March 2, 2015

Lessons from the Front: What I Would Do Differently if I Had to Plant Again (4)

If I was going to plant again. . . .

I would be far more careful about who I encouraged to join the church.

This is probably . . . definitely . . . the most controversial post in this mini-series!

Basically, EVERY planter wants to see their church plant grow. This invariably involves people joining the church, and there are some totally legit ways that people can join.

Legit ways to join a church:

1. Procreation: Having babies is arguably the most fun way to grow a church! As a family we ensured that Hill City grew by 100% purely through procreation!

2. Salvation: This should be the goal of every church plant—to grow as people respond to the gospel and are born again, being added to the church.

3. Relocation: People have to relocate for all kinds of reasons—work, family, changing circumstances, etc. Oftentimes this will mean moving away from one church and wanting to reconnect with a new church family that is more local to them.

4. Commission: Sometimes Christians might move from one local church to another for the purpose of mission. This could be because a certain job or ministry position has opened up, or there is a clear call from God. In both cases it is good and godly to for the ‘sending’ church to both recognise the call and commission the Christian and their family to go with their blessing and support.

However, there are also some not-so-legit ways to join a church, and we should be far more wary of these.

Not-so-legit ways to join a church:

1. Church-hoppers

These are the people that every church wishes didn’t exist, and that every church planter should dread turning up. Church-hoppers are those who have been to every church on the block (often more than once) and never seem able to settle down. They often present as lovely people who are misunderstood and are the innocent victims of all the other horrible churches out there. Furthermore, they will always give compelling (and plausible) reasons for why things haven’t worked out at their previous churches (it was never their fault!).

We should be very wary of those who are quick to judge other local churches, not least because experience has taught me that if they turn up at your church slagging off the last church, it’s only a matter of time until they’re at the next church slagging off your church! Church-hoppers are dangerous because they do not understand commitment. If a friend of mine asked me for advice regarding their desire to start a relationship with a man who had never shown any commitment in previous relationships, but who was known to have slept with every girl in the village, my advice would be the same as my advice to any church planter/leader wanting to welcome a serial church-hopper into their fellowship: DON’T DO IT!

To do so would be to arm a ticking time-bomb.

Another danger of church-hoppers is that they are people, and when your church plant is small you are desperate for any people to show up! The temptation is to ignore any concerns you might have for the encouragement/ego trip of a growing congregation.

Don’t be deceived—you are better off with a small number of committed saints, who are up for digging deep and getting stuck in, than a crowd of spiritual hobos who live shallow, travel light, and move often. No one models this better than Jesus Christ, who preferred to sow into a small posse of disciples rather than a huge crowd of fickle followers.

Furthermore, church-hoppers will often be at pains to heap praise on you (and even your leadership), telling you how amazing your church is and why it’s so much better than all the others. The Bible calls this flattery. I call it sucking up!

Again, don’t be deceived. Your church plant is gonna suck—BIG TIME! And while there might be a lot to be excited about . . . it honestly isn’t better than all the others. It’s just as limited, flawed, and grace-dependent as the rest of them. (There’s real freedom in believing that!)

Finally, one of the most destructive ways that church-hoppers impact a church is the damage and confusion that their departure (and the period leading up to their departure) causes in the lives of other innocent members of the flock.

Some of the most difficult questions and statements I’ve had to face at Hill City go something like this:

I really miss them. Why did they go?

What did they mean by saying _________ about you and the other leaders?

They said _________ about Hill City Church. Is that true?

They keep messaging me to say how much happier they are in their new church and telling me I should go check it out!

This Scripture nails it for me:

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Rom. 16:17–18)

If I was going to plant again, I’d ask a lot more questions at the door. I’d contact a lot more church leaders for their opinion on our new hoppers. I’d be a lot slower to give positions of service and influence to those who haven’t proved their commitment to our local church family. And I’d be a lot more emotionally prepared to handle the pain when they hop off to the next ‘best church’in town (cos it honestly REALLY hurts whenever ANYONE leaves!)

2. Church-sharers

Church sharing is becoming an increasing problem, and usually arises because there are several local churches who meet at different times or on different days. It kinda reminds me of a man who’s got two girls on the go rather than committing to just one of them. It’s impossible (and exhausting) to try to keep both happy, and neither lady will get the best of that man. In other words, everyone gets ripped-off!

