There’s trouble in paradise. There’s a growing disconnect in church planting culture; at least in some of the circles in which I travel. In many regards, I’m still being told that the goal is to have a “megachurch.” For all the talk about discipleship-based church models and missional living, the speakers at nearly every conference are megachurch guys, which communicates that they’re the guys who’ve done it well, that I should be learning from. I don’t for a second doubt that I do, in fact, have a lot to learn from these guys, but what if I don’t ever want to be a megachurch pastor?
I’m being told that church planters should check out AT&T’s coverage because they let you block certain people from calling you and that “there will just be some people in your church who don’t need your number” while my wife is being told all about how some pastor’s wives are escorted from the house into worship by bodyguards who even get to determine who gets to talk to said pastor’s wife. But what if I don’t ever want to be a megachurch pastor and my wife doesn’t want bodyguards determining who can talk to her?
Everywhere we turn in church planting culture, the megachurch guys are the ones giving advice and the assumption is nearly always that, what they’re doing is what we should be doing. And yet, at the same time, there’s a growing number of megachurch guys who are openly admitting their struggles with the megachurch approach. Matt Carter, of Austin Stone openly laments that if his church were to add even 3,000 more people on Sundays that little would actually change in his city and that he’s tired of just adding more people (a paraphrase from his 2010 Phoenix Acts 29 Boot Camp sermon – I couldn’t find the audio) while Matt Chandler of The Village also regularly talks about similar issues.
My friend Justin Anderson of Redemption Church, in his insightful piece “Reflections on Seven Years of Church Planting,” writes:
I’ve seen the “Promised Land” and it’s just OK. For the last couple years, I have been living the dream. Our church has seen explosive growth, people be saved, baptized, and join groups all the time. We have four campuses, thousands of people, and a great staff. Finally, all the toil of church planting has paid off and the prospect of megachurch stardom was a reality.
Most of us want some version of this in ministry. I finally reached the promised land, and I can report that it’s just OK. Don’t get me wrong: there were parts that I loved, but at the end of the day there is always more to do, always another idea, hill to climb or battle to fight—it never ends.
After several months of reflection, I can honestly say that I will miss the people whom I have grown to love over the last seven years far more than I will miss big budgets, assistants, buildings, speaking gigs, or any of the perks that come with megachurch life.
Though Anderson doesn’t go as far as Carter does in his denunciations of the megachurch model, notice that he’s also not extolling its virtues. In fact, he says that, as he transitions from AZ to CA to plant all over again, it is the relationships that he’ll miss the most. So, on the one hand, I’m being told (at least implicitly) that megachurch-dom is the goal and yet, many of the megachurch guys are openly saying that they don’t necessarily want to be in the position everyone else is saying church planters should strive for. There’s a disconnect.
Jared Wilson reflects on Anderson’s piece:
Too often we envision “successful ministry” — this vision may look different from person to person, church to church — and pour our energies and affections into seeing that vision become a reality, assuming that once we finally “arrive,” things will be better, easier, finally and ultimately fulfilling. This is, functionally, idolatry. It is a creation of a false heaven, not simply false in its falling short of the real Paradise but false in its inclusion of talent, acquired skills, and grit to reach.
Don’t settle for the false heaven of a “successful ministry.” Because real success is faithfulness. Big church or small church, growing church or declining church, well-known church or obscure church — all churches are epic successes full of the eternal, invincible quality of the kingdom of God when they treasure Jesus’ gospel and follow him. Jesus did not give the keys of the kingdom with the ability to bind and loose on both sides of the veil only to those who’d reached a certain attendance benchmark. So do well, pursue excellence, and stay faithful. God will give you what you ought to have according to his wisdom and riches.
Even (or, one might say “especially) in church circles, we’ve come to believe the lie that bigger is always better and that measuring “success or failure” in ministry is akin to counting numbers. And yet, many of the guys who have “made it” are realizing the disconnect. I’m not sure if he was trying to make this point or not, but I believe that Anderson, in the same piece, identifies the issue behind the disconnect:
Make a specific plan for discipleship-and call it discipleship.
In Matthew 28, Jesus’ final command was to “go and make disciples.” This was a direct statement of purpose for the church, but in many of our churches, there isn’t a clear definition of a disciple, let alone a plan for discipleship. Praxis was no different. We knew exactly how we wanted to run our worship services and live on mission but had no plan for discipleship.
Most of our churches are doing discipleship, if only accidentally, but few of us call it that. So, instead of spending all your time on promotional flyers, try to craft a simple plan to make disciples of Jesus. Also, stop wracking your brain trying to think of a unique Greek or Hebrew word for it—just call it discipleship.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying or hinting that megachurch can’t or don’t do discipleship well or at all. But I am saying that it’s more difficult in a megachurch environment and probably happens less often than in a smaller, Gospel Communities on Mission – style church where discipleship is the driving factor, the main organizing principle rather than the weekend event (yes, I realize I just smuggled in all sorts of my own bias, so if you disagree, I’d love to hear from you; have you seen megachurches become megachurches because discipleship was their primary focus?).
If discipleship is, as Anderson says a “purpose of the church,” then shouldn’t it be at the center of our churches? Shouldn’t it be the focus and drive the structure of the local church? If discipleship doesn’t have as naturally or as easily in a megachurch environment, then why are megachurches held up as the model for church planters?
Most church planters have not been called or equipped to be megachurch pastors. But they can faithfully disciple some and equip them in turn to do the same. Where is the conference telling them that’s not only OK but better?
But then again, maybe I’m just overly cynical.