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.
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 Associational Missionary is to catalyze the thinking that "we MUST do this . . .or we fail!" If networks of churches exist 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.
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 near 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.
*This article is a re-post from a series on the Association and Church Planting, first published in 2011