Sunday, February 27, 2011

Developing a Support System for Church Planting

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been writing posts related to a presentation I gave to Directors of Missions at the NoBA conference at Southwestern Seminary in January on effective church planting in and by the Baptist Association. The streaming video of that presentation can be found here.

In the first of these posts, I described ways to effectively develop a culture for church planting. The reason developing a church planting culture is primary is simple: The best system in the world is useless if there is no passion to take advantage of it, and no understanding of why it exists.

At the same time, creating a passionate culture for multiplying churches without a clear road-map for how to get it done would amount to zeal without knowledge, and also accomplish nothing. The two go hand in hand. So for the next couple of posts I'll be dealing with the key pieces of the puzzle neccesary to assemble for an effective support system for new churches. Keep in mind that each of these aspects of the system are very involved. Multiple and lengthy posts could be dedicated to each one of them, so the purpose of this post is to simply give you the "big picture" of all the neccesary elements. So just remember that we are flying at 30K feet here.

1. Identified Mission Field. As a church planting leader, you should know where all the pockets of need are located in your area, and you should map those areas of need out in the following way:

Geographically: Ask yourself if there are areas and populations of people that are not sufficiently served by established churches. Remember also that this is a quite different question than asking "is there a church already in this area?" In many North American contexts, the assumption for some time has been that if there is a church in the area, then there is no need to plant a new church there. The fact is that there could be several churches in a geographic area--even healthy, growing ones--that are simply not reaching a huge segment of the population.

Ethnically and Linguistically: Our Association worships every Sunday in eight different languages. But more than 60 different dialects are used in my area. If your Association is within an area that has a high immigrant population, you need to discover who these people are, because it is highly likely that they need a church planted in their midst.

Worldview: The big way of defining this issue is simply by asking "how does this population segment view and process the world?" In our area, the close proximity to Washington D.C. means that we have a lot of people transplanted from other parts of the country who work for various branches and departments of the federal government. Many of them work for the Department of Defense, NSA, or NASA, and thus their background is very scientific, and their thought process is very linear. Many of our churches in this same area are--appropriately--well-suited to reach people like this. But those same churches won't do so well at reaching the artist who sits daily on the National Mall, or the lobbyist or speech-writer, each of whom sees the world a bit differently, and consequently processes information differently. This difference in thinking means that often a new church is needed.

Relational Affinity: We have to be careful here, because the "affinity-based" church has a tendency to segregate huge parts of the body of Christ from other parts of the body. Furthermore, the Scriptures bear out a universal church of people from every walk of life, worshipping Jesus with the same unity that is found in the trinity, and we don't want to be guilty of encouraging the very segregation that is antithetical to this divine goal. At the same time, you have to meet people where they are, and many times, they can be initially reached through the cultural bridge of relational affinity. Are there huge pockets of unchurched bikers in your area? Cowboys? Your Association should vigilantly watch for common interests that can form cultural bridges across which we can carry the Gospel.

The above markers will serve you well for identifying high priority areas for church planting. To successfully multiply the Gospel, you must not only know your message, but also to whom it will be communicated.

2. Church Planter Recruitment and Assessment. Many years ago Kevin Mannoia states that "planter identification is perhaps the most underrated factor in beginning a new church." Thanks to the advent of a myriad of recruitment and assessment tools, this is no longer an entirely true statement. Nevertheless, planter ID and development is a very important aspect to this process.

Of course, identifying church planters typically begins with a thorough assessment. The assessment process utilized by our state convention has been developed over the years by the cooperative efforts of state, Associational and local church partners and as such, is one of the most accurate and contextually applicable processes in North America. Through this process, we are allowed an inside look into the character, gifts, and abilities of potential church planters. At their core, assessments are behaviorally-targeted; meaning that they don't examine hypothetical situations in a planter's life, but instead what he has actually accomplished, and whether those accomplishments and behaviors are reflective of behaviors we know to be present in those who successfully start churches.

