The First Year - Adding to the Team
How to Create a Big, Successful, Youthful Church
As soon as it was confirmed that Ian and Sarah would be moving to Stockethill, they began seek people to go with them.
They went to friends and acquaintances, and friends of friends, seeking people who could provide the diversity of gifts they thought necessary in order to create a new Christian community. Having this critical mass of people was a deeply attractive idea. Ian and Sarah were aware that there were many tasks that needed doing, in many of which they were not gifted. Having a core team who already knew what a good church looked like would mean that new converts who entered the church could quickly see the patterns of life that Jesus had set down, modelled in the Christian community and so be able to themselves to follow them. How could they worship, evangelise, disciple, care and share before others, without people to do it?
But although some considered it, only two came and only one stayed. As it turned out, though, Gail’s contribution to the planting of the church was immense.
The focus on building the team further did not end after the arrival in Stockethill. After realising that friends and family were not going to join them, the team spent significant time trying to attract people using other methods. ‘Frontline Stockethill’ was to be a year long discipleship, mentoring, missionary course. Contributors would for a year work in the parish, as a practical placement, and receive regular training. People would learn in Stockehtill, work there and then take their expertise back to their local settings. Publicity was created and distributed, but no one came.
After ten months, the fourth member of the team left the church plant, having experienced a conversion away from Christianity. The decision must have been painful for all. Friendships had been formed. Ian had preached and taught for all that time, to what effect? Sarah had been involved in a discipleship relationship with the fourth member. None of the team were able to answer the questions of faith that were presented for reasons for leaving.
For Ian, this seemed to lead to a crisis of confidence. Questions were beginning to be asked from outside the parish in the church, ten months had passed with little apparent public development of the church. No one had come to faith, and it felt as though the team were not creating the type relationships in the community that could feasibly lead to new faith.
Despairing, on his knees, Ian prayed for the church to be sent one person from the parish. That afternoon, the prayer was answered. A phone rang. A man call Neil Haye, said, ‘Hello, my name’s Neil, I live in Stockethill and I want to join your church’.
The prospect of gathering a large and like-minded team to plant a church is attractive, and without doubt could be effective in its own way, particularly for replicating an already existing pattern of ministry in a new place. In the case of Stockethill, however, the idea died only slowly.
Instead, despite the team’s hopes, what they came to appreciate was the importance of calling. For the long-haul journey of creating a local church, what was most needed was a calling. This is not to say, that everyone who came acknowledged that God was calling them to a three-to-five year commitment, but rather that in the end God provided the diversity that was needed, even if it was for sometime not fully appreciated and even if the team continued to feel their own inadequacies.
Without suggesting that such small teams are God’s plan for all church plants, we can at least point out that in this case the size of the team created an intimacy and shared vision that otherwise might have been more difficult to hold. It was also the case that the diversity in the team proved important. The fact that the team had to come to a consensus over the value and nature of charismatic ministry contributed to the creation of a self-aware attitude amongst the team. If the team itself had internally to breach its own barriers, the church that would grow from it would better prepared to go question assumptions and to embrace those who were different. The alternative might well be vibrant but might also have little connection with the people around them.
In summary, it proved more important to have the right people than a lot of people. And further, these ‘right’ people were not all the same. Having to work through diversity in the church planting team equipped the church to be open, however imperfectly, to the local community. The team was to prove essential, particularly in protecting Ian and Sarah from shouldering the burden of leadership with their marriage. And this team was to prove the nucleus of the future church, but the actual team they found themselves in was of the kind for which they had initially hoped.
Reflection on Prayer
The phone-call from Neil was a turning point for the church plant. It came soon after a moment of desperate prayer. Is this something church planters can learn from? We could draw a simple lesson about the importance of prayer. We could reflect on how it can sometimes feel in discussions about church planting that technical questions about management, sociology, psychology and demographics come to dominate and that the language of prayer, worship and witness can come to seem of secondary importance. There is more to be said here, though, before getting to these generalities.
Ian’s prayer for a member of the local community to join the church was surely not unique. There had been many prayers made before that moment by each member of the team that had not been answered. Did the answer come because this was a moment of new desperation, of dependence of God? Possibly, but we certainly should be careful not think that God answers our prayers when we pray with greater angst.
Is it more helpful to think of the prayer of the church planter as but one of many acts that make up a life, to be led in the light of and in conformity to the perfect human Jesus Christ? Christ’s life in all its fullness is paradoxically best described by the way of the cross. Fullness of life is found through death. If the church planter’s life is to follow the pattern laid down by Christ – however falteringly – then when we begin to talk about prayer and persistence in prayer in church planting we may begin to see that answers to prayer are no quick or easy route to success. Persistence in prayer in church planting (Luke 18:1) may well be a route to self-emptying sacrifice. Waiting for an answer to our prayers as church planters, waiting with faith in God’s fatherly goodness and love, may test our human resources to their limit and beyond. As church planters we should take both God’s promises of life and the potential cost of being adopted as his child, conformed to his Son, with equal seriousness.
This all has wider consequences for how we judge new church projects. In our search for ‘the answer’ to the Church’s current maladies, are church planters and their supervisors able to recognise that for a faithful, praying team sometimes ‘success’ may come through failure?