Church Plants, Concerts & Crowds

I have a friend who is a great musician.  I love hearing his music – I can’t hit play quickly enough when he posts a new YouTube video of his latest experiment.  I’ve been to a couple of his shows, but then one day he carefully said, “It’s been so awesome to have you at my shows. You know…it’s okay if you don’t come anymore.”  You are probably wondering what grievous error I committed – was I too old for the venue?  Did I try to sing along and ruin the mood?  Did I mosh when I should have waved my cell phone?

It’s not because I embarrassed him (I hope), but it’s because he is a disciplined and honest musician with a plan to grow his fan base beyond his friends.  He suggested I stay away because he knew if he kept filling small cafés and pubs with friends, there’d be no room for the venue’s regulars and walk-in traffic, and no way for them to become fans and evangelists for his music.  I respect him for that, even though it means I can only enjoy his latest work through YouTube while he plays for strangers.

I know of too many church planters who fill a room with Christian friends, even fellow planters, and report their “growing” community is a raging success.  The strategy is often to get a critical mass of people in the room, in hopes that visitors will perceive a growing, vibrant community before it really is one.  I believe, from observation and personal experience, that this is a sign that a church plant has rented a room for the familiar and comfortable act of worship much too early.

Why is this a problem?   Followers of Jesus are experienced worshippers, who speak, move and respond in ways a novice would not.  When the majority of those in the room are imported from other communities, any pretence of missional and contextual ministry quickly disappears in favour of familiar forms of church, as all but the most exceptional of our supposed guests of honour find themselves excluded.

rcxltfrontChristians leaders are critical to doing this work, but as those who are committed to serving sacrificially.  With reconnect, launch team members were asked for a high commitment including starting, serving, sharing, and staying.  When Christians attend for other reasons, their expectations for teaching, pastoral care and programming at the level to which they’re accustomed will quickly outclass the needs of any novice or potential followers of Jesus.  A church plant that begins with worship very often draws the disaffected from other churches, rather than helping them work through the frustrations of Christian community.  Few planters will turn such people away, knowing they need to feed their new service with givers, volunteers and easy growth.  Worship attendance is a common, but poor substitute for the kind of daily, ongoing, transformative discipleship that we find in scripture and the early church, and that takes time and focus.  A plant that skips these risky, messy, difficult early steps hasn’t had the opportunity to grow steadily and sustainably by making new followers of Jesus – it’s been given a bucket of Red Bull, and although it’s exciting, an artificial high always wears off in due course.

In musician’s terms, the fan base isn’t growing.  Friends have filled the room, but they already own the album, all want to hang with the artist afterwards, and the musician goes home with a temporary ego boost but no sales.  It’s one thing to invite friends to a special occasion in a larger venue, or to a living room jam session, but this just isn’t a sustainable practice for weekly or monthly gigs – and the same goes for worship services.

So if you’re one of those generous and kind friends who has said, “Let me know when you start services, I’ll come and support you” what I need most are your prayers and encouragement, and for some of you, your offers to join our team and do whatever it takes to serve and disciple others.  We also need your shares, likes and plain English comments on social media, introductions to local friends, and financial support.  Oh, and we need your patience in waiting for that special celebration when our new disciples fill a room and we need a little extra help, or simply want to celebrate the gifts and contributions of our supporters.  Our dream is to focus on the beautiful music of making disciples, enough of them to fill a room all on their own, before we ever rent one to fill for worship.

3 thoughts on “Church Plants, Concerts & Crowds

  1. Graham Cray has also warned of this phenomenon. It is particularly hard to resist the temptation to “start worship” when people are frequently asking, “So, how’s it going? How many are coming to your services?” That’s how we (think we) recognize that evangelism and mission and church are truly happening. Your analogy with your musician friend is a good and telling one. (I may just quote it!) Hang in there, brother!

  2. Hi Ryan,

    Nice post. Let me say off the bat that I am sympathetic to your main complaint: “I know of too many church planters who fill a room with Christian friends, even fellow planters, and report their “growing” community is a raging success.  The strategy is often to get a critical mass of people in the room, in hopes that visitors will perceive a growing, vibrant community before it really is one.” This most often results from a strange combination of our pride, insecurity, and self-consciousness, does it not (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something that requires self-awareness, IMO)?

