Thinking differently can be difficult. Our ruts testify to our staggering preferences for the familiar. Even if they slow us down to a creeping clamber, they’re ‘our ruts,’ and we prefer what we know.
But at some point, in our crawl, some of us look up and around and ask, “Is this familiar path that I’m traveling taking me where I need to go?” Certainly, nobody should be asking this question more earnestly and more honestly than those who lead God’s people.
There is so much at stake.
Few among us believe that we are still in the “golden age” of church growth, yet many of our systems are still calibrated with methodologies designed for a previous era. We prioritize launching worship experiences which bake in the preeminent consumeristic value of excellence with the principal metric of attendance. And so, we continue to deploy courageous church planters who heroically attempt to start new churches that are predicated upon an erroneous cultural assumption of a people with ‘church-going credentials’ lurking somewhere in their community.
But here’s the big problem. This audience isn’t hiding, waiting to be discovered. In most places where churches are needed the most - they just aren’t there at all. Appealing to the warm sentiments that recalls a former Christian era misses the target completely. And worse, provoking an indigenous yearning for a more ‘gospel-centered’ version to be offered only further exacerbates the problem. Religious memory has almost completely evaporated leaving precious few of our neighbors with any cultural moorings to church. Any appeals that ignore this fact while further fragmenting the faithful remnant should not be seen as a Kingdom win.
Here is what we are all discovering:
When culture is tilted toward the church, we instinctively know what to do. We position ourselves as a preferred, or at least viable alternative. We welcome them in with a warm and sincere greeting. Hand them a nice gift bag with a quality T-shirt and a mug. Invite them to a casual meet and greet with the pastor. And get them to sign up for the new member’s class.
Its muscle memory for most of us.
But what happens when the culture is tilted away from the church? What do we do when there are only social disadvantages to our evangelical ties? What do we do when our golden era techniques no longer have an attraction?
Make no mistake, this is the current reality of our mission field.
But to that difficult question, there is some very good news. Much of the disciple-making within the majority world, and numerous immigrant and inner-city churches within North America, and the entirety of the book of Acts embodies three priorities that appear to be alien to our “golden-age” thinking – but serves as living proof to the Jesus-way of his community. But be warned, the Kingdom realignment necessary to follow their examples involves more than adopting a new program, or new language, or even a new structure. Living out these three priorities assumes a servant-spirited role of the local church within the Kingdom of God while she gives herself away by animating her very missionary nature.
- We need a different kind of church. Rather than a hyper-focus on the gathering, we must prioritize equipping people for a disciple-making movement. Disciple-making is the goal, not a hopeful byproduct of the gathering. By decreasing our focus on the gatherings as an end, we now have the margin to increase our effort to make disciples who live vibrantly sent lives. We are no longer a church of the intentionally gathered and unintentionally scattered – but of the gathered and intentionally deployed.
- We need a different kind of planter/leader/pastor. If our focus shifts to embracing the secular space with believers who winsomely model the superiority of Christ, then we need churches and church planting teams that are within relational and credible proximity of that secularity. This work happens most naturally through teams of interdependent leaders who live out their callings and unique giftings by deploying together as Co-Vocational teams. And this kind of ‘sentness’ becomes an infinitely reproducible blueprint for new believers to pattern. Budgets are redeployed from mostly internal maintenance to mostly external ministry as Kingdom funds are invested in neighbors and co-workers and precious lives on the margins.
- We need a different level of gospel collaboration. The scorecard has shifted in ways that are hard for many to get their minds around right now. Think about how foolish the question, “How many did you have?” sounds right now in this pandemic. Now we must think less about ourselves and more about the spiritual state of our communities. And to that end, we must work together with other Jesus-communities to see that everyone has a chance to see, hear, and respond to the good news invitation of Jesus Christ. In this, Jesus’ prayer in John 17 sees an answer in the ‘oneness’ of his disciples.
These three ideas form the direction where I am leading Church Planting Canada to concentrate our energies over the coming years. My hope is that together, in our 20 plus denominational network, that we can synergistically link arms across Canada in order to help our fellow Canadians discover freedom and joy in Jesus and a life transformed in his community.
Maybe these ideas, and those who already courageously embody them, and the witness of Scripture that testifies to them – should be a new path to follow.
And maybe our “golden age” was a little earlier than we remember.