On Fundamentally Changing the Expectations of Church-Planting

fish-in-bowlsChurch planting in United States and Canada has been traditionally all about gathering a large crowd, making a big splash in a community and building a building.  Success is measured by how big and how fast.  Though I recognize there is some legitimacy in gathering converts quickly within Christendom parts of America where indeed what we’re doing in church planting is “upgrading” church and making it more relevant for the children of Christian parents who have lost interest in their parents’ form of church. In more and more parts of America and Canada we are no longer converting the children of Christian parents.  There are too few left to convert. We are in essence planting communities in mission. The goal is not making Christianity more relevant to dormant Christians. It is to be a new witness to the Kingdom in a place that lacks that fresh expression. This ‘shift’ fundamentally changes our expectations for what a church plant should look like.

In this regard I find John Howard Yoder’s (RYFC) quote from Theology of Mission(p. 218-19)  helpful

“We do not start by assuming the church must take over the place. We start by assuming the number of believers will be modest and the decision to follow Christ will be a costly one, therefore a decision that not many will make. This does not mean an a priori decision that there should never be a mass movement … It means we do not hang our hopes on strategies of effectiveness of the message getting a wide hearing quickly or gaining support from powerful people.”

In my opinion this humble “minority” posture lies deep within the Anabaptist impulse. It must capture our imagination for a new kind of church planting which the post Christendom parts of N America are in sore need of.  It says church planters:

1.) … shall patiently cultivate relationships as part of our everyday life. We will move to a new place and do what we do: eating together, raising children together, reconciling conflict together, spend meaningful time with the hurting in our neighborhoods together, pray for our lives and the community around us together. We shall do all this not in secret. In so doing we shall be witnesses to the hope that God has come in Christ to restore and reconcile the world to Himself. Out of this we simply share who we are with all the people we come to know. This also means, we shall not barrage the neighborhood with an over-hyped excessively produced program that we bring from somewhere else with alot of money we’ve raised from somewhere else that we then invite the neighborhood into on our terms.

2.) … shall learn and listen carefully to our neighbors learning their stories, their hurts and what their greatest victories and assets are before we proclaim the gospel. It will take us at least a year of doing this before we even know what words make sense to proclaim gospel in this community by the Spirit. We shall not then set up an evangelism program or a video screen to pipe in a version of the gospel that does not arise from this place. We will not assume the way we have received the gospel makes immediate sense to our new neighbors. We want to know them deeply so that the Spirit can give us the words in that space between listener and the “other” to proclaim the gospel afresh and anew and faithfully.

3.) …  shall expect growth but this growth will most probably happen over a very prolonged period of time. This growth will be on God’s terms. It shall be a work of the Spirit not our work. It means we shall be committed to this place for a minimum of ten years (don’t ask me why I choose 10 years). We shall not then assume a cause-effect church growth algorithm which predicts if we do a.) we will always get b.). (I have always joked that such church growth strategies are functional atheist – not needing God for them to work). We shall look at success in terms of how may relationships we have been part of in a neighborhood, how has God used us to form a “space” of His working for the Kingdom in this place.

These are just a few of the ways expectations change when you view church planting in this way. Can you name a few more? Can you name a few “We shall not’s ….”  Let’s work to change and expand imagination for fresh expressions of the gospel.


I’ll be leaving soon for the Ecclesia National Gathering in Chevy Case MD. My tweeting, fb’ing and responses on the blog will be haphazard depending on where and when I can get Wi-fi.on my devices. Hope to see many of you there!

Posted in Church Planting, Cultivating Mission, Incarnational, Neo-Anabaptist, Post-Christendom
13 comments on “On Fundamentally Changing the Expectations of Church-Planting
  1. Great post, totally agree – reposting

  2. Bill says:

    I believe this is what Bridges is doing: bridgesus [dot] org

  3. Peter says:

    This is not only true in church planting in N. America, it’s what we also need in foreign mission field. We need to bring back ‘missional’ to foreign mission. I’m young, immature and still new to mission field (only 2 years in Cambodia) so I can’t say what I see and feel is everything about mission. There are still great missionaries and examples to follow but what I see is the modern mission trend is becoming more “if you build it they will come.” Especially in developing countries where your “dollar” has more value. People are quick to start up programs and buildings that often end up competing with one another. I believe this is happening because many of today’s missionaries are coming from churches that practiced this type of ministry and creating expectation based on “cause-effect church growth logarithm.” North America and places like S. Korea are largest missionary sending country and yet they are the one’s struggling most “modern church.” Being out here God is showing me again the real importance of doing church right. Church is not just a choice of doing mission but it is God’s design for His mission. We need to renew how we start church and when we do I think we have hope on how to renew foreign mission.

  4. Lance Ford says:

    Thanks for this post, Dave. Sharing it with our Forge Tribe.