    And yet, there is a tension here for me that is primarily theological, I suppose. The danger I see, is to make ecclesiology derivative of missiology. Of course, this is precisely the *point* in missional-church-speak, isn’t it? “The church does not have a mission, God has a mission” etc. etc. etc. There is truth to this which I do not mean to deny. The church is birthed out of the mission of Christ Jesus and the outpouring of his Spirit. The church cannot claim “ownership” of mission. However, is there not a sense in which missiology does indeed flow out of ecclesiology? Better yet, can we not say, at the same time as saying much of the above, that ecclesiology *is* missiology (I’ve stolen this from someone, but I can’t remember who!)? This would be to say that when Christians gather to worship the risen Lord Jesus, when the gospel is preached in Word and Sacrament, right here, where a community is gathered around the table of the Lord, right here you have a community which *in this very act is bearing witness to the risen Lord Jesus and the inbreaking of his kingdom*. Is this not the very essence of mission itself? If it is, then I’m not sure how to make sense of mission when it is separated from this very community and becomes the action of individuals.

    So, for example, while I understand what you’re getting at when you make a statement such as, “Worship attendance is a common, but poor substitute for the kind of daily, ongoing, transformative discipleship that we find in scripture and the early church, and that takes time and focus,” I don’t ultimately know how to make sense of this sort of mission. What is this “daily, ongoing, transformative discipleship,” apart from the public gathering of Christians who worship and thus bear witness to the Living God (what you call, “worship attendance”?)? Furthermore, you say that this “risky, messy,” discipleship is what “we find in scripture and the early church,” but is it? I mean, in Acts when the Spirit is poured out upon the disciples, what are they doing? In those early chapters of Acts after the gift of the Spirit, as many are being added to their numbers daily, what are they doing? Are they not devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer? Did the disciples not first go into the synagogues, as Jesus did? Can disciples be formed, and indeed discipled, apart from gathering with others as the church has always done? I just don’t know what this looks like, or what it would mean, for that matter.

    I suppose now is a good time to say I’m not meaning to be a wet-blanket. I think about you and pray for you often. These questions are important ones for me in my own life and ministry, so many thanks for this post, Ryan. May you and your family experience the richness of God’s blessing as you serve him in Ajax.

    Grace and peace.

  3. Hi Turtle, thanks for your comments! I really appreciate you reading this post and leaving such a thoughtful comment. Sorry this took so long. My off the cuff response (which will seem so inadequate compared to your well written piece) follows:

    First, you said, “However, is there not a sense in which missiology does indeed flow out of ecclesiology?”. I think there is. In my own situation, I would say that this particular approach to missiology does flow out of ecclesiology – I find myself working closely with a Bishop to plant a local church, discipled, sent and equipped by the larger body of Christ in this region, diocese and global communion. A particular form of church led to this particular form of mission.

    As for the church as mission – I guess I’d go back to the source of mission, the Trinity itself. We could say the Trinity is a worshipping community on mission, but as a not insignificant part of this mission the second person became incarnate in a particular place and time. Perhaps we can see the mixed economy through this lens. Both inherited and fresh expressions of church, or to use other words, attractional and missional/incarnational forms of church can both be engaged in mission with their respective emphases.

    I wish I had put more thought into that line about “common, but poor substitute” to make it clear that this is a good thing, it’s just not the whole thing. I do think in scripture we see a vibrant and full life of discipleship, that happens to include corporate worship. Many people came to that place through having experienced the love of the church on mission, the love of Christians, the preaching of an apostle, etc. The disciples at Pentecost were already followers of Jesus, in my estimation, and so worship was a natural activity for them. Same thing – the description in Acts of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer describes those who heard Peter’s message and acted in response. They may have stopped to listen because of the disciples’ very unusual and public form of worship, but we can’t ignore the missional part (they were out in public, not in the upper room) and the didactic part (Peter preaching).

    I’m hoping to connect with those who are not followers of Jesus and help them become the fullness of church. I like the fresh expressions definition – that suggests a fresh expression only has the potential to become a mature expression of church, and isn’t there from day one. It’s a process with an end in mind, rather than a complete package. In our case, we’ve tried to bring the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (through group formation) to the public space through technology. As people decide to become followers of Jesus, the next step is to worship him as Lord, and so in the fullness of time we will start to worship together, but it will be the end result of discipleship, rather than the starting point.

    Thanks for your thoughts and challenges, I really appreciate thinking through them like this.

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