There are also very useful assessment tools outside your denominational structure. For example, if you are planting in a highly urbanized area, investment in an Acts29 assessment would be worth your while. This network is governed by guys who are doctrinally sound, but have also demonstrated that they know what they are doing in the city. Similarly, if you are targeting a college campus for a new church, groups like the Aletheia Network will best judge the fitness of a potential planter in that context, because they specialize in planting on University campuses. Additionally, while you are getting to know people in these specialized networks, you increase the chances of finding the right person to start a church in this context, so interacting with people who have a focused passion for certain segments of the population is well-worth your time.

3. Parent/Partner Churches. I came to Maryland in 2005 with a singluar mandate: help lead the churches in our region to plant as many churches as possible. The first year we planted four. But the end of my second year in the field, we had doubled our output to eight. As I stood in front of our Association in annual session that year, 12 churches--one launching on average every two months--made me look really good, and made everyone in that room feel very good. That is, until a year later when almost half of them had failed!

So with the permission of our leadership, I commissioned a team to study our efforts, and when they brought back their conclusions, I honestly wondered whether I would stll have a job! Everything that came out of our office was either already out of business, or was weak and anemic. Thankfully, the response was more complex than a simple suggestion to "fire Joel." Instead, we looked closely at the churches that were still around, healthy and growing. When we did we discovered only one common denominator. Every single one of those churches were launched out of an established church which saw the success or failure of the mission as their own. In other words, when the Association led the way, the result was failure. When local churches led the way with Associational support, the result was strength, health and growth.

As a result of these observations, we enacted guidelines that require the serious investment of a local church before we will "pull the trigger" on any new church start. Aside from the fact that there was something thoroughly Biblical about this move, the practical results have been a joy to watch. Of course, we aren't planting as many churches in a year as we used do, but no church plant launched since 2007 (when we put these new guidelines in place) has yet failed.

I've already spoken at length to this need for sponsor churches, as well as how to involve sponsor churches in an earlier post, so I won't continue to belabor the point here. Still, it bears repeating that without church planting churches, your results will be mediocre at best.

4. Training/Coaching. There is much that could be discussed regarding the needs of church planters in this area. For now, I will simply suggest listening to your church planters and sponsor churches early on, and make determinations relative to ongoing training and coaching on the particular needs of each new church. Generic curricula like NAMB's Basic Training I are fine, but by themselves are not sufficient. "Real Time, In-time" training appropriate to the field is an absolute neccesity, as is utilizing coaching and training partners who know the field your people area in.

Many will notice the conspicuous absence of one very important aspect of any church planting support system in this post: funding. Rest assured, it is not my intention to ignore this critical component and in the process risk all the planters I work with getting angry with me. At the same time, much has been said about this issue over the years, and a myriad of opinions have been offered regarding what is "sufficient." With these facts in mind, I'm actually dedicating the entirety of the next post to this question. So in my next installment, I'll talk at length about a healthy philosophy of church plant funding.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Evangelicals Lost the Gay Marriage Debate

As I write these words, Senate Bill 116 is making its way through both houses of the Maryland legislature. Predictions are that both the Senate and House of Delegates have the votes necessary to send this bill—which effectively legalizes homosexual marriage in my state—to the desk of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has said he will sign it into law. By this summer, Maryland will become the sixth state in the Union to legalize marriage between homosexual partners.

At the same time, evangelicals lost this issue a long time ago. In a recent USA Today article, Tom Krattenmaker astutely compares the current situation to the closing moments of a football game when the opposing team is so far out in front that there is no hope of recovery before the final seconds tick off the clock. Though I disagree with Krattenmaker’s proposal for evangelicals to simply “back off,” he is correct about one thing: Even with the Governor’s signature not already affixed to the bill, we have lost this ball game!

So the question going forward is simple: how did we arrive at this place? And is there a way to return our culture to previous thoughts about this issue when the playing field of dialogue is now so uneven? It is admittedly difficult—perhaps even impossible—to adequately respond in a 5-minute sound bite to why you would oppose two people who love each other being granted the same rights, recognition, and tax breaks as any other married couple. Further complicating matters is the fact that many of us have friends in the homosexual community whom we care about deeply, and on the surface, it just seems heartless to deny them the opportunities available to heterosexual couples.

If you are in favor of homosexual marriage and just read that last paragraph, you might think I’m sympathetic to the plight of a persecuted minority in our country. If you are an evangelical who just read it who thinks I’ve lost my mind, and you are wondering how on earth we ever arrived at this place, then you have stumbled onto my point. What mistakes did we make that have resulted in the current climate?

