There. I've said it.
Church planting is a big part of our mission here, one that we've spent a lot of time doing. So, you would think I would have the process all worked out. And yet, I still don't get it. Why one church plant thrives while a different one fails to survive boggles my mind. There have been times when I've pointed to positive signs in a new church plant, feeling confident that it would take off and grow...only to find it fizzle out a short time later. And then in other villages, churches have begun in ways so precarious that I've assumed there'd be no way they would make it. But to my surprise and joy, they've continued to stick it out.
The main factor in the establishment of a church is certainly the Holy Spirit. But beyond that there are a host of factors involved in whether a church plant makes it over the long haul. There are countless variables that affect the long-term sustainability of a church. And most of them are way beyond my control.
There's a village in the district of Chiure that has a solid church. They have a good leader, they have young and old members, and they built a sturdy church building...but their village is slowly dying. People are moving away to bigger villages along the main road - villages that have schools. These are sociological factors that none of us predicted. One regional leader told me that in five years this village, and by extension it's church, will probably be no more.
A few weeks ago, my friend Havara passed away. The church in Ncororo had been meeting at his house. This Sunday, his widow told us that she was moving to the city to be close to family. So now this small house church has lost two of its most stable members. Will anyone step up and lead this body of believers?
Even when I discuss this topic with Mozambican church leaders, people who have planted and led faithfully the body of Christ for years, at some point eventually we all throw up our hands. There are too many variables. Success in church planting is a mystery.
Trying to get a handle on this topic takes me back to classes in college - not classes on evangelism and church planting - but my business classes in economics.
I remember taking Microeconomics. Now here's a class that makes sense. We looked at finances on a small level and how faithful management of resources is a good indicator of success. We named good practices and habits that help individuals or organizations be good stewards.
But Macroeconomics was a different story. In this one we tried to understand how complex industries and national economies functioned. I left that class under the impression that no one really understands macroeconomics. While most people could grasp economics on a micro level, I came away convinced that only a select few would even come close to being able to consistently predict economic trends on a macro level.
So this is the rubric I've been using lately to help me understand the complexities of church planting - Disciple-Making is to Church planting what Microeconomics is to Macroeconomics. Or if we put it in the form of an analogy on the SAT test -
Disciple Making : Church Planting :: Microeconomics : Macroeconomics
Making disciples is what we've all been commissioned by Jesus to do (Matthew 28). It is the micro level of discipleship. We are all called to replicate ourselves and pass on the passions, principles and practices that had been entrusted to us to the people in our sphere of influence.
But, church planting is the outworking of disciple-making on a macro level. It is the union of followers of Jesus in a specific time and place. Therefore, it is understandable that not everyone may be called to plant a church, but all of us are called to make disciples. We may never understand the "macroeconomics" involved in planting a church, but all of us should be able to "get" Kingdom work on the micro level, making disciples - that's the commission that Jesus gave us.
So, while it is frustrating and depressing to think about churches that I have watered that may eventually cease to exist, James Bryan Smith offers this helpful perspective.
"Churches come and go, but the kingdom is eternal. Their life, power and reason for existence are in the Kingdom of God, and it will never falter...Communities become other-centered when they are steeped in the narrative of the kingdom of God. They know that their community is an outpost of the kingdom of God, a place where grace is spoken and lived for as long as it is needed. The value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love. The success of a church is not in its size but in its service to the people and the community." (The Good and Beautiful Community, p. 72-73)
I appreciate this quote because it reminds us to focus on the big picture as well as on things that we can actually control. God's kingdom is the big picture. When we apply that wide angle lens, it helps us not give in to despair when pieces of the picture may not be progressing as we would like. And Smith also reminds us to focus on what we can control. We cannot control how large a church gets or how long a church exists. But what we can control is the amount of love and service we pour out to those around us. We can't control the macro, all that we can control is what we do at the micro level.
It is certainly good to study church planting and adapt best principles and practices, but we will never be able fully wrap our minds around discipleship at this macro level. My conviction is that all of us who involve ourselves in church planting will eventually come to the point of throwing up our hands. Hopefully, though, when we throw up our hands, it will not be in a spirit of frustration or as an indication that we've given up. Ideally, when we come to the end of our own understanding of church planting and we throw up our hands - we'll throw them up in worship. Celebrating the mystery and giving all our confusion and amazement to the One who reigns over all.
May we be a people who faithfully live out the Kingdom life (even if we don't understand it!) on the micro and macro levels.
Grace and Peace,