Illusions in Church Planting

An illusion is an error in perception. Over time we subtly rename perception, “reality.”

And it is not uncommon to believe we are living in God’s reality when we are actually steeped in personal illusion.

The tragedy is that church planters are equally as susceptible to living in illusion as anyone else. I know I am.

The 20th century, Serbian monk, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica believed, “our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture.” He believed this because the thoughts we nurture become the incessant conversations swirling inside our heads; and those swirling conversations determine the kinds of people we are becoming… which finally informs our mission.

I’ve been in vocational ministry since age 19. Since then, I’ve pastored ministries, planted churches, pastored churches and transitioned churches. It has been

Thrilling, but also exhausting.
Constructive, but mostly deconstructive.
Healing, yet thoroughly wounding.

If you’ve planted and/or pastored a church before, you could fill in the blanks with your own war stories. Yet it’s often only in the rear view mirror of memory that perspective come into focus.

This article is my attempt to crystalize two of the many illusions that can derail the church planter.

Illusion #1: Producer > Planter

All illusions produce some form of inward tyranny.

This first illusion is especially oppressive because of its overemphasis on human agency. In other words, we give great lip service to what “God is doing” … but, when we are honest with ourselves, we know in the quiet of the night that most of our efforts feel like it is we, alone, who are attempting to pull off this mysterious, spiritual endeavor that historically has been called a church plant.

From my recent book on the need for contemplative spirituality, I suggest:

Everything about church planting one needs to know, but soon forgets, lies in the term itself: church planting. The vocation requires the patience of a farmer rather than the efficiency of a machinist. Fictitious deadlines, fundraising, and chronic comparison tragically derail church ‘planters’ into church ‘producers.’ (From Quiet: Hearing God Amidst The Noise)

Now, I am not opposed to industrialization, and even if I were, I don’t think that would make much difference. But I do believe we are subsumed in a post-industrial worldview that fashions us into producers, thus rendering church planting as crushingly efficient and particularly difficult.

Reality#1: Pressures ≠ Reality

The first step in moving beyond this illusion is to name the false reality we live in service to.

Whereas deadlines can be helpful, they are not God. God certainly feels no pressure to plant your church in the church-growth timeline you created. So, if you find yourself falling behind the timetables and strategies you designed, join God in giving yourself grace! Simply be faithful and refuse to conflate your identity with the perceived “success” or “failure” of the plant. Years ago while planting producing in Long Beach, California, in the depths of my personal sulking and inward despair I was comforted by this reality:

YOU ARE LESS SIGNIFICANT THAN YOU THINK,
AND MORE LOVED THAN YOU KNOW.

Illusion #2 : Creating > Connecting

I live and work in Manhattan. Most Manhattanites are simultaneously inspired and plagued by the insatiable desire to “make their mark.” We want to believe that our efforts make a difference while also enjoying the perk of creating a name for ourselves. It is often no different with a church planter in any context. Although God does, indeed, birth creative and unique vision in and through each of us, we often prefer creating something new to connecting into what has been. And this is often motivated by control and personal glory. Two illusions I am particularly seduced by.

Since our inception seven year ago, Trinity Grace Chelsea has wrestled with how to best approach local mission. Whereas the church is sizable for a New York congregation, our impact beyond the walls have been minimal at best. Up until recently, I was not convinced that if our church dissolved any one in the neighborhood would notice. And I think much of our struggle came about because WE wanted to do something NEW. We wanted to create and initiate something the neighborhood needed, while remaining ignorant of what God had established before we arrived.

I do believe that the time comes for every church to innovate. However, I find it healthy for a church plant to begin by viewing itself humbly – as joining a wider community that has existed long before its inception; and refusing to think of itself as the novel solution that the neighborhood has been waiting for (even though sometimes that actually happens).

If our church was going to matter to the neighborhood, we needed to connect missionally before creating missionally. And this revelation came seven years into our plant – which seems like a lifetime in church plant years.

In the midst of my “missional anxiety” I received an invitation for coffee from the director of the Frederic Fleming House. The ensuing conversation changed the whole way we began thinking about missionality in Chelsea.

The Frederic Fleming House is a typical nonprofit organization in that it is understaffed, under-resourced, and overwhelmed. The Townhome, located on the same street as our church, houses 47 formerly homeless tenants who experience mental illness. The director of the house was curious how our church and their tenants might become better neighbors. I determined from his first sentence, that whatever he was going to ask, it was my joy to say “yes, we long to serve and be served by this house. Let’s move forward together!”

Reality#2—Connecting > Creating

Connective tissue to what has been is usually more valuable than creative innovation for a church plant

Here are five rationales that explain why, missionally, Connecting > Creating:

  • Builds Trust – Connecting says to the neighborhood you are there to listen and serve before speaking and leading
  • Adds Value – It takes far less resources and time to join in than create something new.
  • Lessens Assumption – This gives your church the time it needs to orient to a neighborhood so that you can later create based the understanding of the community and the gifts/talents of your congregation.
  • Values Expertise – Non-profits and other organizations are often better equipped to offer quality, trained services in the neighborhood than a young church plant.
  • Reveals the Kingdom – The Kingdom of God is bigger than your plant. Connecting with others outside your church is a remarkable preview of God’s renewal.

Whereas the task of missional producer seeks first to create, the heart of a missional planter longs first to connect.
May you experience God’s joy over your city, your neighborhood, and your congregation through liberation from the illusion of production and innovation. And may you continue to become the planter and connector God has in mind to join God toward renewal in your context.

Take the first step toward becoming a V3 church planter today.

Photo credit CleftClips

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AJ Sherrill
AJ serves as Lead Pastor at Trinity Grace Church in Chelsea, a neighborhood in Manhattan. He is author of the contemplative work Quiet: Hearing God Amidst the Noise. (2014), and a spiritual formation resource, Urban Disciple: Following Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew. (2013). He is currently pursuing his Doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary.
AJ Sherrill

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