1. Our Early Treatment of the Homosexual Community. I’m speaking here of two things primarily: mistreatment and stereotyping. Let’s face it. For many decades the sum total of the evangelical church’s response to the homosexual community was “AIDS is God’s judgment on you!” Though we claim our authority is the Bible, we largely ignored what it says about all human beings being created in the image and likeness of God where homosexuals are concerned. As a result, an evangelical church—the one place where a homosexual struggling with his or her sin should have been welcomed—was the one place they avoided like the plague. We looked the other way when homosexuals were denied housing or employment or worse, when they were beaten and killed. We should have been the first to denounce such horrific acts of violence against any human being created in God’s image. Instead, we were largely silent.

Additionally, we tended to stereotype this part of our population as an aggressive minority intent on subjugating our children to sexual perversion of every sort and kind. To be sure, there is an identifiable group among homosexual ranks that walk around naked at parades, seek to radicalize school curriculum, and give support to organizations like NAMBLA. But this group represents less than 10 percent of the homosexual community. Another 20% of this population is represented by men and women who are genuinely struggling with their sexual orientation, believe it is sin, and want to find a way out. The majority in the middle are convinced that they are doing nothing wrong, but have no desire to do anything except live their lives and be left alone. Our problem is that we have treated the entire homosexual population as if they all belonged to category number 1.

These two issues illustrate a sub-human treatment of men and women for whom Jesus died. I understand that this sin begins with “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” (Romans 1:18), but given the way we have communicated our message, is it any wonder they don’t want to listen to us?

2. Our Own Perversion of Marriage: Homosexuals may very well help our society finish off marriage, but they can’t be held responsible for starting this downward slide. That began decades ago, and continues into the present. Within the evangelical church, divorce rates are actually higher than outside Christendom. In addition, our refusal to practice church discipline and uphold the standards of righteousness expected of any follower of Jesus has resulted in rampant and unrepentant fornication and adultery within our own ranks. The Bible is clear regarding sexual sin, but our ambivalence within the church toward heterosexual sin betrays the absence of any moral authority to speak to this issue. Until we start treating heterosexual sin in all its forms within the church the same way we view homosexual sin outside the church, we can never presume the moral high ground. Judgment, the Apostle Peter says, begins at the house of God. (1 Peter 4:17)

3. Our Capitulation to the Idea of Marriage as a “Right.” The homosexual community has been largely successful in couching their agenda in the verbiage of “civil rights,” and the current marriage debate is also housed within this concept. If interracial marriage is permitted, for example, then what is wrong with two men or two women being wed to each other? I appreciate the response to this issue that has been made by my African-American brothers in ministry. They have spoken eloquently to the marked difference that should be noted between skin tone and behavior. At the same time, when discussing marriage, evangelicals have failed to point out that this institution isn’t about “civil rights,” and in fact isn’t about “rights” at all. Yet at some point, we allowed the other side to co-opt the idea that marriage is a right. Rather than speaking to who does and does not have a “right” to marry, evangelicals should point out that in fact, no one has a “right” to marital union. Marriage has historically been viewed as a status of privilege, and this truth is functionally proven by the fact that although a clerk of court may be forced by law to issue a license, no public official—minister, notary public, or judge—is required to perform the ceremony. This is currently true of heterosexual couples. A so-called “right to marriage” is not necessary for equality. Marriage has never been a “right,” even among heterosexual couples. If evangelicals want to turn opinion on this issue, this point must be made clear.

4. We allowed “tolerance” to be confused with “affirmation.” Tolerance, simply defined, is the power that keeps adherents to various points of view from killing each other. It is rooted in the idea that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and describes the endorsement of the ideal of treating each other with dignity and respect, regardless of our differences with each other. But toleration is not the same as affirmation. It is one thing, for example, for our society to “tolerate” an alcoholic by not killing him, getting him treatment when he seeks it, and in general treating him like a human being. But if we were to suddenly hold him up as an example of something healthy in our society, such action would not represent “tolerance.” but “affirmation.”

