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EFAC Australia

Claire sat across the table from her friend, the leader of an evangelical Anglican church near the rapidly-changing inner ring suburb that God had been laying on her heart.Gathering her thoughts, Claire began to speak. She excitedly laid out her vision for a new church that would engage with the highly diverse mix of people moving into the suburb. She shared about how God had begun drawing together a team who were eagerly praying with her about this new endeavour. To top it all off, she spoke about the affirmation she’d received when she communicated her vision to another church planter from a different denomination who had launched his own church in the same suburb several years before. Although his view of women’s leadership differed from Claire’s, he had greeted her overture with enthusiasm: “Terrific! There are heaps of people in this area who need to be reached for Jesus. I can even think of a few people currently involved in our church who would probably get on board with what you would do.”

Claire paused to draw breath and hear from her friend. But rather than shared excitement, it was like a bucket of ice had been dumped on the conversation — and their relationship. What Claire had anticipated as a moment of collegiality and convergence around a new mission initiative turned out to be anything but. Far from an opportunity to be welcomed, her announcement was treated as a threat by her friend. Instead of joining her in dreaming and strategising, Claire’s friend was worried about the families from his church who lived in the suburb Claire wanted to plant in. He didn’t say it out loud, but she could tell what he was thinking: “Sheep stealer!”

Her heart sank. Well, it would have if this conversation — and Claire — was real. It’s not. It’s an amalgam. But the emotional trajectory of the conversation is only too real. The announcement of a intentions to church plant is greeted with fear and defensiveness at least as often as it is by joy and excitement. Church planting is regarded by many among the leadership of established churches as a foe — or at least as unwelcome competition in the already-challenging work of fishing for people in shrinking pond. This sense of competition or antagonism is not helped by the cheerleading of some who promote church planting. Much of the romance and rhetoric around planting overplays its superiority.

In his seminal article, “Why Plant Churches?”, Tim Keller — the founder and key thought leader of City to City, the church planting network I work with — claims that “the only way to significantly increase the overall number of Christians in a city is by significantly increasing the number of new churches.” The argument Keller makes in support of this is not without merit and nuance, and the evidence for it is not wholly lacking. But it risks underestimating the effectiveness of and potential for spiritual renewal through healthy, established churches.

Most church planters are concerned to avoid the label of “sheep stealer,” and church planting agencies like Geneva Push are rightly committed to “evangelising new churches into existence” rather than depending on transfer growth. But the stats tell a messier story. Transfer growth is involved with almost every new church plant in some way— whether in the original core/launch team, or as fringe members of other churches come to check out the new church on the block. And more than one church planter would be able to tell you about missteps they’ve made in recruiting such people — and even thrusting them into leadership — without adequately consulting the leaders of the churches they hail from.

What is more, well-intentioned as they often are, church planters sometimes speak and act in ways that undervalue the ministry of established churches. In fact, some church planting looks like the old-school Protestant tendency to fracture and divide, dressed up in glad rags. Tim Keller calls this “defiant church planting.” His observation about the motivation for this kind of planting rings true in an uncomfortable number of situations I’m familiar with: “Some people in the church get frustrated and split away and form a new church — because there is alienation over doctrine, or vision, or philosophy of ministry.”

Without a doubt, there can be a thin line between (i) someone whose burden for reaching new people combines with a resolution to give that a go by trying something new (resulting in a church plant), and (ii) a dissatisfied assistant pastor who feels that things aren’t being “done right” by the leadership of their current church and who therefore starts something new in reaction to it.

Even the most noble and other-person centred church planters acknowledge the possibility of mixed motives — the human heart is mysterious and has depths that can conceal unrecognised ugliness!

It has been said that God frequently uses church planting to do at least as much work on and in the planter/s as through them (in this sense it’s a lot like cross-cultural mission work). From my own experience walking alongside church planters, almost all of them sooner or later are led to face and, in God’s kindness, repent of their tendency to fashion ministry around their own preferences.

An example: a planter can act on the assumption that their preferred style and shape of church experience is automatically what will resonate most with those they’re trying to reach. Sadly, such “missiology by mirroring” is unlikely to be resoundingly successful (believe me — I’ve tried). Worse, it typically flows from a lack of personal maturity and failure to lead as an equipper and empowerer of others in God’s mission. Significantly, however, the simmering hostility between new and established churches is not reduced by treating church planting as an enemy rather than a partner in the work of reaching people.

On the planting side of the equation, the data about multiplying church movements tells us that good relationships with a sending church (or better yet a whole group of churches who partner in sending out a church plant) make a massive difference to the health and likely longevity of a new church. In a sense, this should hardly be surprising. The New Testament authors link Christian unity and partnership with mission effectiveness on more than one occasion — no doubt taking their cue from Jesus, who makes this connection in his “high priestly prayer” in John 17.

So planters beware! You trash talk the ministry of established churches at your own risk. Not only do you face the danger of alienating potential mission partners — or, more prosaically, preachers who could step into the pulpit when you need to take a vacation (and you’ll need to take a vacation!). You also risk having to eat your words if and when in God’s grace your church plant becomes an established church itself. Even more dangerously, you put your soul at risk. And that’s not me being overdramatic. It was Jesus himself who said (Matthew 5.22):

“I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.”

