Stay? Go? A Better Question When Church Planting Gets Tough

“Would you stay in the neighborhood if the church plant fails?”
Bryan Stabb’s recent post on church planting success and failure rightly deconstructs common pitfalls concerning unreasonable and unhealthy expectations associated with church planting.

An aspiring church planting hero who moved to a city, bought a house, rooted himself in a neighborhood, and picked out his and his wife’s burial plots. The message for us was: no matter how long, hard, or painful it gets, retreating is not an option! Stories like these inspire us to claim a territory for God, knuckle down, and slog it through the adversity and the malaise “in the name of Jesus.”

Sound familiar? It’s a story that’s been told many times before, and one that will keep happening unless the root issue is addressed.

The Real Problem at the Heart of “Failed” Church Plants

The problem isn’t endurance. It’s how we view the very heart of mission.
I’ll explain using examples of American missionaries showing up in my Canadian city to church plant, but the applications work anywhere.
When I see Americans plan the move up North, I think the more the merrier. But their reasons to come have more to do with denominational tribalism than reflecting deep incarnational presence in the neighborhood. Church planters arrive on scene with a, “heart for the city”, driven by, of all things, the low ratio of evangelical churches per 1000 inhabitants.
To Canadians, this isn’t a problem. To church planting organizations, it’s good vision. Therein lies the problem.
[Tweet “To Canadians, this isn’t a problem. To church planting organizations, it’s good vision.”] The mechanism to join God’s mission is rooted in the church, specifically a church service. It’s a belief that the mission of God is best served with a church service rather than a sending church centralized around sent people. In this approach we devalue and ignore the kingdom already unfolding in the places we seek to plant. Rather than spending necessary time to love the people in the neighborhood, we rely on the church service as the go between to facilitate mission.
Curiously, nobody would argue the church is the building, but in practice, our actions defy our words as we spend the vast majority of time and resources on the service and the building. Yet in a post-Christian context, the church no longer holds presence where, “have a service and they will come” works. People no longer seek out a church service to find the answers to life’s questions.
Where do we go from here?

What is the Purpose of Church Planting?

The purpose of church planting isn’t to make churchgoers. It’s to gather a community formed by discipleship chasing the unfolding kingdom in their midst. The church that expresses mission primarily through its people will have a fundamentally different focus.
For example, rather than success as a measure of how well the lead planter can gain enough followers to fill a service and a salary, it becomes a testament of how deep the planter’s roots go in the neighborhood or network.
In order for this to work a re-orientation of mission as incarnational presence, not merely Sunday gatherings, is necessary. Presence means proximity. Presence means timeframes that extend into years and decades.
[Tweet “We need re-orientation of mission as incarnational presence, not merely Sunday gatherings.”]

Who Starts and Who Goes

Those church planters that came up from America, how did they do? Of the past years, and the six or so at the top of my head, only one remains. They managed to build a critical mass of followers to attend their service.
“Would you stay in the neighborhood if the church plant fails?”
I think this is the wrong question to ask. We need to flip the question and say, would you plant a church in the place that you already live? In this world view if the church plant fails you don’t leave the place you live because that came first. We need to stop committing to neighborhoods contingent on church service success. We need to start living deeply committed incarnational lives in the places we already exist.

About the Author


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Author. Entrepreneur. Pastor. Rohadi lives in Canada and co-leads Cypher Church, a multi-ethnic church that currently meets mostly online. Discover his latest book, When We Belong, Reclaiming Christianity on the Margins. He has also published Thrive, Ideas to Lead the Church in Post-Christendom. Also, check out his adult coloring book Soul Coats. Read more from him on his blog, and connect on Twitter & Facebook.

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