I’ve been pleased to see legislative and judicial moves away from punitive results for homosexual behavior. Aside from the fact that I think our government has better things to do with its time than lock up consenting adults, the sodomy laws in our country set up a defacto hierarchy of sin whereby heterosexual misconduct was winked at while homosexual sin was worthy of attention by our penal code. Similarly, sexual behavior should, generally speaking, not be an employment issue. Ministerial employment notwithstanding, a homosexual should not be released from his or her employment for their sexual behavior any more than an adulterous husband should be fired for his last out-of-town tryst. Such a posture truly treats all sin equally and does not single out any particular group to be stigmatized. I’m thankful for evangelicals like Rick Warren, who have spoken to this issue with passion not only in our own country, but in other places like Uganda.
But a license to marry is not an extension of “tolerance.” It is instead the granting of societal affirmation. Our culture has historically affirmed marriage between a man and woman because of the inherent benefits this institution provides our society. The economic stability, emotional support, vehicle of sexual expression and ideal environment for childrearing that this man-woman institution has observably produced in our culture has resulted in our nation granting it a status of privilege. When a marriage license is issued, our society is in effect saying “we affirm this union because of the betterment of our society that we know will result.”

So when the homosexual community asks for the “right” to marry, they are asking for much more than tolerance. They are asking for the societal endorsement of their lifestyle. Regardless of whether you believe homosexual behavior to be a sin, the simple fact is that homosexual marriage is without a strong historical precedent and thus, its institutionalization by our government represents a radical approach to social engineering, the results of which will not be tangibly known or experienced for many decades. The “five-minute sound-bite” approach to this issue may make it seem as though the evangelical church is backed into a philosophical corner, but the truth is that the burden of legitimizing the radical redefinition of marriage to include two men or two women rests on those who would like to see homosexual marriage codified into our system of law. Tolerance is one thing. What the homosexual community is asking for is a quite different matter.

Evangelical Christians once spoke to the issue of homosexuality in a world that shared our opinion of the issue. Recent developments have proven that this world is now gone. The question now is how Christians can speak the truth in love in this new environemt. Admittedly, we did not use our cultural influence well when we had it, and our understanding of how to interact with the homosexual community has thankfully evolved. Our understanding of homosexual behavior as sinful must not change, but the way we communicate this truth and encourage dialogue must simultaneously demonstrate a clear compassion, and if neccesary, the willingness to be persecuted ourselves for the sake of those we strongly believe need the Gospel. We need clear and compelling arguments combined with genuine love for our homosexual friends. Anything less, and the "homophobe" label will stick for good, and perhaps deservingly.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Creating a Culture for Planting Churches, Part II

In my last post, I stressed the need for a culture-shift within Associations of churches that results in a high priority on the multiplication of churches. I'd like to continue on that theme today with a couple of additional steps that I think are crucial to developing this kind of atmosphere.

-Don't Give in to Resistant Churches. Changing a culture is a precarious undertaking in any environment, and when you seek the kind of substantive change neccesary for a organization-wide culture shift, it is inevitable that you will run into strong opposition. Baptist Associations are no exception to this reality and in fact, sometimes the opposition in this environment can be worse than in the corporate world.

When trying to create an environment in which new churches can be birthed, you will have churches (and regrettably, you will also have pastors) who, for whatever reason, don't like the new emphasis, don't want it, and will seek to undermine it. You should be nice to them. You should treat them like the brothers and sisters in Christ that they are. You should serve them selflessly as you would any other church in your network. When they call, you should pick up the phone. When they ask for help, you should provide it. But you should never, under any circumstances, allow them to influence this process.

The problem is that most Directors of Missions are like most pastors. We like to be liked, and we truly believe that the best way to facilitate cooperation is sometimes through compromise. The problem with compromise in this area (and I have the personal experience to back up my claim) is if you seek compromise in order to simply placate naysayers, you will accomplish nothing, and regardless of what you do, you won't make them happy anyway.

Think for a moment about how you would counsel a pastor dealing with a similar situation in his church. If there is some grumpy old guy sitting on the back row with arms folded who does nothing but incessantly complain, you would tell that pastor "love him, minister to him, serve him, but do NOT place him in a position of leadership or influence of any kind!" As an Associational leader, you should take the same approach with naysaying churches. When it comes to leading a culture-shift of any kind, applying "consensus leadership" will result in a grand total of nothing, and may even grant the greatest amount of authority to the most carnal congregation in your network. Don't go there!

