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.
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