The ABC of Church Planting

Sometime ago I wrote an article about the 3 “f’s” of my church planting journey fear, finances and failure. Since then nothing much has changed. Those three things are still there but I thought it was time I did a follow-up –  this time about the ABC’s of Church planting from the perspective of someone like me… overworked, overstressed, overweight, underpaid, underachieving, undertheweather!

One of the things I remember vividly about church in my younger days was the complete lack of excitement. People just gathered, sang a few songs which were unlike any of the songs I heard on the radio, rehashed the same long list of prayer requests week in week out… you know,  ‘Thelma is in hospital again (because God didn’t know that) please look after her and heal her gallbladder”… Thelma must have had the most prayed for gallbladder in history. Then we would all listen to Rev Lovejoy for the next 45 minutes… It was anything but exciting! Action and excitment were a foreign concept to that local church… we had become so accustomed to this sort of thing that when something extraordinary did happen we all missed it!

Our ‘spidey senses’, as spiderman would say, were not intune to it.

Who can recall the 3 hymn sandwich? 2 hymns then the minister got up and spoke and then came the final hymn.

I recall one sunny, cool spring sunday a man died right in the middle of the second hymn. He just slid down and dropped dead! The leader just kept on singing… The minister just got up and spoke, and as he spoke the ambulance crew sneaked in and took him away. Nothing was said, nothing changed. I still don’t know who that man was to this day!

My church planting experience is so far removed from this early taste of local church it staggers me. I haven’t had anyone die in the middle of our gatherings (for which I’m very grateful). I haven’t found myself daydreaming from sheer boredom. It seems as though everything is action action action. It’s important to say I’m not just talking about the regular Sunday meeting here. I’m talking about the whole experience of being a christian and the natural gathering of believers.

Everything now just seems so fluid.

Like this week for instance it’s Saturday morning and I’ve only now started to think I have better do something for Sunday. I now have a bit of an inverted approach to Sunday. In the past (BCP – before Church Planting) the Sunday was everything, but when Sunday came it was nothing.

Now Sunday has to compete with so much action, so many life-giving opportunities, so many inspiring and inspired moments during the week, that a non-action filled Sunday is a good thing.

I never thought I would be involved in a church that road races motorcycles… where we would create ‘low rider’ push bikes… watch UFC together… make steam powered toy boats to give away… experiment with jam jar rockets for youth group… eat chicken vindaloo til our eyes water… go camping on the Mary river. (Note to readers: camping, in particular, was something I never thought I’d do. 4 stars is more my style. Me and slithery critters do not get on. Actually, me and most all non-domesticated critters do not get on.)

My life has been turned upside down and inside out! Inverted.

It seems everything we do as LIVE community is action, fun, exciting, different. But what I really enjoy about all the action is that it is not lead by one person all the time. One person happens to find something in life which is fun and fulfilling and that opens up new doorways to new people and we all just want to be a part of it… If only I could talk my wife into finding the motorcycle scene fun so I could go riding more often!

The thing that has really changed in my life andin the lives of those about me is the segregation between ‘church life’ and ‘life’.

That has gone.

Everything we do is now just ‘life’. That is not to say church is gone. It is more that church life has finally evolved into something which is lived 24 hours a day 7 days a week. It has finally found an expression that is not so ‘3 hymn sandwich’… it is now planned and unplanned action. It’s something anyone would want to be part of… regardless of background. Who doesn’t want to be part of something which is so vibrant and fun?

So the first letter in my ABC’s is A… A is for ‘action’

While I have enjoyed the new degree of action in life, I still notice something inherently ‘broken’ about the way things are. There is still something broken with the way we do things. But before I get to the things which are broken with us as a church, I will start with the things broken within me, because I suspect the two are linked.

I was in a meeting with other denominational leaders. Each person had to say their name, the church’s name and their experience in a certain type of ministry. It came my turn and I started off with these words, ‘Hi I am Dean Thomas and I am a minister’ mmm it made me think of my AA days… You see it hit me at that moment. I had worked hard at becoming a minister and then being a minister, but I also had worked hard at loosing some of my ministerial ways so I could best lead this church plant into this new life. But at that moment I knew the truth… I am too far gone to be the type of leader who can best serve a church plant in this new life. Deep down inside I know I’m an ordinary old fashioned pastor. I miss the public speaking. I miss the being the centre of attention. I know I am broken because no whole, clear-thinking person would want that after what I have experienced.

But truthfully I do! I still want to be the type of person who is an old fashioned, travelling, speaking evangelist! But what I want does not match up with what the surrounding community needs. And so I’m trying to change.

Despite all the changes I have worked hard to make… despite all the action… my default position is still how can we turn this into a 3 hymn sandwich? Well it may not be a hymn and there may not be 3 of them, but I hope you get my point.

So I have come to this conclusion… I suspect the best leaders for a church planting movement in my post-christian context are those who have had no experience in church before. Those who will best lead the next wave out of ‘LIVE’ and multiply into the future have probably not even come to know Jesus yet.

