Missional and Incarnational Life part 5

Issues of Sustainability

This post is part 5 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. I know there are plenty of important aspects of this conversation that have not been addressed. The reality is that this is meant to be a starting point for the conversation – feel free to bring other important concepts to my attention, and don’t assume because they weren’t mentioned that I’m against them or don’t consider them valid. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation with me! – Bret

There are many obviously “spiritual” and “theological” reasons why an intentional shift toward a more missional and incarnational life of faith (and church planting) is important. I’ve written about some of these and will likely do so again in the future. However, there are also some very practical reasons why this shift must take place.

I don’t really like these terms – practical and theological – as a distinction for this type of conversation; the theology has practical implications and the practical has theological foundations. Yet, with that said, there are things we do because they arise from our theological reflection – whether they seem to “make sense” practically or not. They may seem incredibly counter-cultural, inefficient or impractical (obvious case in point: loving our enemies).

But just because something seems difficult or contrary to the status quo, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have practical benefits.

Conventional wisdom in church planting says that you raise support for 3 years on a declining scale. Several mission agencies and training networks have stated that it takes on average around $250K over 3 years to plant a church. After that a “successful” church will be self-supporting, or at least very close to it.

Implicit in this understanding are some assumptions we should consider more carefully.

Some of the primary church planting models which have been used include the mother/daughter, satellite/multi-site and high-impact “attractional” approaches.

With a mother/daughter model a group of people – could be anywhere from 20 to 200 are “sent” from the mother church (MC). Some may literally relocate to an area, many simply begin meeting with their new group in a new location. This usually includes one or more “professional minister(s)” who served on staff with the original church and remain supported for a time by the MC. Others in leadership may be in the core group.

Whether this group meets in a cafeteria, store front or build their own church building depends on the church.

The satellite and multi-site plants are even more connected to their parent church – sometimes even using video to allow the senior minister at the main campus to continue preaching “at” the new campus.

The high impact model is more entrepreneurial than these previous two types. Typically a team ranging from a couple to several families will study a particular area, determine demographic and cultural issues at work, and go for it. This planning and preparation phase may takes months or even years. Or, in the case of what’s referred to as a “parachute drop,” the team moves into the neighborhood and figures everything out as they begin connecting with the community.

These plants often blanket a community via direct mailings using postal routes and/or zip codes, billboards, door hangers, TV/radio commercials, personal invitations and eye-catching signage. These marketing and advertising strategies tend to communicate those aspects that the new church believe to be most central to their values or most likely to communicate to people in the area. They may focus on a family friendly atmosphere, “relevant” sermons, clearly expressed and expounded Bible teaching, diversity, acceptance or even short worship services (there’s the church in central Texas that advertises an “express worship service” – in and out in 30 minutes).

Sometimes the goal is to draw as large a crowd as possible in hopes that the “seed scattering” will lead to several seeds taking root. These new church plants will often hold preview Sundays – worship gatherings where people (both the core team and folks in the community) can get a feel for how the worship gathering will operate and hopefully generate a buzz about the new church.

Then comes Launch Sunday; the public unveiling where the red carpet is rolled out and everyone is invited. Often friends, local Christians from other churches and even community leaders will be present. The following Sunday’s attendance is typically much lower.

These church plants are typically aware that at any given time 35% of the evangelical church is looking for a new home. Perhaps they haven’t felt plugged in their current church, they’re looking for something with a better children’s ministry, more convenient start times, they just don’t like the preacher…or any number of other reasons.

The new churches are also counting on the presence of a large crowd of people who are openly searching for meaning and purpose and who are willing give God and the church a shot, if they are invited in properly.

I point out these different approaches because they all use some similar methods for judging success in the new church. Attendance, Buildings and Cash to be blunt. This is a blog post, not an exhaustive study of each and every church. I am very willing to concede that there are more than a few notable exceptions. And really I’m not commenting on these to disparage any particular ministry. However, I do believe that in our attempt to address our own shortcomings we (the Church) we must be willing to examine assumptions. In this case I think there are some assumptions regarding success that need to be considered.

The two primary areas of concern for the remainder of this post are 1) who are we “attracting” in these models? And 2) is financial self-sufficiency a valid mark of success?

The high impact and highly advertised approaches seem to assume a certain level of knowledge in the surrounding culture of Jesus and “the” Christian worldview. There is a belief that if things are done with excellence and invitations are offered compellingly then people will come.

In many areas of the country the church is realizing that this simply isn’t the case any longer. There just aren’t as many disenfranchised Christians looking for the perfect church. Here in the southwest there may still be a number of somewhat “churched” folks to attract.

Yet the reality is that as postmodern culture continues to develop, fewer people are going to be aware of Christianity’s message beyond unflattering stereotypes perpetuated in the media.

