March 7, 2014

How Do I Know if I'm Going to be a Successful Church Planter?

The more I (begin to) understand the American mindset when it comes to church planting, it becomes clear that many (not all) of our cousins differ to us on the notion of success. How do we know when we have made it? How do we gauge when we have been successful in planting? Some think that the ‘magic number’ is no less than 200. Some think more, not very many think less. Some think that a plant must not start with less than 70 people and, again, others differ on that. Most agree that it seems easier to ‘birth a new baby’ than it does to ‘revitalise’ an existing, struggling church. Nearly 100% think that the city is going to be won through ‘small groups’. All are scared of the word ‘failure’even though they talk like it doesn’t really matter. Everybody wants to be successful. As one individual confided to me: ‘I won’t feel like I’ve really done anything until I’ve made it in the church planting world.’ I’ve been told that if you haven’t made it by the time you’re 40 in NY then you need to get out and make way. It seems like that is the way of it for church planting as well. I remember vividly a young man who once introduced himself to me as a ‘trainer of church leaders’. He was 21 years old. I resisted the urge to laugh at him.

These are exciting times but also dangerous times to be a church planter. I have been doing this for over a decade and I still feel on the dumber end of clueless. Yet, kids are walking out of high school thinking that they have it all sorted. Others see the Mark Driscoll’s of the world and hope that emulating his explosive church growth will make them ‘famous’.

The problem isn’t nearly so bad in the UK. If anything, it is the opposite, although there is a growing clamour for church planting (PTL). Here, young men don’t want to enter the pastorate anymore, and who can blame them. Dying churches, holding on to dying traditions, expecting young men to come in and just maintain the status quo. That’s why church planting seems like an exciting proposition for so many. But, I am concerned that in letting young, success driven men loose on the landscape we could be (a) doing damage to them and others and (b) missing out on so much experience from godly men who have laboured for years in ministry. These men may not look all cool and hip, but they have broken their backs on the altar of sacrifice and suffering and may just have a little something to contribute to the church!

Personally, I learned my trade for three years before I planted my first church in Brazil, and then moved on to revitalise the work here in Niddrie. When people ask me to assess how successful I feel I have been, I give them this answer: The fact that 15 years in I am still loving Jesus and in the ministry is itself a miracle of God’s sustaining power and grace in my life. I’ve never pastored churches of more than 80 or so members, but both of the churches I have planted/revitalised have punched far above their weight in terms of growing teams, leaders, and community outreach. But above even all of that, I have tried to be faithful to the gospel and heed the command of Jesus: preach the word, baptise, and disciple those in my care. For me faithfulness to God in the face of my difficulties is far more important than whether people think I am successful or not (at least that is what I like to tell myself. It is sometimes true in my better moments!).

I find that Genesis 6:9–22 is very instructive in this regard. Consider poor old Noah when he finally got on the Ark. There’s a man who had a hard ministry. He preached the Word of God for over 100 years and only his family got on the boat with him. How tough must that have been? Can you imagine him at some of today’s church-planting conferences? I can tell you one thing; he wouldn’t have been a headline speaker, would he? Come and hear my seminar on how to preach endlessly with no fruit. What advice do you think he would be getting from fellow planters? They would be laughing behind his back. Calling him a fool, outdated, a fundamentalist, a reductionist. Maybe he would benefit from a ‘kicking’ band on the Ark? That would get the young people in anyway. Maybe he should have spent some more time ‘connecting’ with the culture rather than railing against it? Maybe he should have had more people over to dinner on the Ark? Did he even try to get a ‘missional small group’ off the ground? Maybe he should have ‘spent more time listening and less time preaching’? Maybe, he should have just handed the reins over to a younger man with fresh ideas and new perspectives? Sadly, the cold truth is that Noah would be a washed-up failure in many of our twenty-first century approaches to success and church planting. He’d be the guy who would be in the How Not to Do It’ part of the planting manual. And yet, we read these words from God in Hebrews 11:7,

“By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.”

It was his faith that God commended, not his so-called success. He built the Ark in ‘holy fear’. His faith in God meant that he kept going even in the face of indifference, hostility, doubt, and derision. I know how I feel when I preach my heart out on a Sunday and people just sort of shrug at me. Or when I am sharing the gospel with someone and they are just too blind and hard-hearted to see the truth. It pains me. It makes me question myself and my calling. And this man did this for over 100 years!! Year in and year out. Sowing but not reaping (at least not in earthly terms).

Our image of OT characters is often far too one dimensional. You don’t think this man would have wept with frustration? You don’t think he would have been weeping with his wife at the people dying all around him? I bet he didn’t just go to work on the Ark everyday with a song in his heart whilst all around him people laughed at him and scoffed at his message? You don’t think for one minute doubt crept into his mind? Like, maybe he was doing the wrong thing? Or he heard God wrong? Or maybe he was tempted to soften the message a little bit? And yet here he is, an heir of righteousness, held up as an example of what a true servant of Jesus looks like. And I can’t help thinking that he stands out as a warning for much of our results-oriented Christianity. I truly believe that our God places a higher premium on our faithfulness to his commands than the results generated by his Holy Spirit. Read that sentence back and think on it. Our faithfulness is not even ours to claim. Likewise, our successes, when they come, belong to God. All of it is his.

Now, the problem we have in the UK is finding the balance between persevering in faith when a ministry is struggling for fruit, and killing something which we’re too blind and proud to realise has had its day. The latter is the problem for many of our housing schemes. We have many dying churches who I am sure think they’re being faithful to God but are only hanging on to their own traditions and ways of doing things. They think that if they just keep doing what they’re doing then people are magically going to start turning up. But they’re wrong. They have the idea that as long as ‘we preach the gospel, they will come’. But they’re wrong. They’ve forgotten that the Great Commission doesn’t invite people to come, it tells us to go. Thankfully, we have the odd gospel-centred church, although the warriors there struggle with overwhelming need in hard, hard areas. Pray for them, that they would remain faithful as Noah did.

The schemes in Scotland are not generally fertile grounds for ‘mega churches’, but they are ripe for growing small, committed churches who, if they band together, can make a deep impact in our generation. But what we need are faithful men and women. We need planters who have a 20-year plan instead of the customary three-year one. We need people to come to the places nobody else wants to, in order to get their hands dirty in slow, painful ministries with lots of opposition from within and without. We need workers with a history of faithfulness, and not impressive CV’s listing their many successes. We need young hot heads and wise, old owls. We need people in love with Jesus and the gospel.

Noah built a ship in a desert and people thought he was mad for doing it. We need more Noah’s to build their ministries in the housing schemes of Scotland. One of the most popular questions I get is: How do I know if I will make it? The answer? I don’t have a clue. I do know that people are going to think you’re mad for doing it. They’re going to smile at you but privately think that it can’t be done. But if we will just boldly proclaim Christ, in faith, in holy fear and with perseverance, we might not have ‘success’ in the eyes of the world, but, like Noah, we will one day become heirs of Christ’s righteousness and hear those sweet words: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant’. We have one shot at life so let’s just give it a bash and let the Lord take care of the rest.