Three Avenues to Joy

When I look back at what I’ve experienced in church planting these past two or so years, three joys stand out:

  1. The joy of risk — There’s something joyful about sticking your neck out and risking for the sake of the kingdom. It’s far more joyful than playing it safe. I don’t think I’d want to go back.
  2. The joy of evangelism — My best friends are increasingly outside of the church. I am intentionally cultivating relationships in my community and being present in my neighborhood.
  3. The joy of reliance — I am learning new levels of dependence on God. I am also much more aware of my reliance on other people for prayer support, as well as practical support.

If you want to ask me what I love about church planting, these three joys would rank near the top.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be a church planter to experience these three joys. Sadly, I pastored many years without experiencing them as much as I am now, but they where there for the taking.

Risk. Evangelize. Rely. I’m finding that these are three avenues of joy available to all of us for the asking.

The $100 Church Plant

Think you need an elaborate plan before you can start a business? Think again. As Chris Guillebeau writes in The $100 Startup, you need precious little: a small venture, a very small amount of money, and a lot of courage.

Guillebeau identified 1,500 individuals who have built businesses earning $50,000 or more from a modest investment. In many cases, they started with $100 or less. Guillebeau focused on 50 of the most interesting cases, and has distilled the lessons into a how-to guide on how to start a micro-business. In some cases, the entrepreneurs didn’t even know they were starting a business. They started with the shortest of business plans, if they even had one. See this one-page template (PDF) for an example.

How did they do this? They focused on providing value for others. They focused on the convergence between what they love to do, and what other people are willing to pay for. They understood people’s emotions, and focused on those rather than on product features. They preferred action to planning, and got their first sale as soon as possible. They were okay with starting small if that’s what they wanted.

I first came across The $100 Startup a couple of years ago when it first came out. I’ve been working through it recently as I’ve been working on a side project. I believe that this book has huge value for church planters. I’m a believer in the value of bivocational ministry, and think this book has a lot to offer for planters and other pastors who are looking to earn income from other sources besides vocational ministry.

Can I suggest that there is also value in thinking about this approach for ministry?

Instead of dreaming of church plants that require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, perhaps there is a way to begin with a simple, reproducible model with little overhead for salaries and facilities.

Instead of developing an elaborate plan, perhaps there is a way to begin simply and to figure things out on the ground.

Instead of expecting each plant to become a megachurch, perhaps there is a place for micro-churches that spread through neighborhoods and focus on reproduction.

Trevin Wax has interviewed Jimmy Scroggins on this topic. "One thing’s for sure," Scroggins says, "traditional, funded, full-time church planters are not going to plant enough churches to truly penetrate the lostness of North America." We need both traditional church plants and what he calls rabbit churches. J.D. Payne has also written about the need for simple, reproducible models, as well as experimentation and learning. Books like The $100 Startup make me long for these lessons to be applied in a big way to church planting in North America and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a role for more traditional church plants, just like there’s a role for traditional business. But there’s also a huge role for small, micro-church plants that don’t require a lot of outside investment. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of these in the future. I hope so.

Planting at the Intersection of Receptivity, Need, and Passion

Where should we plant churches? With over four billion people on the planet who are not disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility to answer this question carefully. No one has helped me think through this question more than J.D. Payne, author of Discovering Church Planting.

Payne suggests that we plant at the intersection of receptivity and need:

  • Receptivity — Where are people ready to hear the gospel? While there is a role for planting in areas with low receptivity, it is best to prioritize areas where people are receptive to the gospel.
  • Need — Where do people need to hear the gospel? Where are there a high number of people who have never heard the gospel, in contrast to areas where there are a high percentage of believers? (See Payne’s recent post on Utica as an example. I would argue that Toronto is just as needy.)

Payne argues that we should prioritize areas of high need and receptivity as a matter of stewardship. While some may be called to areas of high need and low receptivity, this is not the norm.

As I think about this, I would add one more consideration:

  • Passion — Where am I particularly suited and impassioned to serve?

This is probably worth its own post, but I have found that when God calls someone to do something, he usually also gives them a great passion or burden for that work. 

We should therefore aim to plant churches at the intersection of receptivity, need, and passion.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

Ministry and Presence

I’ve been thinking about the story of Jimmy Carter, who was so free from having to worry about where else he should be and what else he should be doing that he was able to focus fully on the person in front of him.

He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there. (The Organized Mind)

Is it possible to be this present in our lives and ministries? Not only is it possible; it’s essential.

Here are some thoughts on being present in ministry.

It’s hard. In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine traces the desire to be present everywhere to the Garden of Eden. We try to act as if we have no limits in space and time. The desire to avoid being present in one place is an age-old temptation that goes as far back as the original sin.

There’s no alternative. There really is no other ministry than ministry right here, with these people, and in this place. Again, Eswine writes:

Our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local…While spiritual wars rage about and while angels fly, I remain grounded. Battles all at once and everywhere outpace me. Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.

The people here are always messy, and this place is by definition limiting. But the only one who is not limited to ministry in a particular location is God, although even He is also working with messy people.

They can tell.  A few years ago, I visited a pastor that I know through his blog. I told him that I appreciated his online sermons. His response surprised me. “I’m glad you enjoyed them, but they’re not for you. I pastor these people in this place, and those sermons are meant for them. Whether or not you appreciate them is irrelevant.”

I like that. I believe that people can tell if we are trying to serve and impress a general audience out there, or if we are rooted in a particular place, committed to a particular people. I can tell when people are half-listening to me. People can tell if we’re half-present while dreaming of a better place that doesn’t actually exist.

It’s at the heart of effective ministry. There is certainly a place for large, regional ministries. But as books like The New Parish teach us, there is a need to locate ourselves in a single community, to be attentive to what God is doing there, and to commit over the long haul to be present and faithful. Like a farmer committed to a plot of land, staying long enough to put down roots, clear the rocks, and pull out the tree roots, we must be committed to one place. I think I remember David Fitch saying that we should generally look at a ten-year commitment to a single place. While not canonical, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense for most of us.

We are in what could be termed a hard-soil plant. We have moved in the neighborhood, and we are learning the joy and power of being as present as possible in one place, knowing and being known (both equally scary). There is something powerful about being present in one place, as if we have all the time in the world, letting go of the inner nagging voices that we would be better off somewhere else. Again, as Eswine writes, “Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.”

What Church Plants Have that Established Churches (Often) Don't

Church plants have very little. They have little money, few people, no building, and an uncertain future. Yet church plants have a few things that older churches often don't have, and that makes all the difference.

What do church plants have? Three qualities:

  • A unified vision — Mission drift plagues many established churches. New churches typically don't succumb to this, at least in the early years. If you are in a church plant, it's likely because you've heard the vision and bought into it. Otherwise, there's little to keep you there. This is a huge advantage.
  • An outward focus — Churches tend to turn inward as they grow older. A church plant can't afford to do this, or they will not get off the ground. New churches have a focus on evangelism and blessing the community that is essential.
  • A flexible ministry model — Having little can work to your advantage. You can make changes without having to reinvent everything. Newer churches can change almost anything at a moment's notice. They are not constrained by buildings and years of tradition. New churches are nimble.

Please note: it's possible to have all of the above in an established church, but not without a lot of work. By work, I mean suffering. Established churches have more stability and resources, but these often come at the expense of the qualities I describe above.

Here's the beautiful thing: newer churches can help older churches move towards these qualities, as older churches help newer churches with prayer and resources. Both newer churches and older churches have what the other needs. Both are essential in the Kingdom.