In the movie the Fellowship of the Ring, at the Council of Elrond, a plan is hatched to cast the One Ring into the fires in Mordor which will destroy the Ring and end Sauron’s evil reign. As the question of what to do with the ring is brought before a team assembled by Gandalf the Great, fighting breaks out, and warrior wills clash. Frodo, with small stature and quiet conviction, amidst the arguing says, “I will take the ring to Mordor… but I don’t know the way!” Suddenly, silence settles in and the cost and courage required for what is next becomes clear to everyone. Will they join Frodo? Will they do this together?
It is in that promise-making space that the Fellowship of the Ring is formed. The Fellowship consisted of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli of the Dwarves. These nine companions (called the Fellowship of the Ring) chose to take on the mission together. A community is formed around a daunting quest. Quests require great exertion on the part of those undertaking the quest; they will face many unforeseen obstacles, their relational bonds will be taxed, and their resolve to be faithful will be challenged.
That scene from the Lord of the Rings provokes a tear from me every time. I find the intensity of the choice to let go of separate agendas, seek profound trust together, and dig deep to surrender to the cost of mission reminiscent of my own church planting journey. I find the Fellowship of the Ring a helpful metaphor for illustrating the stark difference between creating a task team to start a worship service versus cultivating core community to live on mission together.
A Misplaced Focus in Church Planting Models
The popular answers offered to the question of “How do I form a team to plant a church” often orbit around the mechanisms needed for launching an attractive and numerically successful worship service. By no means am I anti-worship service. I believe in the public proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom and the visible practice of Eucharist as a witness to the work of Christ in our midst. Yet something has corroded the mortar in the foundation of church planting. The overemphasis on the urgent launching and marketing of a Sunday worship service with all the bells and whistles or candles and icons, I believe, is the source of the breakdown.
My own city is high on the radar as a church planting target with only 3.5% of the population attending church. Since 2008, there have been 12 church planting attempts from 9 different denominations averaging $60,000 per plant, which totals over $700,000 spent on church planting with only 1 out of the 12 still in existence today. I’ve been able to converse with all those local denominational heads. I found that a common mold was one of funding a solo, multi-gifted (often male) planter, helping the church planter rent a sweet facility, and giving this planter metrics for numerical growth. What was glaringly absent from their slightly varied approaches was any expectation of cultivating a covenanted-core community that would share in the beauty and burden of being missionally present in a particular neighborhood. The fellowship of the ring was missing![Tweet “Share in the beauty and burden of being missionally present in a particular neighborhood.”]
While some of these denominational leaders talked about team, the team primarily existed to rally their energies toward a Sunday event. Again, the worship service is important, but it should not be the centripetal force. Maxing out the bandwidth in the imagination of too many church planting agencies is a focus on the church planter’s own skill set, preaching gift, theological acumen, and leadership intelligence (with a little prayer sprinkled in for good measure). These things are far too often seen as the crucial factor for success. Intentionally or unintentionally, the oomph is placed on calling a team into the organizational work that will position the best leaders on a preaching platform or the best leaders behind the running of programs—a missional church this does not make.
The ethic of leadership should have less to do with one’s education level, status at a previous church, or having an “it-factor.” When we talk about a leadership team, it can only be understood within the saturated context of shaping a sent life together. For a missional church, leadership rises out of the crucible of assembling around a way of life in a neighborhood. That early gathering of 5 to 15 people is the prototype community on mission. To be clear, I’m not talking about mere home church. I’m speaking of a missionary band with a vowed rhythm of life, seeking to witness to the Lordship of Christ in a small geographic place. It is in the promise-making space of Oikos that we learn to exercise the muscles of mission, discipleship, and community that make for the foundation of a vigorous and multiplying ecclesia. This is the furnace that melts off the dross of our desires for status, ministry titles, and fast-growth metrics. We must unpack the raw, potent material of the early church’s social existence together to grasp the formative power of this living laboratory.
The Early Church’s Planting Method
The church at Jerusalem distributed itself into micro assemblies in far flung parts of Judea. Each community-cluster is what the New Testament calls Oikos, a Greek term typically translated “house” or “household.” It refers to the basic building block of societal existence; it is a close network of relationships. These communities gathered in different pockets throughout the city becoming “the body of Christ” in that place. The explosive quality of the Gospel of Jesus was that Jews, Gentiles, women and men, slaves and free were being interwoven to declare something with profound social implications. It shook the Roman Empire to its very foundations. Former enemies were now sharing a meal, orbiting around the bread and wine of Jesus the Messiah.
A new Temple was being constructed, but it didn’t look like impressive brick and mortar. Rather, the Temple of God morphed into what might seem like an underdog situation of relationally-bonded communities. These Christian Oikoi (plural) expressed their newfound unity not in fashioning a corporate organization that could rival their secular competitors. Instead, their newfound unity was expressed in the minimalism of a shared-life and shared-mission in the cluster of community. This is why the Apostle Paul sounded like a Community Organizer. The modern images we have of Paul are often constructed by the bias of our modern jobs, celebrity communicators, and successful CEOs, yet Paul’s primary work was maturing communities on mission in the scaffolding of self-sacrificial love. The image of a Community Organizer is a person walking through neighborhoods, sleeves rolled up, getting to know people, trying to understand local problems, working to resolve conflicts, knitting people together for a common cause. Paul was a diagnostician with the mechanics of community when he said in his Epistles to put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, bearing with one another, forgiving one another. Above all putting on love, which binds people together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).[Tweet “Unity is expressed in a minimalism of shared-life & shared-mission in the cluster of community”]
The Gospel of Jesus wired people into Oikos, which was a social mushroom cloud on the horizon of the 1st Century world. Missional church planting does not begin with how to launch a Sunday event with a skilled volunteer force; it begins by cultivating a Jesus-centered, common life in a micro location. This Kingdom labor is just as rebellious against empirical constructs today as it was in the 1st Century. This is a significant paradigm shift. The Fellowship of the Ring is contoured in the active life on mission amongst the streets and sidewalks that connect us.
So far we have looked at some of the common mistakes being made in church planting today and viewed them in light of the Early Church’s planting model. Meet me here at The V3Movement Blog again on Wednesday for Part 2, where we’ll discuss a number of tips for forming church planting teams.
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