Yes, there will continue to be people searching for meaning and purpose; I’m counting on it! Increasingly however, these folks are NOT looking to the Church to help them sort through such issues. In effect, churches that continue to focus on inviting people to come to a program, even church plants, are not functioning as missionaries sent out so much as embassies inviting like minded people to find sanctuary. Some will come, drawn by the hope of refuge and many more will warily keep their distance.

Many of these churches will proclaim how welcoming and receptive a congregation they are. I recently read a comment to the effect of, “Of course you’re welcoming of those who choose to show up to your turf on your terms.” A little harsh, but…

Even in a new church plant it is possible to quickly find that the “new converts” were recently converts at another church and you haven’t had a conversation with a real live non-Christian in months. The question that must be answered honestly is, Are we okay with that?

Also implicit here is an assumption that to be faithful and successful, rapid conversion of people who will tithe will take place.

The missional and incarnational mindset is different. Admittedly, the lack of emphasis on marketing and advertising means that the crowd of Christians seeking a new church will remain largely “untapped.” Also there is the possibility of simply not connecting with anyone at all. We’ve been used to waiting for people to come to us. And when they aren’t simply wandering in the door we may wonder what we’re supposed to do! (This isn’t to say that a missional community will never engage in “advertising.” The difference is that the emphasis has shifted from blanket invitations to “come to us,” to a commitment to an incarnational presence in the community – “we’ll come to you.”)

A personal, out-in-the-community approach gives us opportunity to engage the vast number of people who aren’t looking for a church and wouldn’t show up no matter how awesome the advertising.

Some of these people are never going to be interested in following Jesus, but many others have simply never been introduced by a person actively following Jesus themselves. Many people have heard a gospel presentation and been treated as a project or potential conquest, but never listened to or valued as an actual person.
This takes longer. There is no substitute for time when it comes to developing relationships.

For instance, I can’t roll out impressive numbers of conversions that have occurred in our community over the past twelve months. But, I can introduce you to no fewer than 20 non-Christians with whom I’ve developed an initial friendship. I can tell you stories of a half a dozen folks who a year ago were either antagonistic or ambivalent towards God, church or Christians and who today are engaging in overt spiritual conversations, sharing meals with our families and participating in community life. I can tell you great stories of community life developing in Shenandoah specifically because of members of that house church.

An incarnational approach also requires considerably less money to sustain. With the primary emphasis on communal life and influencing our neighborhoods through presence rather than marketing, many of the expenses normally incurred are avoided. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any expenses; young churches that choose to have a gathering beyond living rooms and Starbucks will probably need financial assistance, especially early on.

However, putting together a business proposal for a 3 year path to self sufficiency may be tough. On the one hand, many of these folks will strongly resist because the professionalization and business model are on the whole being critiqued heavily both by those outside the church and by missionally minded disciples.

Often these churches are going to be connecting with the poor and oppressed in our society – you know, the sinners Jesus spent so much time with. Taking up a collection here is a whole different situation than in a traditional church where that same offering plate may serve as the primary connection to the poor for most people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still do it, but these people are less likely to give money just because someone in leadership tells them they have to. I’ve found that these people are often quite generous, but they are skeptical about giving to prop up an institution or to cover administrative costs. They are however, very quick to give up what they have to serve the poor (even if they fit that description themselves) or to address a tangible need in their community.

Many local church planters will find it necessary to be bi-vocational or even fully supported by “secular” employment. This means that traditional expectations on the minister’s time must be amended. (2013 update – at the time this was written, I had no idea just how significant this statement would be. I still believe that the bi-vocational approach will be necessary in many instances, but it WILL NOT WORK if we do not RADICALLY reimagine the role of the “professional minister”…which we need to do anyway.)

In this setting it makes sense for a church planter to obtain employment near his and/or her home and invest their time and energy in connecting with their community.

Those who serve in a more Pauline way (moving around working with people in different locations, prayerfully engaging “people of peace” and releasing them to serve as church planters in their neighborhood) may have a harder time supporting themselves…finding a “2nd job” that is flexible enough takes a lot of creativity. Even so, few of us are likely to find that the church plants and communities we are investing in are going to be in a position to support us financially any time soon…if ever.

Personally, I have been supported as a missionary by a group of individuals and one congregation. I am trying to get myself to the point where I’m mostly self-supporting, but its going to take a couple more years. We are dependent on God and His people to support us as we continue to pour ourselves out for others.

In the long run I believe that the church in the U.S. is going to need to be more mobile, less top-heavy and able to operate with fewer financial obligations. The missional and incarnational mindset allows for this and is, I believe, therefore a more sustainable model financially.

This model is very counter-cultural. There is constant pressure – primarily from Christians – to conform to a more status-quo, highly programmed and polished approach.

Those who are able to resist that temptation will be in place to experience amazing development of authentic community with people whom are typically never encountered in a Christian church.


Posted on October 30, 2009, in church planting, incarnational, Missional, Missional church, missional community, missional living. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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