A couple years ago I remember reading a job description for a new church planter. A mega church was embarking on their first planting foray. My eyes widened at the qualifications list. The only person who could meet the criteria was a man (had to be a man) more qualified than Jesus.
I didn’t apply.
It’s common in church culture for the best and brightest success stories to capture limelight and attention of potential followers. It’s a form of “ministry idolatry”, where an allure to become the next celebrity pastor who turns a lowly startup into packed stadiums by year 3 nags in the back of the mind. But can the average planter (or the planter of the future) emulate large church planting initiatives?
Note: I’m not saying big is bad. Far from. I just question what’s common between large and small, and if the takeaways from the former to the latter are helpful. For example, here are three areas big church plants differ from most others:
Big means more resources. To emulate this model you need the cash. Well resourced means the best people and skills are available to run the main programming, namely the Sunday service. Small can’t compete if it tries to replicate a strategy that relies on quality. In fact, small plants should avoid success metrics based on skilled preaching, exceptional music, or flashy social media.
Large churches tend to do what I call, “church transplanting”. It involves moving 100-300 people from one location to a new one. I think all churches large enough should cleave their congregations (based on zip code) more often. Yet when sending a critical mass of people, the transplant has considerably lower risk and therefore, baring strong leadership, can simply repeat familiar spiritual rhythms at the expense of renewed mission.
Small plants are not sent with the same guarantee of survival. A different set of perceptions and mechanisms are required to support the longevity needed to learn cultures and gain trust in the neighborhood. Most of that involves the flexibility to build deep relationships by learning the dreams and needs of neighbors.
Larger church plants can certainly do the same, but ultimately they don’t have to. They first expend resources catering to internal needs. There’s also a built-in safeguard. Leaders know it’s hard to lead change against the inertia of the familiar Christian experience. That journey is fraught with roadblocks. Leaders often get tired of slow gains (particularly evident in a post-christian culture) and can quietly drop the tiring push towards mission.
Big church plants are an exercise in risk management in that they launch with enough people to cover their needs. Although it’s better when they do, it also means there’s no need to collaborate with outsiders.
In a previous post
, I mentioned I make note of new church planters in my city, including Americans coming to Canada. I’m always shocked how little these church planters inquire, let alone partner, beyond their denominational affiliations. It perplexes me in an age of church disintegration.
Comparatively, my friend, who is working in the field as a missionary in the Arabian Peninsula, along with a few other workers in the region, readily partner with others regardless of denomination. This mindset is necessary because it’s how you survive.
Christianity in a post-Christian context is approaching a time where we have no choice—we have to learn to work together.
When I started my first church plant, our tiny size predicated a necessity to collaborate with others. Thankfully, we found two other communities, and by relationship, we managed to engage in a wonderful expression of church for nearly seven years. But it went further. Being open to collaboration beyond faith boundaries opened some incredible opportunities working with the city in ‘at-risk’ neighborhoods.
When you’re small, you have no other choice but to seek out common ground with other communities (both secular and religious). Remember, the kingdom of God goes with or without a participating church, it’s just better when the church decides to play their part. Take a look in your city/neighborhood. You will be surprised to see who’s already on the ground working.
Big church plants will remain and that’s good. However, the new economy of church planting requires a focus on developing more leaders by revaluing the local voices and community leaders already on the ground running. The planter in a post-Christian culture will not find reliable strategies in models that cater to Christian culture first. Rather, if you want to learn from someone, find the person who’s been working in the neighborhood or network for years. Ask them for any and all insight.
If Jesus didn’t lead a megachurch, nor any of his apostles, we shouldn’t have any illusions of grandeur in our calling. Let’s take a step back from the the fantasy of becoming the next celebrity pastor who “made it”. Instead, we need eyes and ears to recognize the small movements that are unfolding right in our neighborhoods, and learn to join them. Our measure then, becomes our ability to faithfully respond with, “yes” to what we’ve been given. In the grand scheme of things, that usually will be small.