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.
Christians 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.