What does it mean for me personally? Well I look to those about me, my so-journers, to stand in the creative gap… to jump in and fill the areas, which, if left to me, would probably turn into a replication of other church expressions rather than an authentic expression that suits the broader community.

I don’t care if what we do doesn’t look like ‘church’ (it’s life Jim, but not as we know it)… I don’t care if, in the empowering of others to lead, we fail to fulfill certain functions of the church at times… because I know if I stepped in I would squash any hope of some new expression developing. That, my friends, goes against my ‘broken’ minister desires. If something is broken you fix it. But I know my fixes are not the right ones so I will leave it for someone who does.

I am broken because I know the ways we/I used to operate are not right for this time. I am broken because I see clearly the need to do something but naturally I don’t have the stuff to be the fix.

When I sit down and think about the journey so far, it has been fun, it has been action packed, it has been worth everything, and worth doing it all again. But I am still broken!

On some levels I have achieved what I wanted to, I have made life changes which best reflect the values I have always believed in! And it has become my deepest, more-repetitious-than-a-wonky-gallbladder prayer that those who have really gotten to join us, who have come to enjoy all the action and who belong to LIVE would now come to the person who makes life full of action… Jesus.

We desperately need these people to come to know Jesus because these people need to take us to the next step! The harvest, to use an old word picture, is best harvested by those fresh out of the dirt themselves. They best know the season and the soil conditions!

A is for ‘action’.

B is for ‘broken’.

There are so many choices for ‘C’. There is ‘confused’, ‘contradicted’, ‘chaotic’, ‘challenging’, and ‘confident’.

It is confusing because for all of us, this is all new territory.

I have noticed that our team has changed so much over the couple of years that when we are around people from other churches we sometimes don’t know how to act. Our conversations and the language we use have changed so much, at times the conversations with these other people seems so foreign. The talk about worship, leadership, everything seems to come from such a different perspective. We have tried to eliminate exclusive Christian talk. (As I think about the ‘christian talk’ issue I wonder how much of my previous language was ‘spiritual’ just in a subconcious attempt to convince myself of certain things. You know, if you talk up a certain program or certain ministry then hopefully others around you will believe it, and in doing so you actually start to believe the hype yourself.)

As a result I don’t fit in so well – I feel like an outsider with main stream ministers who often use religious words.

The opposite is equally true. When I am with those who are outside the Church, I become an outsider whenever I use ‘God’ talk to explain the reasons, the “why” in my life. I feel and I suspect the others in the church plant journey had and are having the same type of experience, that we are as ‘strangers without a home’. This also leads me to a contradiction. We have become so driven by the urgency of evangelism and the need for contextualization that we have failed at actually presenting the gospel. We have gone from doing evangelism defined as simply as presenting the facts with no pre-existing relationships, to doing nothing but building relationships and not presenting the gospel. I am personally aware of this and I am struggling to get back the gift I seem to have actually lost, and that is presenting people with Jesus and asking them, ‘What do you say?’

While evangelism is a life-style, we must also use words.

The journey has been chaotic because it has been crazy. I mean it is crazy to think that we who are so few in numbers could change an entire city. We who are so few are capable of achieving something we could not do when we had the entire resources of a much larger church to begin with (BCP)!

It is also chaotic because we change tact at the drop of a hat. Nimbility is something we value. For example a little while ago I felt as though we were spending too much time doing ministry alongside some friends of ours, and I felt we needed to be mindful that we should just spend time with them as well… you know, time that did not involve ministry time, planning, etc etc. So we asked them over to dinner. But as usual some other friends who we are both wanting them to come know Jesus asked us out for dinner.

Guess where we went? We dropped all of our ‘well meaning and needed’ plans to hang out with our team member friends, and went to be with the others. We struggle to plan a Sunday gathering because of the desire to be with the people ‘next’. It really is flying by the seat of your pants stuff. Everything, no matter how worthy a cause, orbits around those who are ‘outside the kingdom’, so everything must be flexible enough to live in chaos! We’ve learnt chaos is not always a bad thing.

Church planting is also challenging because I know that there is no return for us. Sure, failure is a real option for us. But would it change anything if we did fail? Probably not! Challenging because I am ‘broken’ and I find myself constantly looking for approval, but where and from who would that approval come? Like I said before, we feel like a people in a foreign land.

C is also for confident. And our confidence is in the One who has called us, the Life-Giver Himself. We value Jesus, and we just want to be where He is, and be involved with what He’s already doing.

A is for ‘action’

B is for ‘broken’

C is for ‘confused, contradicted, chaotic, challenging, confident’  take your pick!

Since writting this article I have spoken to the church planting team about their thoughts on the journey so far. I asked them to sum the experience with one word and here is their list:

  • authentic
  • aliens
  • committed
  • consistent
  • culturally different (I know, I know not one word)
  • deliberate
  • different
  • disappointed
  • dysfunctional
  • exhausted
  • freaks
  • final
  • freedom
  • important
  • influencer
  • liberating

I would love to hear how you describe your church planting experience in one word… please leave your comments.

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