What Makes for Lasting Church Plants?

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A friend asked me the other day how many of the plants I’ve helped pioneer have continued on. It may sound like a pointy question but pioneering equals experimenting and we often find our way forward much as the Apostle Paul’s team did with a here, here, here, not here, not here, here kind of pattern. Experimentation, of necessity, means a range of results. The answer is that 6 out of 8 plants have continued on, grown, seeded, combined with or morphed into other communities, remaining to this day. Those 2 exceptions, the 2 that didn’t get traction…I’ll come back to those in a minute…

Meanwhile, what are the factors that have made the 6 lasting plants last?

When I took up a role as Pastoral Assistant to St George’s Holborn my brief from the Senior Pastor, Donald Werner, was to pioneer a student congregation. At the time the church had an evening congregation of around 30 with a varsity contingent of 3 student nurses and one medical student. Two years later the evening congregation numbered a regular 120 and we had 100 university students on our books.

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The “method” I stumbled upon flows from questions posed by three NT sources:

Luke 10:2-9 asks of me: “How can I make myself a welcome guest in the lives of others, so that I can share life, minister to needs and proclaim the Kingdom of God?”

I Thessalonians 1:5-8 has me ask: “How can I intentionally share my life and faith with people with such power, love, conviction and transparency that seekers can emulate my faith, and have others in turn emulate theirs.”

Acts 18:5-8 simply raises the question: “How do I gather those who are ‘with me’ – those whom I am discipling?”

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To boil those questions down a bit, we could ask, in the following order:

  • Step 1 – How to mingle?
  • Step 2 – How to disciple?
  • Step 3 – How to gather?

If that sounds calculated and complicated, it really wasn’t. On the ground the first two questions simply led me to enjoy the hospitality of the student scene, befriending, sharing lives, discipling and mentoring as best as I knew how.

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The third question of “How do we gather those we are discipling?” was not answered by me. The answer emerged organically through the constant hospitality of a number of group households within the fabric of our fellowship. I think of Beth’s household, Steve’s household, Ruth’s household, Simon & Will’s household. Debbie and Liz’s household.

These were the homes that opened their doors to our new student friends, generously including them in their hospitality and in their dispersed social activities. It was the open hospitality of these homes, scattered from Holborn to Clerkenwell, that provided the bedrock of community – the gathering-glue – that held those among whom I was moving, and who were choosing to worship with us in our evening service for that season. In this way the model of mingle, make disciples, then gather proved its mettle for us.

How key, the homes of warm, hospitable people; people of peace, pastors, teachers, (small a) apostles; simply people with a love of people. (I happen to believe that kind of love for people, expressed in the hospitality of Christian homes is the real gathering-glue in any model of church – large or small.)

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“The Ranch” in “The New Monastic” – aka one of the key gathering households of Jesus Generation in Canberra

The same method shaped the formation of my own network Jesus Generation, which ran from 1997 to 2009. The seedbed for JGen’s growth lay in the hospitality extended to me by the student and youth scenes of first Portsmouth UK and then Canberra, Australia. I found doors open into the university scene in Portsmouth and a fluid extra-mural student and youth music scene in Canberra.

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In both places I found believers on the very fringes of the church scene and seekers beyond it who welcomed me into their households and their own patterns of gathering. Later came clarity as to those whom I was mentoring and discipling, and those who were sharing my rule of life, and those who were boarding with me. Then followed the third question: “How do I gather those I am discipling?” JGen followed the same pattern as St George’s Holborn – only this time very intentionally.

Established congregations with inherited patterns of Sunday meetings and small groups often reverse the question and ask themselves: “How do we disciple the people we’re gathering?” (This was the very question that in 1997 initiated the journey of Jesus Generation and a deeper plumbing of intentional community.)

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Congregations often proceed to another question: “How do we connect with those beyond the community of faith?”  It’s the reverse order of the one I’ve unpacked above.

A gathered community will bring its own imperatives and the “how do we connect” can easily morph into more of a corporate or program-oriented question where the responsibility is dispersed or corporatized. The danger is that we can then be led away from the territory of personal responsibility, and personal journeys of living missionally. These are the kinds of tensions that the missional believer and the mission-hearted church must continually negotiate.

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That’s why whatever part of the church spectrum we may occupy, from mega church to micro church, from open church to intentional community, for the Great Commission to shape our lives as it should, it requires us to deliberately and constantly inject into our conversation and praxis those three “Lucan-Pauline” questions:

STEP 1How can I make myself a welcome guest in the lives of others, so that I can share life, minister to needs and proclaim the Kingdom of God?”

STEP 2 – How can I intentionally share my life and faith with people with such power, love, conviction and transparency that seekers can emulate my faith, and have others in turn emulate theirs?

STEP 3 – How do I gather those who are ‘with me’ – those whom I am discipling?

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So in 2017 when I ask myself “What makes lasting plants last?” though I wouldn’t want to be doctrinaire about it, and while there are countless other factors that can determine and alter our pioneering and pastoral efforts, my experience would attest to the strength of what I’ve called the Lucan-Pauline approach. To this day I continue to bring those three Lucan-Pauline questions to my own ministry lifestyle. They still have an egde on them!

And those two exceptions I mentioned – the two plants that didn’t take? Those were the two where the combination of home life and secular work to bank-roll the pioneering meant that in the final analysis I simply had insufficient hours to invest into those first two Lucan-Pauline steps. So for me, in terms of method, I guess they were the exceptions that prove the rule!!

 

 

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