Nursing contempt, dismissiveness, and superiority in your heart is spiritually a very, very bad idea.

Equally, however, those who lead existing churches need to grapple with the fact that church planting is demonstrably good for the established church. There are well-documented benefits of church planting for existing ministries as well as the wider mission in an area. It’s not only church planters making this point (and believing their own hype). It’s also strategists and those who research trends in church life — both here and abroad. For instance, NCLS Research, who conduct the National Church Life Survey in Australia, have consistently found that newer churches (up to ten years old) have a higher than average proportion of “newcomers” — who are defined as people with no active connection to a church in the previous five years (so include both unchurched and dechurched people). According to their 2016 survey data, the nation-wide average across all types of churches is 6% newcomers. A 2015 study into church planting in the Diocese of Sydney, suggests that in newer churches that number jumps up to 13% — although the study notes that these numbers vary depending on the model of church planting adopted.

This may still feel like a relatively modest proportion of a church. Yet what would constitute a healthy proportion of newcomers is an interesting question to consider. Presumably not 100% (a church that was entirely “evangelised into existence” would have some very significant needs in terms of establishing and maturing all these new believers). It may not even be 50%. Those who study group psychology tell us that the dynamics of group cohesion mean that a fairly substantial majority who already “belong” is required in any group for it to be able to integrate new members well. As one church planter admits, “I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship).”

Of course, it’s not the case that simply starting a new church is an ironclad guarantee of a solid showing of newcomers, let alone of fruitfulness in evangelism and disciple-making. The findings of a significant study undertaken by LifeWay in the US indicate that engagement in evangelistic activities — even simple and “old fashioned” activities like door-knocking — is strongly correlated with effective engagement with the unchurched. In other words, you’ve got to do something to engage and reach your community (and it may not matter so much what that something is).

Established and newer churches are on a level playing field here — with the odds possibly even slightly in favour of healthy, well-resourced established churches. Activating our congregations and mobilising their members in evangelism is a crucial task. It is a matter of both faithful discipleship and fruitfulness in mission - whether we’re in a new or an established church.

In this vein, there’s a strong case to be made that church plants contribute to the health and vitality of all the churches in an area.

On the one hand, the lessons new churches learn in seeking to reach and disciple people often find their way back to more established churches. Perhaps it’s the community-service strategy they stumble into as they scramble to secure a community grant or qualify to rent their preferred venue — without quite realising it, the new church’s credibility in the local community goes through the roof. Or maybe it’s the excellent kids program they run because they happen to have some gifted people in their launch team — families with young kids love it because they’re desperate for ways to break up their seemingly-endless weekend. Or maybe it’s the carefully-tracked social media campaign and letterbox drop ahead of the launch service — a deliberate attempt to experiment and learn what sort of community contact is most effective that can directly inform the strategies of established churches in the area. In all these ways and more, church plants can function as missional R&D departments.

This mirrors a lot of what leaders in the business world have observed about the transferability of lessons learned in a startup context. A recent Harvard Business Review report, for instance, argues that the agility, learning stance, and growth mindset that startups need for survival can benefit every type of business — especially given the rapid pace of change all companies are facing. In my view, little is different in the church. The incredibly rapid changes in the social position of the church in the wider culture prove potentially more disastrous if we fail to adapt, or adapt poorly.

On the other hand, churches that actively partner with new church plants frequently report significant benefits — even amidst the pain and grief of giving away people and resources. Whether it’s by becoming a “parent,” sending out a new church plant, or by some other kind of partnership — e.g., sending some members to join or temporarily serve in the plant — it hurts to let go of core, motivated leaders (or potential leaders). Things never feel the same in an established church after commissioning and sending off people. But the space it creates can allow new leadership to emerge, new things to be tried, and new connections to be forged. Even if it can never compensate for it perfectly, the new opportunities created by releasing people can be meaningful — and are never lost in God’s economy.

In conclusion, may I humbly suggest that those on both sides of the church planting vs existing ministry divide would find it worthwhile to meditate on the words of Nathan Campbell:

“The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city... focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity.”

All of us need to cultivate a bigger vision for mission to overcome our sense of competitiveness and insecurity — whether about the prospect of a new church plant in our “patch” or about the existing churches that don’t seem to share our enthusiasm for what we’re talking about starting (and, reality check, no-one shares your enthusiasm for it to the extent that you do). Many of us enthusiastically preach on Jesus’s instruction to ask the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers. But if we’re honest we probably prefer to see them raised up within our ministry, where (as God knows!) the need is real and the resources always feel scarce. Nevertheless, the Father who sends his Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world in the overflow of love, is not threatened by scarcity. Indeed, Jesus endured the ultimate scarcity and deprivation, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on our behalf on the cross. The perfectly rich and free Lord of creation became poor and subject to death in order to bear the deprivation and judgement due us for turning from our Creator. And it is only to the degree that this fills our hearts that we’ll be able to lift our eyes from our apparent scarcity — as a planter or an established church leader — and see each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

You can check out a full interview with Chris here: https://youtu.be/HOcKBK1kVJE

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