Monday, May 16, 2011

church planting expectations

Mikey Lynch has an interesting link to a talk by Al Barth on church planting in European cities. Mikey makes this comment at the end:

Al Barth admits that most of the church planting work they are involved in is much smaller and slower. Many of their church plants, even in NYC are more like 80-180 people, after 5 years. Nevertheless, we still must stretch and aim higher and more boldly, resisting the urge to pessimism and resignation.

Here's my question. What does it means to 'aim high and more boldly'?

I've heard some high and bold dreams. A couple of keen church planters I know of have spoken of their aims to have 100 people at the end of year one, 200 at end of year two... But how helpful is this? When you've been so vocally bold about what's going to happen, how do you cope with it when things don't go your way? When after 12 months you've got very little to show for your efforts? Despair? Depression? Anger?

It's God who gives the growth. There is a point where growth projections are presumptuous - telling God what he is going to do. He may give your congregation growth, he may not. You may do everything right - plant good quality seed and water diligently - but God may withhold growth. Or he may give growth to someone you think doesn't deserve it. That's his choice.

I care about the gospel going out. But I fear for a generation of church planters who in their zeal for the gospel may have unrealistic expectations. Ministry is long and hard and exposes all our weaknesses.

So how do we aim 'higher and boldly, resisting the urge to pessimism and resignation' while keeping our feet on the ground and our pride in check? How do we trust that God will build his church (like he's said he will) while remembering that he hasn't promised to build it in my patch or through me?



  1. I heartily agree with you. I always cringe when people talk about what programs they're going to pursue to make the church grow. Can anyone say James 4:13-16?

  2. I like it when people talk about prayers, not visions, that they have for the church. It's a simple language change, but reminds me that God gives the growth, not our plans.

  3. Hi Simone,

    I read the last paragraph of the post you link to as being Al Barth's comments, not Mikey Lynch's. And I assumed that the idea that we would be resigned and pessimistic with 80-180 people after five years was what Mikey was referring to as a "funny cross-cultural moment". In which case I wonder if the idea of setting big goals for church membership may not be as common in Australia as overseas.

    But anyway, I agree that it is God who gives the growth, which makes me wonder if we should be setting any goals for numbers at all, large or small.

  4. Hi Simone, thanks for the post and the thoughts.

    - The paragraph was me paraphrasing Al Barth, Caroline is right there. But it wasn't this part in particular that I was calling the 'funny cross-cultural moment'.

    - I agree that idealism, presumptuousness and ambition can be very painful, disappointing and destructive. That is not limited to church growth or church planting - the same hopes we might have for triumph over a particular sin, a happy marriage or a Christian to persevere to the last day are all vulnerable to the same idealism, presumptuousness and ambition.

    - I think the problem is greater when it is naive. Some growth projections are wrong because their too optimistic.

  5. One the other side:

    - I think growth projections do have their (albeit limited) place, as much as plans to grow in godliness or see someone get involved in more ministry.

    - Also, I think what Al Barth is trying to wrestle with here is that tension between arrogance and pessimism. It is this tension between trusting in God and crying out to him - this content discontent - that we must live in.

    - So a resigned, complacent ministry is as presumptuous as a ambitious one, just in different ways.

    - The key is: can I be content with little, while still praying for much? I think that is possible. I have definitely learned it in my own (sometimes painful and disappointing) ministry life.

  6. Mikey - Yes. I did misunderstand you. Sorry.

    Contented discontent is a hard line to walk. So easy to fall off one way or the other. Will pray we all learn it.

  7. I wonder if there's a difference between goals and expectations. A goal can shape your behavior by affecting the decisions you make about your priorities and time.

    If my goal is to practice the piano I'll make one set of decisions.

    If my goal is to learn to play the piano I'll make a slightly different set.

    If my goal is to become a world class pianist I'll make a very different set of decisions.

    If, at *cough cough* years of age I actually expect to become a world class pianist then that's something different again...

    So does God giving the growth mean that we shouldn't set goals and make decisions accordingly? Or does it affect our expectations? Or something else still?

  8. Mark - I'm good with goals. I'm not good with ambition masquerading as faith.

    You've got 3 people now. Stop telling everyone you are going to have 200 people soon.

  9. I'm not certain that I have understood this post.

    First, I think that church growth is important. Second, if our church isn't growing, our prayers should not be for more people to come along, but for God to help us to adapt and change our ideas,attitudes and practices so that the church can become a group to which people want to belong. After all, God does give the growth, but doesn't he also work through the hands of his people?

  10. I like that, Narelle. Because my problem with a lot of church growth stuff is that it seems to focus on the easily measurable (quantity) not those things that are part of 'growth' as God's people but harder to measure (quality). I've been part of a growing church for a while now and while I am really grateful for growing numbers, there is a real cost to that kind of growth - strained relationships, leaders burning out, functioning in survival mode, a loss of pastoral care. I want lots of people to become Christians, but frankly, I don't want lots of people coming to my church without the structures and maturity to welcome and disciple them. So I want to pray that God will grow us as he sees fit and work to do the things that promote growth in all areas of our communal life.

  11. Joanna raises a good point - I think that God is more concerned for edification and sanctification church growth rather than people numbers growth.

    If we get good relationships in place (people-God and people-people), numbers will often follow as people are attracted to a welcoming church family - that's why we have joined various churches when we've moved.

  12. ... all this is still true. And yet just because numbers growth is *relatively* unimportant it still has a place.

    For example, getting good grades as school is relatively unimportant, but I will put a fair bit of energy into helping my kids get good marks, while never letting them think this is the most important thing in life.