Who, us? We could not possibly plant a church

This weekend our little church is commissioning a family to go and plant a church 300km away. We can’t afford to do this. Not them – two of our best leaders, best givers, and best friends. Not now – as we’re still recovering from two other recent plants and as two of our interns also leave to become pastors elsewhere. Not us – a little church of perhaps 50 on a Sunday. What are we thinking?! Well, I’ll tell you.

When I went to Bible College – last millennium – the Church Health movement was in, and the Church Growth movement was so yesterday. We relished every opportunity to pull it apart. We scoffed at its mercenary tactics and business terminology. So we celebrated the coming of the Church Health movement. Who could possibly argue with that? After all, healthy plants grow naturally! Instead of driving and striving, we pastors could be gentle gardeners fostering an idyllic environment in which the church would flourish all by itself.

The only trouble is it’s actually the same thing, just dressed up a bit more tastefully. Health for growth’s sake is every bit as dangerous to us as growth for growth’s sake. It’s just a different form of the same narcissism; loving our particular church to the detriment of the Church and her mission.

We know that focusing on Church Growth can lead to sheep-stealing from other churches. But focusing on Church Health leads just as readily to a selfish retention of talent. Both make sense in the short term and at the local level, but hurt the wider system, and in the long run, the local church itself.

This is the paradox. A church wants to protect its health by retaining its talent. Deep down, this is because it doesn’t believe it can bring in more from its local mission. Or that even if it does, the amount of time it would take to develop new believers into excellent members and leaders just seems too long, and like too much work. Easier just to make do with what we have. The problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, the work of local mission and discipling new believers to maturity is the church’s core business, so no matter how long or hard, it should never be avoided. And secondly, it’s illusionary to believe that you can retain your talent anyway. Your good people are going to leave. One way or another, I promise you.

In short, it’s unproductive for a church to be retentive. It’s like a tree that tries to stay healthy by hanging on tightly to all its fruit. Not only does it deny the rest of the ecosystem of seeds (and yummy fruit), it also stops the new fruit from coming through. Jesus taught us that losing our own lives is the way to find true life. Death to self is the key to fruit.

Think of a fitness fanatic for whom looking good and being healthy has become an end in itself. Their bodies are fit, muscles all toned, but it’s through exercise, not work. All those muscles are used not for work, but for exercises – which are really a kind of “play work”. To look at them, you’d think such a strong, healthy person must make a great contribution to the community. But it turns out they just use up all our mirrors. And when it comes to reproduction, they’re reluctant. “But what would it do to my figure?” they might ask. Or, “Kids take years off your life!” Yes, yes they do. But they add many years to the life of the family.

It will be a happier day the sooner that churches can give up the fool’s quest for that magazine-perfect-body look; give up the quest to have all rosters full and all programmes running smoothly and finances in great shape, and look to do the work of producing great disciples. Doing the work, not just going through the exercises. Preaching, teaching, training, equipping, not for their own sake, or so we can say we have those programmes and do them well, but because the explicit shared aim is that members will be commissioned by the church to plant new churches (across town or around the world), as the rule rather than the exception. It will be happier because we will remember what we’re actually here for. A vision for actually producing something will always trump a vision for being a vision to look at.

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“Good fruit always leaves the tree. A tree that tries to hang on to all its fruit – well, it needs a shake.”
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It’s high time for the Church Health movement to be replaced by a Church Productivity movement. Productive churches will be marked by the number and calibre of the people they send, rather than by the numbers they attract. They will produce more talent than what is needed to sustain them. Instead of asking “What do we need?” in terms of leaders, elders, pastors, musicians, children’s and youth workers, et cetera, they will ask “What does the world need?”

A health-focused church appoints its best elders as elders, its best pastors as pastors, its best musicians as musicians, and diverts the rest sideways into, what are perceived as, less significant ministries. And it hopes these worker ants will be satisfied to faithfully churn out the church’s programmes for the long haul.

Contrast this with a productive church which continues to send out its best, necessitating the constant development of new leaders, pastors, elders, musicians etc. This is disciple-making. Everyone in a productive church is on their toes, constantly encouraged to keep seeking God to discover their next step in maturity, their vocation and geographical calling. They are openly encouraged to dream. No one can become complacent or dependent on the team’s “star players” because they are, in all likelihood, not here for the long term.

Bring on a new era, then, when church planting is the norm, not the exception. Not just when we run out of room, or when a maverick leader is desperate to escape. Bring on an era when commissionings are a common experience for our children to watch, wide-eyed, wondering where and to what they’ll be commissioned. Bring on an era when the church understands itself as family, encouraging its (spiritual) young adults to start their own ‘households’ – rather than end up as 40-somethings still living at home having their washing done for them.

An end to the era of churches looking great but producing nothing, like the fig tree Jesus cursed, like the temple he had to scourge! An end to church-exercise instead of church-work! An end to the era of blindness to the incredible potential in the ordinary-looking members of our churches! An end to the era of churches that fail that most basic test of discipleship: to deny themselves and entrust their future to the Lord.

I’m not against healthy churches. I love to see growing ones! But health and growth are not good enough measures of success. Jesus looks for fruit. Producing it will require both health and growth, but as a means to an end, not as ends in themselves. So how can our little church sustain a sending culture? We’ll need to: (a) keep seeking God as our ultimate and immediate sustainer; (b) learn how to fish for and actually catch people locally; (c) have high expectations of what people can become in Christ and spur them forward; (d) shrewdly live within our means; and all with a clear view of what real success is, what we really want to present to God.

Good fruit always leaves the tree. A tree that tries to hang on to all its fruit – well, it needs a shake. Church planting is costly and risky, yes. Our little church knows that full well. But have we really considered the cost, and the risk, of not planting churches?

Andrew Turner is the Church Development Facilitator with the Baptist Churches of South Australia. You can join the conversation on his blog sacredagents.net. Prac12