  5. Scott Eaton says:

    It seems to me that this is not only good for planting a new church, but also a good strategy for bringing an existing church into its missional calling. Not easy, but good and necessary. Agree?

  6. Hey Dave, love this. Could there perhaps be a subpoint in there about establishing a liturgical pattern right away too? In other words, the planting community doesn’t push back so hard on “setting up shop” with a worship service that they fail to worship liturgically together & invite others in as relationships allow? I think we’re on the same page on that, but it maybe deserves a mention.

    Also, when we planted a church in 2008 I just WISH our team had these expectations. That said, a post-Christendom context has a way of forcing you into this posture, so 6 years later we are definitely feeling ya :) .

  7. Dan Steigerwald says:

    We shall not make friendships dependent upon what people do with Jesus, but we shall see longsuffering, patient friend-making within our neighborhoods as consistent with the gospel we seek to embody.

  8. Steve says:

    “We shall not continue to trumpet church plants as great ‘success stories’ because their numbers are large due to cannibalizing other kingdom focused churches.”

  9. Good stuff Dave. I have no doubt this is the direction the church must take as a whole. The practices and rhythms you speak of done as a community of Jesus people cultivate the Kingdom into the hearts of those experiencing from onlookers or outside participant. Living within a local context for a period of time as observers and participants before attempting to proclaim the gospel is much needed. This allows for constructive conversation and more importantly, genuine relationship to be established. Most people I meet peg me as a person who only cares about rescuing them from hell, from the moment we meet. Even after three years of doing life with them in community, it is difficult for them not to assume I am leading them to a prayer of salvation when I speak of God. There is much work to be done in rescuing the gospel from the soterian perspectives left behind by Christendom, particularly that of American revivalism.

    Here is my question though:

    What do we do with the thousand’s, if not millions of Christians who genuinely love the Lord but still live in the Matrix? Is there not a place for what appears to be a Christendom or church growth model that points in the direction of the incarnational/missional community? You stand on the public stage/platform of a blog and preach mission and incarnation to the masses of us listening (thanks for this by the way). Can some not similarly stand as voice crying in the wilderness (of leftover Christendom) pointing, discipling, and empowering them towards these communities you are speaking about? I have been living in one these types of communities for almost five years (I have five years left!). I love them and wouldn’t change living in them for anything in the world, but I don’t see that I would have to leave it in order to be a part of a larger church.


    • I want to add that I am wondering here if it is not possible for new church plants to develop into something that utilizes some of the “church growth” principles to mobilize more incarnational/missional communities. For instance, our community has reproduced into three communities but one of our struggles has been losing people who have be drawn back to Jesus through our community, but then leave for what they see as a more typical church. Read here the contemporary church growth/attractional type church. In this case, would it be wrong to create a church that utilizes some attractional principles?

      Hope this clarifies what I’m asking/saying.

  10. David says:

    Thank you so much! I am an older guy) working with several young couples and singles in Chicago who are doing what you write of. We call it organic, sometimes. But what you have written articulates beautifully our calling.
    They have non-negotiables: Never a salary from the ministry they start and never a building purchased for worship. They have made a 40 year commitment to the city.

  11. Thanks David – great post today (as usual). Agree deeply.

  12. Rusty Campbell says:

    Great post. Thank you for your insights.

    I often see an ‘either / or’ mentality regarding how to do church. I’m all about Organic church planting / growth. And while I really struggle with the large established church that sucks up a ton of resources (i.e. $5k a month in utility bills) I do see Kingdom work being done in those places. In my limited experience and education (4 years in Japan, 2 years in Portugal, several years in the USA, and now 2 years in Ecuador – not to mention extensive travels to several mission points around the globe) I have seen that there are many ways to reach the lost and that there is not one method or program that is infallible. Much depends on the culture, people, and situation. I’ve recently worked with a church plant in Quito, Ecuador with a team of Ecuadorians that were Mature Chrisitans. And while they struggle with ‘thinking outside the box’ they are living and working incarnationaly in a way that I, as a big American gringo, will never be able to do. I purposely stepped out of that work quickly in order to leave the reigns in the hands of those that will be and do as Finch says above. With me there, it becomes more of an ‘Attraction’ rather than ‘Interaction’ model. (It would be different if we had started that work with no believers rather than mature believers.) However, I am planning activities for several local churches, using N. American campaigners, that are ‘Atractional’ in nature but putting the responsibility on the local church to do the hard work of ‘Interacting’ and building relationships with the contacts that are made in their communities. They need to be incarnational in their context. So, it’s not an ‘either / or’ mentality. Paul taught that we should be all things to all people in order to save some or a few. Regardless of context, we find ways, or borrow other’s, to build relationship, to be the crucified hands and feet of Christ, to do what it takes to impact peoples lives.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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