Yesterday, I started a new series about things I wish someone had told me when we set out to plant Church of the Cross nearly four years ago. These are things I’ve been thinking about for some time now, partly because I get the opportunity to talk with a lot of pastors and church planters and partly because I spend more time than I probably should in reflection/introspection. Hopefully, some of these things will be helpful to those who are at some stage of planting a church now, or even possibly anyone thinking/praying through what it may look to transition an existing church to more of a GCM approach.
Yesterday, we talked about the necessity of starting with discipleship because , if discipleship is not at the center of our churches, something else will be. If we don’t start with discipleship, it can be very difficult to find a way to get it in the backdoor once we’ve established a church identity or culture.
And it’s that idea of church identity/culture that I want to think about now. Everyone has a distinct personality. That’s not only OK, it’s beautiful. It’s what makes us unique; the little quirks, the things we like or don’t, the way we inflect words or the funny little expression. After having served in some form of “paid ministry” for nearly 10 years now, I’ve come to realize that, just as everyone has a distinct personality, so every local church has, for lack of a better term, a personality and that’s not only OK, it’s beautiful.
Every church has (or should have) its own personality. This includes big things like doctrinal stances but also smaller (or seemingly smaller, even though everything a church “does” should be driven by theology) things like the way we gather, or sing or organize ourselves. This, of course, isn’t grounds to say that every local church has the right to define for themselves everything completely, there are certain non-negotiables to being a “Christian, Evangelical” church but I’m not going to hit on those today. Instead, I want to think about the “personality” of each local church.
It all too often seems to me that the machine in which we operate “church planting” tries to reduce everything down to a formula, down to “do these steps and you will grow a large church quickly.” It’s not wrong to want to reach people but it’s not right that the formula we tend to give church planters means that there is a shocking sterility and sameness to many of our churches. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost tell of traveling to do research for their book The Shaping of Things To Come, saying that one of their “lasting impressions” of the many, many churches they visited all over the world was that:
“by and large, in spite of language differences, they tended to be invariably dull and rather predictable. They had a disturbing propensity to look, feel, and act in basically the same way. They sang the same basic songs and followed the same basic order of service in their corporate worship. The sheer predictability of it all was quite shocking and deeply disturbing. It sometimes seems as if there is some form of “template” at work in evangelical churches all over the world, regardless of language and some culture.”
I suspect that at least part of the reason Frost and Hirsch felt this is that, to a large degree, there is a certain template. We clear expectations of what church should “look like” and these expectations are largely institutional and pragmatic. And, as a church planter, if I’m led to believe that I need to grow as big as I can as fast as I can, then of course I’m going to go with the template. After all, “it works,” right?
But, practically, when this becomes the case, much of the passion, zeal, and specific vision that led someone to plant a church in the first place simply gets squashed. If the goal is to grow as big and fast as possible, then our mentality will invariably be that we need to hold on to people as tightly and as long as possible. The unavoidable result is that something in that initial vision gets sacrificed as soon as someone who doesn’t like “that piece” threatens to leave, whatever their particular pet peeve might be. The result will nearly always be to come as close as possible to the lowest common denominator on everything because that will keep the most people for as long as possible.
I wish that someone had told me to be as clear on Church of the Cross’ particular vision as soon as possible and to humbly but boldly stick to that. Stick to it. Be open to biblical criticism. Be humble enough to receive critique and search it and maybe apply it, but stick to your vision because if you don’t define it, someone else most certainly will. This has tremendous implications. It means that, for the long-term health of the church plant, we must be willing to let people go. It even means that there may be times when we recommend people leave. Not because we’ve got it all figured out, not to be exclusionary but because every church has a particular “personality,” not every local church is meant for every person and that’s not only OK, it’s beautiful.
This means that you must be clear on your theological convictions and how those inform what and why you do things. It also means that you must be willing and patient enough to explain (over and over again) why you do things the way you do. If you don’t know why or can’t explain it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
This means that we will most likely grow slower (more on that in coming days) but, Lord willing, healthier. I wish someone had told me to have the humble confidence to define who Church of the Cross would become, not in terms of what we were against but what we were for and to love people enough to realize that, not every person will “get it” or even “fit in,” and that’s OK. We should not intentionally exclude people, even if they do things differently, but if the goal is to grow as fast as possible, then sooner or later, part of what makes a local church unique is going to be lost in the pursuit of numbers.
When we ask people to change aspects of their personality to suit us, we call it emotional abuse. When we ask church planters and church planters to change aspects of a local church’s personality, we call it “church growth.”
- Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (1): Start With Discipleship.
- Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (3): You’ll Probably Never Be A Mega-Church And It’s OK To Grow Slowly
- Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (4): Don’t Plant Out Of Opposition
- Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (5): Don’t Plant To Prove Yourself