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 final session of the October 19th summit was delivered by both Stephen Witmer and David Pinckney, and focused on some of the ways our joy is hindered in ministry. This was not an exhaustive list--we were asked to discuss our own joy-killers in groups after the presentation--but they are common ones to arise in small-place ministry. This will also serve as my final post on the event; normal blogging will resume next week.
In almost every post so far, I've noted something that makes small-place ministry difficult. It's worth noting that I doubt small-place ministry is more difficult than any other kind of ministry, simply that there are difficulties one type of ministry faces that others may not. But when you're in the thick of one kind of ministry, it can become very easy to see the difficulties you face and not the difficulties others face. This is a fairly mild issue, and is common to almost any kind of work; the problem arises when our eye is pulled so often to the benefits of another's ministry that we grow envious.
The big question raised when discussing envy in the session was, "what does my envy say about who or what I actually value?" The very nature of envy is such that it reveals our desire for something other than what God has granted us, and this raises the question: are we seeking after Him and His glory, or are we seeking after something else? Are we more concerned with fame or money or validation than faithfully serving our Lord in whatever capacity He has determined? When we grow envious of the ministry someone else has been called to, we reveal that something about their ministry is so valuable to us that the gifts of God in our own lives don't quite make up for not having it.
So what do we do about it? Fundamentally, they said, envy has pride at its root. We fall into envy because our idea of ourselves says that we deserve what these other people have. So the first step in fighting our envy is to fight our pride.
How often do we fall into this trap? Even if we believe our work must make much of God, we can still think it should also make much of us. Are we willing to actually decrease if that will better glorify God?
But addressing our pride is just the first step. We cannot simply remove the desire to be great and not replace it with something else. That there is joy in serving God and serving others in His name, and we can pursue that joy as something greater than our markers for success or our own ideas on what a perfect ministry would look like. Ultimately, the cure for envy is the joy of the Lord in whatever we do.
Small churches also tend to have very few staff, so a lot of work falls on the shoulders of the people who are serving. It can be easy to get so wrapped up in all the responsibilities of the mission that we fail to take time to rest. Even taking one full day off per week can be difficult, but this is necessary. Our health, and our ability to do the work God has for us, rely on our taking time to rest. We must be good stewards of our time, and that includes not using so much of it up that we burn out and cannot continue.
Taking time to rest also glorifies God in its own way. It was noted that taking time to rest reminds us and others that God doesn't actually need us; He can see to it that the church is tended, even on our days off. It also showcases the fact that we, as Christians, rest in the completed work of Christ. We are not constantly striving and pushing and breaking ourselves to honor Him, but rather we can trust, and rest, and enjoy Him in all that we do.
Ministry is not a field that is designed to bring a lot of glory to the ministers, if it's done right, and small place ministry may be even less likely to do so. These do not tend to be the pastors who draw big crowds and have books to sign or thousands of devoted followers on their podcast and twitter. And, of course, limited resources in small places have led to the rise of the bivocational (or covocational, in some circles) pastor, who works part-time at a day job to pay the bills and ministers the rest of their time. If we let ourselves expect good things to come our way as ministers in small places, we will likely face much disappointment. Envy or disappointment, left unaddressed, can quickly lead to bitterness. How do we prevent that?
They pointed out that Jesus is, ultimately, the One who will both honor us and provide our needs. These are things He promises to do in His word, and when we put weight on our churches to do that beyond their ability (or ours, often in the case of honor) we feed that disappointment and encourage bitterness. Ultimately, what we want from our churches when we go down this road is something that only God can provide, and we need to repent and trust in Him to do what He has promised to do.
What things do we allow to steal our joy? What does it look like to repent, and to trust God?
The second session of the Small Town Summit on October 19 was given by David Pinckney, pastor of River of Grace Church in Concord, NH and co-director of the Acts 29 Rural Collective. He also works with The Gospel Coalition New England (who oversee the summits) and Acts 29 New England. His presentation focused on some key assumptions and strategies for viewing the church itself as being an active mission and carrying that work out. His presentation came almost entirely from the Gospel of Matthew.
Pinckney had us turn to Peter's famous confession of faith and then rapid descent into being reprimanded by Christ. And of course, we hear a lot in churches about how Christ will build His church and we can trust that it will endure, but we were challenged about whether or not we believe that. Whether or not we operate with the foundational understanding that it is Christ that works to advance the cause of the gospel, and we are being invited to participate in that.
Ultimately, when Peter tries to tell Jesus that the mission isn't going to happen the way He said, Pinckney points out that the disciple is thinking in purely human terms. And, like Peter, even if we have some understanding of God's role as the One who operates in our lives, we can still fall into the trap of judging that operation by human understanding. We filter our expectations through things like pragmatism, or tradition, or our own ego. We only recognize God working if He works according to our models, rather than really getting to know Him and learning to see His hand even in places we don't expect it. And when we do that, we can convince ourselves that we know how to do the job better than God does, and try to force things to go our way. But this will never yield the results God is seeking.
So what shall we do instead?
More will be discussed about this in tomorrow's post on the breakout sessions, but the first principle Pinckney noted was to be specific about geography. Jesus knew where He was called to work, and He focused all His efforts on that place. It was more important to Him to be where God wanted Him to be than to be in the centers of power in His day, whether Rome or Alexandria or even, often, Jerusalem. He was faithful to work where He was called, and we should be the same.
There are some great things that can only really happen in a small ministry that stays in one place for a very long time. Pinckney used the example of one pastor who had been present at the birth of one woman and then, much later, that woman's son. The impact someone like that has on the lives of the people they serve, if they serve well, is difficult to measure. So we need to invest where we are, dig in for the long haul, and not worry about being somewhere else unless God calls us somewhere else. After all, he warned, "we think the grass is greener on the other side, but really it's just a septic problem."
It also reminds us that the gospel is going places we may not expect it to go. The story immediately following that one in Matthew's account is how the author became a disciple of Christ. Jesus went to someone that no one else would have wanted to talk to, and welcomed him in. He ate with sinners and tax collectors and showed them the way of salvation. Pinckney notes that we should be in places that make people wonder what we're doing there, because we are called to sinners. The core of our mission is to see people become disciples of Christ, and that will require us to go where the people who are not disciples gather. Having the gospel saturate all of our work means that all of our work will be aimed at making that gospel known.
Do Good Intentionally
Jesus sought to know where people were hurting, and served them. One way we emulate Him and focus on doing the work He has for us is serving others. It is harder to think that we're in charge when we're doing things specifically for other people rather than ourselves, and we show the servant heart of Christ to those we reach out to.
Shaped by Compassion
One of the things that helps us remember the importance of the people in small places, and keeps our focus on doing the work of God rather than our own plans, is the function of compassion. What drives God to put us where He has is that He loves the people there, and as was addressed in the previous post, so must we.
Matthew 9 closes with Christ telling His disciples to pray eagerly for workers. All of our work in Christ's name relies on an ongoing practice of prayer, and this specific prayer reminds us that we are not alone and that God is the one who sends workers. Maybe He'll send new people from outside, or maybe He'll raise up new gospel workers from among those who receive the gospel by our witness--probably both. But going to Him constantly reminds us of our need for Him, and asking Him for the workers to see the gospel spread reminds us that we operate by His design, on His schedule, and with the people He has ordained to the task. And as long as we ground ourselves on that knowledge, we will have much greater resistance against the temptation to do things our way.
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.
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