Church-sharers might well be faithfully connected to your gatherings and even your mid-week activities. However, if they are also faithfully attending another local church(es), then there’s likely be problems down the line.

For example, a crucial question is to whom are they truly pastorally accountable? Suppose that you see your ‘church-sharer’in town one weekend, wrecked off his face and trying it on with various girls outside the pub. You might feel the need to check in with him and challenge him about his behaviour, especially if he is a professing Christian.

However, what if his response was:

Well, my other pastor doesn’t have an issue with me going out and having a few drinks on the weekend, who are you to tell me how I should be living?!

Where would that leave you (and him) pastorally?

While I am firmly of the opinion that no local church has the right to stop any of its members from enjoying fellowship with other churches, (this is a Kingdom-mindset) I am also firmly persuaded that sheep need to know who their shepherds are (yes – that’s shepherds with a small ‘s’, aka pastors, not The Good Shepherd, aka Jesus) and that they need to be able to submit to those shepherds:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb. 13:17)

If you are planting a church, especially in the formative stages, you need to know that your flock are with you, that they trust you, and that you can trust them. Therefore church-sharers should be encouraged to commit one way or the other, for their own sake, for your sake, and for the good of the local you are seeking to establish.

If I was going to plant again, I’d be a lot quicker to ask people to commit to the mission that God has given to our local church, or encourage them to find another local church to whom they are willing and happy to commit.

3. Church-changers

Finally, there are church-changers. These are the guys who believe that their mission in life is to help churches change and become all that they ‘should’be, but to do so from without rather from within. They are, if you will, theological consultants that you didn’t ask for! Literally, one minute you’ve never met them before, the next they are rocking up at your church on a Sunday, but they are not there to worship, they are there to change things! You can normally spot a church-changer from the pulpit as you preach. Their face doesn’t show excitement, or challenge, or thoughtfulness, or even emotion. More often than not their face displays displeasure, disagreement, and discomfort. They may collar you after the service, or if they are slightly more gracious, they may ask to meet with you in the week. Either way, here’s the just of what they want to say to you:

“Listen, your church is quite good and it has real potential. However, have you thought about a, b, and c, or even x, y and z. If you just did this or that you’d see God do a lot more awesome stuff in your church.”

Oftentimes what will be critiqued is your theology (what the Bible teaches), your ecclesiology (how your church does stuff), your missiology (how you are seeking to reach the lost), and your leadership (the assumption being that you’re a church planter because you didn’t have what it takes to become a ‘proper’ pastor!)

Worship, style, tongues, Israel, the end-times, and the King James Version of the Bible get most of the press!

Here’s all I’ve got to say on this: no one knows how flawed and frail a church plant is better than the church planter. And sometimes what this critic says might even ring true. But that doesn’t give them the right to bully or brow-beat you into enforcing change. By all means hear them out, but make it clear that they have neither the right or responsibility to speak authoritatively to you on how things should be done (even if they bust the “Thus saith the Lord” line!).

To be clear, I would only receive advice on church change from three sources:

1. God himself.

2. My local leadership team whom I know and trust, and who know and love me, love God, and love the church we are leading.

3. My sending church who have a biblical role of authority over me and exercise the duty of caring for me and the flock.

Anyone seeking to change your church from any other vantage point is a hireling!

If I were to address a church-changer today, I’d explain that the leaders are the ones who are called and appointed to shape the doctrine and direction of the church. I’d remind them that they are not on the leadership of the church, and therefore I’d encourage them to pray for those who are and invite them to stick around and serve for a couple of years without any offer of leadership positions or promise of access to leadership decision-making.

If they’re willing to do so, then maybe at some point down the line their critical edge can be used for the good of the church. Chances are, however, that they’ll bolt for the door.

Check out what Paul had to say to his young protege, Timothy:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”(2 Tim. 4:1–5)

If I was going to plant again, I’d be clearer on who has the right to speak into the church’s leadership, and be a duck who is far quicker to allow the criticisms and opinions of others to be water off my back.

  • Dai Hankey

    Dai Hankey is pastor of Redeemer Church in Cardiff, Wales. He's married to Michelle and they have four children.

    Read All by Dai Hankey ›

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