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.

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