-Intentionally Mix the Established and Emerging. One of the worst mistakes I’ve seen guys make who are trying to change the culture of their association is that they sequester the church planting types away from the established pastor types. For the most part, this action is unintentional, and occurs through hosting necessary events, training, and gatherings that are exclusively for church planters. And church planters need to learn from each other. But they do NOT need to find themselves totally cut off from the established church world, and especially from older men who have spent decades as pastors and have much wisdom to instill.

Additionally, if the “established” and “emerging” church world stay separated from each other, it becomes much easier to criticize and stereotype each other. The planters view the established guys as old, out of touch, trapped in the 1950s, and resistant to anything innovative. The established guys likewise, tend to view the planters as young, proud, bratty, and maybe even a little heretical. The more you can get these two groups together in the right context and circumstance (NOT a business session!), the better. If I am a pastor, and I have a real-life, flesh and blood church planter in front of me, and I’ve spent time with him, prayed with his wife and played with his kids, its going to be much harder for me to stereotype and criticize. In that same vein, if I’m a young church planter who senses that this older man actually cares about my mission and ministry, I’m much more inclined to slow down and listen and in the process, gain some much needed wisdom.

As a matter of regular practice, when our Association hosts a planter-specific event of any kind, there is always an open invitation issued to our Associational officers. Through getting to know each other in these contexts, the relationship between old and new churches has greatly improved over the past several years, primarily because both sides have learned to look past the style, dress, worship, and ministry model differences, and understand that each is simply trying to make Jesus known in his own context. This helps all sides see that the basis of a church planting culture is not methodological, but theological. It grows out of the healthy soil of a common understanding of who Jesus is, who His church is, and what He has commissioned His church to do. And that theological culture is built, first and foremost, in a relational way. So do everything you can to keep these groups together, not apart.

Taking care to implement these steps will, over time, result in a significant change in how the churches of your Association view church planting. Without that kind of passionate culture of advocacy, you will never produce an environment of church planting churches, no matter how sophisticated your support system.
At the same time, once you have helped create the passion necessary for this culture-shift, you will need to be able to give direction to it, which will require a support system at the Associational level. In the next two posts, I’ll speak to the non-negotiable components of an effective church planting system.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Creating a Culture for Planting Churches, Part I.

My maternal grandfather passed away when I was six years old. Even at that young age, my early experiences with him left an indelibly positive mark on me. Most of our time together was wonderful and usually involved going to baseball games or watching "Gunsmoke" re-runs. But there were a few unpleasant moments in our relationship as well. One of those would happen every time I followed him through his garden--walking barefoot through that rich South Carolina dirt that he had just churned up with his tiller. "Get out of my rows!" he would shout, and in retrospect, he had good reason to be angry. As a farmer, my Pa Pa understood well that no matter how well you farmed, the soil had to be right if you wanted crops. Environment means everything when you are trying to grow a living organism.

Likewise, when associations and networks seek to plant churches, a sufficient support system is invaluable. At the same time, the most sophistocated support system in the world is useless if there is no passion to take advantage of it and no understanding of why it exists. The environment in which the system exists matters, and if the culture within which you are trying to plant churches is not itself permeated by the priority of church planting, the result is usually failure.

So the first issue in ensuring effective church planting in your association or network is not an effective support system, but a passionate church planting culture. In this post, I'll briefly describe the steps in helping cultivate this kind of culture. For a more detailed and video-based description of this process, click here.

