't grow in it.
What is happening is that people come here expecting to use the systems they've always known and seeing the results they've always seen. And if they don't adjust their definition of success, to at least accommodate the possibility that the church will look a little different once it gets going, they will always feel like a failure. It is always more important to faithfully follow the call on your life, and to find how to get the gospel to people in your context, and to nurture whatever crop may grow from it, than to make your dream church or a copy of the church that sent you. Do not change the message of Christ; but learn to recognize what you are used to from your culture rather than from the Bible, and be prepared to lose those things in the face of a different culture. And when God closes a door, or a church plant, don't jump straight to looking for a window. Be sure you are on the path you are supposed to be on, thank Him for using you in the way He has, and then start looking for what He has next. Learning to follow His leading, regardless of outcome, will put you in a better position than anything else you can ever learn.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation