The Alternative: Why Don’t We Plant?

Article
02.26.2010

Instead of adding new services or new sites when the numbers grow, why not simply plant new churches? The only reason not to plant churches stems from one of two failures: either the church has failed to do the discipling work of raising up more elders and pastors, or the church has decided to accommodate celebrity and consumeristic culture. Let me start with the second failure.

ACCOMODATING CULTURE

People today demand excellence. We dismiss mediocrity—the clunky piano player; the thread-bare pew cushions; the average preacher. Sony Studios has set our expectations of sound quality. Pottery Barn has elevated our sense of tasteful décor. And everyone from Chris Rock to Ronald Reagan have taught us what it means to be an effective communicator. Anything less isn’t just aesthetically objectionable, it’s emotionally distracting. I might want to sing praises to God, but the professionally recorded music I listen to in the car has taught me what good music sounds like; and now I’m having trouble simply concentrating as the church pianist plunks out those basic hymn chords—at least it’s harder for me than (I assume) it would have been for my great grandfather. I might want to listen to the preacher, but I’m surrounded all week by the slicksters on T.V. commercials and late-night talk shows, and this guy says “um” ten times a minute and nothing funny. I can’t stay focused. So given a choice between him and a charismatic, thirty-five-year-old, television-quality phenom, I’m going with the phenom, even if it means watching him on a screen.

I take it that these are sociological realities. People today are consumeristic—end of story. Like or dislike it, it’s hard-wired into the social consciousness of the visitors and members walking into our church buildings. You know this must be the case when so many church growth books talk about “excellence in our churches” and “don’t be a boring preacher” with all the urgency of a Pauline epistle.

Still, choosing multi-campus church over the church plant is the decision to accommodate this consumeristic mindset. It’s saying to these consumers walking through the door, “Yes, you have the authority to say what church should be like. Never mind repentance and Christ’s Lordship, at least in this area of your life. Nevermind all the benefits of connectedness which the body metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12 might promise. You tell me what you want! Let’s make your sensory experience king here.”

And so, planting efforts fail because everyone prefers the preaching phenom to his disciple. Who’s going to buy season tickets for the minor-league farm team when you get them for the major league team for the same price?

Now, to give the multi-site and multi-service process a little credit, God clearly gives some preachers greater gifts than others, just like some players can step up to the plate and hit the ball farther than others. And faithful churches should look for ways to allow their home-run hitters to make the best use of their gifts and hit as many home-runs as possible. Who’s going to argue with Jesus when he says that the man with five talents should be given the opportunity to turn them into ten, compared to the man with one or two talents?

What’s particularly challenging in our day and age is that, modern media being what it is, everyone demands a home-run hitter for their own franchise. Result? Mega-churches. Fewer and fewer of us actually join baseball leagues to play ourselves. We’re content to watch the professionals. (Ask any music professional about the general public’s music literacy today compared to fifty years ago, and you’ll hear the same thing: fewer people today are able to sing or play an instrument because the standards of professionalism and performance cause us to back away from participating in music ourselves. Why bother learning the cello when you can so easily listen to Yo Yo Ma?)

The problem is, Christianity, by which I mean church membership, is a participatory sport, not a spectator sport. It’s not about just showing up on Sundays and watching the sluggers knock ‘em out of the park. From a personal perspective, Christianity is about showing up on Sundays and giving praise to God as I encourage my brothers and sisters by lending my singing voice to theirs, and I reinforce our congregation’s corporate prayers to God, and I actively work in applying God’s Word to my life as the preacher preaches it. Christianity, from a personal perspective, is about my getting involved with the other members of my church throughout the week as we echo Sunday’s ministry of the Word back and forth in our lives together. From your perspective, Christianity is about you doing all these things. In other words, your and my active-involvement with the Little League team, complete with our forty-five errors per game, is actually far more important for our discipleship to Christ than sitting in the stands and watching the all-stars perform their breathtaking magic.

Yet when church leaders decide to add services or campuses instead of new plants, it very well could be the case that they have failed to teach their members these very lessons.

But can’t people attend a church with major league players and still become actively involved? Of course they can. Active church involvement should characterize the members of big and small churches alike. My point is this: when the building which accommodates 500 people is full, there should be enough mature believers and elders among those 500, because of the elders’ good teaching and discipling over time, to recognize that everyone will actually benefit and Christ’s kingdom will actually advance if 100 or 200 of those 500 break off and form a new plant in another region of the city. In other words, members Joe and Suzy might enjoy sitting under Pastor Mike’s fantastic preaching and the praise band’s snappy music, but they should also have been taught by Mike and the other elders that they will actually grow more as Christians, and that Christ’s witness will extend to further reaches of the earth, if they leave with 100 others to plant a church in their own neighborhood, led by Pastor Mike’s less talented associate Mark. Now, 100 seats are freed up, and Pastor Mike has room to grow again. Not only that, the city now has two light-house beacons shining, not just one. The church is spreading. The Great Commission is being fulfilled. Now, for the really talented preachers and churches, repeat this process 40 times over the course of 40 years, and pepper the city with 40 new churches filled with elders and deacons and engaged members. Is this not preferable to one-multi-campus, multi-service megalith which all stands or falls upon the shoulders of one super-star pastor?

“Ah, but people will trickle back to the home church,” some will say. Yes, that’s true when churches have capitulated to consumerism in everything from their song selection to their snazzy logos, and the members have never equipped with a biblical ecclesiology or a kingdom mindset.

FAILING TO RAISE UP LEADERS

This brings us to the first failure I described at the beginning—the failure to raise up more elders and preachers. Our own church made a wonderful discovery after our first plant a couple of years ago: members who were peripheral players in our church joined the plant and were able to become central players in the plant. I’m thinking of one brother, for instance, who was not an elder in our church, but when placed in the planting situation, stepped up and became an elder. And now he, his family, and (I trust) even his non-Christian neighbors are benefitting from the more intense spiritual responsibilities he’s undertaken as an elder of that church. In other words, church plants do more to raise up future elders and preachers than multi-site churches. Not only that, when staff and lay leaders leave one church to plant another, they create a vacuum in the home church for others step up and fill.

But how then do we wisely steward the super-star preacher with five talents? Well, if his preaching really is that good, that accompanied by the Holy Spirit, then it will transform young believers into mature believers who will happily welcome the challenges associated with a church plant (at least if he’s equiping them with good ecclessiology and a kingdom mindset). If, however, his preaching is just seemingly good because he relies on the devices of the flesh, that is, if he’s only an entertainer, then, no, it won’t be transformative; people won’t be willing to go with the church plant; and the church won’t find an easy solution to its “growth.” The people will love him, and his humor, and his charisma. The problem is, they won’t have learned to love Jesus.

Pastor, if you think a plant won’t work out of your church, because they love you, then you just might be right. They do love you, and it may not work. The problem is, you might not be quite the pastor you thought you were, because it’s you they love.

PLANT OFTEN

So a church can wisely steward the talents of their super-star pastor, first, by planting often. With at least some of its plants, the church should try to empty seats, so that non-Christians and weaker sheep may come and fill them again. This, I think, is what God finally had to do to the church in Jerusalem. He had to force their hand to fulfill the Great Commission by scattering them through persecution. Life in the one church in Jerusalem, no doubt, was comparatively comfortable, like life inside a nest. The apostles were super-star pastors if there ever were any. Problems arose, as with the distribution of food, but solutions were quickly found with more mature men filled with the Spirit and wisdom. No, we can’t let go of them, can we, men like Philip or Stephen? Apparently, God had other plans: “Church, do you think I need Stephen to do my work? No, I don’t. I’m taking him home. Church, do you think you need Philip? No, you don’t. I’m sending him away.”

Church-planting, admittedly, can be hugely disruptive to the life of the body. It’s not easy to cut off an arm. But the pattern of the entire Bible tells me that God isn’t afraid to do a little disrupting from time to time to provoke his people into the obedience of mission. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” When it comes to the Great Commission, I dare say, God has a similar philosophy. Should we, therefore, seek to preserve the safety of our church cocoons at all costs?

BUILD A BIGGER BUILDING

Second, a church can wisely steward the talents of their super-star pastor by building a bigger building. If it has the financial resources, and if it has a reasonable plan for continuing to elder all the flock with its increased size, great! It will become a bigger heart to pump out even more blood (a Mark Dever phrase).

USE TECHNOLOGY

Third, a church can wisely steward the talents of a super-star pastor by, well, in the seventies it would have been a tape and radio ministry, in the nineties a CD ministry, and today an mp3 ministry.

There were several semesters in seminary when I listened to one or two John Piper sermons a week on my portable CD player. My discipleship to Christ, physically located at that point in Louisville, Kentucky, benefitted immensely from this man’s unusual gifting. But then I took those benefits and put them to work in my comparatively small, inconsequential local church. I didn’t need to attend his church to grow through his teaching. That said, I do not personally believe that most mega-church, multi-site pastors have the same Holy Spirit gifting and power as John Piper. In too many cases, I fear that other things are propagating their popularity. Not only that, they implicitly fall back on a spectator-performance driven conception of Christianity.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.