So what do I mean by "church planting culture?" Simply put, a church planting culture is an environment within which church planting is a high and non-negotiable priority. And the role of the network leader or Director of Missions is to catalyze the thinking that "we MUST do this . . .or we fail!" If the Baptist Association exists first and foremost as a missions organization (and that statement is a foregone conclusion as far as I'm concerned), and if the Biblically-defined and successful missionary task ALWAYS results in the multiplication of churches (another foregone conclusion, and if you don't agree, you've never read the book of Acts), the only accurate conclusion is that the Association that doesn't actively promote church planting is willfully leaving God's mission incomplete. For some these words may sound harsh, but this is the attitude that will permeate any association that is faithful to its missionary calling. The role of Associational leaders then, is to cultivate this kind of culture. Some simple steps toward this end are:

1. Read Together. Expose yourself, and other key pastors and lay leaders, to resources that reveal church planting as an essential part of the mission of God. Bibliographies abound containing resources like this, and in the past 15 years the increased popularity of church planting has caused those lists to grow exponentially. As you are mining those lists for resources your pastors and leaders will actually read, keep three distinct emphases in mind. First, expose your people to resources that describe, in full, the missionary task as defined in the Bible, which always results in converts, indigenous leaders, and new churches. Second, find resources that speak to the practical components of church planting. Such will give your leadership an initial blueprint of the kind of system that needs to be errected. Finally, expose pastors and laity in your churches to resources that focus on the local church as the primary vehicle for church planting. Repeatedly teach and emphasize that this is THEIR job. If you don't, the best you will get is an Association of well-wishers who hope this new church planting venture works out for you. And while that kind of attitude makes for great job security and probably even extra funding for the mission, it won't create the kind of environment I'm talking about. At the end of the day, local churches need to "own" their own responsibility to plant churches.

I have a few suggestions of where to start with the recommended reading here.

2. Expose the Association to Lostness in Your Area. In short, this means you need to have the statistics, be confident in their accuracy, and be able to translate the implications to your churches.

For example, if you envelop the collective geographic proximity of all 58 of our member churches, there are more than 1 million people living in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. region who have no relationship to Jesus Christ. By contrast, there are approximately 11,000 people worshipping in our churches every Sunday. To reach all of the non-Christians in my area without planting any new churches, our current churches and missions would have to grow, on average, by 17,000 people EACH. Since our largest congregation only runs about 600 on Sunday, and since facilities that can hold tens of thousands of people are at a premium in this area, the only tenable solution is to start new churches, and lots of them. I tell our folks often that if we started 1000 new churches next year, and each grew to 1000 in attendance, we would still not have reached everyone with the Gospel when you factor in projected population growth.

This is the sort of information you must communicate to the churches you serve. What are the demographic indicators in your area? You should know them better than local politicians and the Chamber of Commerce, and you should be able to translate them into the substantiation for new churches.

3. Involve Key Partner Churches. I came to Maryland in 2005 with a singular mandate: to help lead the effort to plant as many churches as possible in my region. The first year our Association planted four churches. By the end of my second year we had planted 12. At the time our Association only consisted of about 40 churches, so a 20% growth rate in one year made me look good, and it made our messengers at our 2006 annual meeting feel good . . .until two years later when roughly half of those churches no longer existed!

In reaction to this, our leadership commissioned a thorough study of our church planting efforts. What we discovered was that every single new church that originated from the Associational office was either already dead, or weak and anemic. Needless to say, I was wondering about my own job security at that point! Thankfully, our leadership also decided to look specifically at the churches that were still alive and growing by making disciples. The one common denominator of each one of these growing church plants was that they were birthed, not out of my office, but out of another local church.

So on the basis of personal experience let me plead with you: don't seek to do this on your own without local churches who are willing to own the process with you! A couple of months ago, we did another five year study. Since 2007, we have operated with the assumption that churches plant churches, and we simply empower their efforts. As a result, our success rate for all churches planted since 2007 is 100%. This sort of success is only realized when the mentality of the churches shifts from "we are helping the Association plant churches" to "we are planting churches and the Association is helping us do it."

If you are in an Association that has not seen a new church in some time and you are working with churches that simply don't know how to do this, keep in mind that your first partner churches don't have to be alligned with your Association. Use Biblically sound, evangelical churches who have planted other churches, and have demonstrated that they know what they are doing to work alongside your churches. The result will be knowledge added to zeal and over time, you will reap great results.

There are other important principles for developing a church planting culture as well, and in my next post, I'll be describing those principles. Then we will move on to describe the essential components of an effective church planting system, and finally, how to ensure an ongoing and scalable strategy for church planting.

Oh, and have I mentioned you can get the video version of these posts here?