Barriers for church planting and growth

We shall note here some realities that can block the development of strategies for the planting and growth of local churches.  Such realities must be evaluated in each context and I suggest here a ministerial self-examination if you may be involved in a vision of CP or growth of a local church.

Giantism without mobility

Dick Scoggings,  a consultant for the development of CP teams of Pioneers Mission and various other organizations states that gigantism precedes extinction in the animal world and that this phenomenon can be also observed in the dynamic and growth of churches.  In this case, it can be observed that churches and missionary movements, large and overweight, tend to lose the ability to reproduce themselves, especially when the mass movement depends on a few people, in other words, when there is unhealthy centralization.  In large healthy churches some solutions for this natural barrier to growth have been the development of small groups meeting in homes, or even the reproduction of spontaneous and selected congregations from the mother church.  Such solutions come from the idea that churches, as centralized, complex and large missionary movements, lose the multiplying factor when not associated to intentional forms of reproduction.

Ariovaldo Ramos in his book Nossa Igreja Brasileira  states that ‘Jesus did not order us to be a church that grows, but that appears’, so ‘let you light shine before men.’ In this provocative way Ariovaldo calls our attention to the mission of the church and the development of false models of the signs of the Kingdom, and warns us against exchanging maturity for growth.

Gigantism is a phenomenon that can take hold of churches of 300 members as much as those of 30,000. This occurs when a local church creates a too heavy organizational structure that blocks it from reaching out and reproduce.  All the energy, financial resources, time and resolution of conflicts is spent meeting the demands of its own membership, leaving little or nothing for the streets where the lost are.

Centralization and elitism of the leaders

Centralization of the clergy has been, in the history of the church, a consequence of its elitism.  The development of the elite clergy was formalized by the Council of Nicea in 325. In this way the elements of the truth began to be manipulated by a few in the conduction of many. This involved the reading and preaching of the Word, the liturgy of the services, the sacraments and also the spiritual legitimacy in the eyes of the people.  In contrast in the first century the leaders incarnated the character of servants.  The apostles served the Church with the teaching of the Word and the deacons served at tables so that the apostles were free to fulfill their ministry. In other words, the church leadership in general had its eyes focused on the service to which it had been called by God to be accomplished.

 Hosius of Cordoba, 256-357, ‘Father’ of the Spanish Church and adviser to Constantine, in the Council of the 4th century defended and praised what had happened for sometime in various regions where Christianity was established: a transformation of the servile clergy in a clergy to be served.  The metamorphosis of the ecclesiastical leaders, who before had been called to serve God in the Church, now had organized the churches in such way that all the existence, organization, resources and vocations orbited around them.  

In our days also the evangelical church feels a strong tendency for the leadership centralization and de development of elitist leaders.  If on one side this elitism is a result of the attitude in the church to mystify and detach its leaders as special beings, above normality, on the other hand it is a result also of the deceitful heart of the very leader that seeks for himself a position in which he might be served, admired and followed without question.  It is something that is born in the heart and the result of arrogance.  One way to work against this self-centered posture is for us to put our hearts before the Lord in prayer and meditation on the Word daily. In his talk ‘Pastoring in the middle of chaos’  Ricardo Agreste  challenges us as pastors, for us to serve the Kingdom and not ourselves.  And for us to position ourselves as servants and be united to Christ, who teaches us the way.  He says that ‘according to how we pray, we gain sensitivity to perceive what God is doing in our own lives . . .  The prayer, different from many contemporary practices, makes us more ready to move with God and trust in what He is doing.’

The lay force, the church in general, when awakened, mobilized and trained in the Word, is able to multiply in high percentages the evangelization input in a project of local CP. It is, however, essential, that the church planter do not stand as a leader to be served. Doing that, not only his heart will be open for the enemy’s guidance, as well as there will be no servants among his disciples.  All of them will be willing to be like him, a leader who is always served.

Absence of physical and facilitating logistic structure for growth

There are two extremes when we think of the structure of church buildings in the life of a local church.  The first is the over valuing of its existence, form, style, position and comfort.  The second is the devaluing of its use.  A community, for a growth under normal conditions, needs an adequate environment that means space, access and location.  These three elements provide a good environment for the teaching of the Word, development of activities together with opportunity for fellowship and worship as well as the possibilities of involvement in other parallel initiatives such as health and education.

I believe we must invest in a space where the church can meet, evaluating it as an adequate environment for the present life of the church as well as for its future goals.  So, if a local church shares the vision to bless and influence the local society with a school with a Christian orientation, it is necessary that it plan an adequate church building and space for such activities.  We live in a time of under-used church buildings. Huge buildings used only 3 or 4 times per week, for short meetings.

In North America it is not uncommon for us to find various churches sharing the same church building at different times for their meetings, making more use of the physical structure and creating conditions for investment in other areas such as missions and relevant social work.  In Nigeria local churches arose invariably in state schools, loaned by the government at the weekends so that a new church could concentrate its resources in people and not on construction.  The house churches of North India were able to have a rapid CP growth (10,000 house churches were planted in North India in the last years) where 3 or 4 families meet in each house to worship God and study His Word. This practical structural strategy minimized the persecution suffered provoked by church buildings and allowed a growth that would be impossible if it had required the construction on a large scale of church buildings.  In Geneva at the Reformation by Calvin the schools were organized at the side of the churches and a centralized administration ran them.  The church buildings and halls of the Korean Calvary Church are used for psychological and medical clinics, primary school and teacher training.

The structure for the birth and growth of a local church must be seen from the vision for the present ministry. At the moment we are constructing an Indian church in the small town of Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, Amazon, Brazil.  The vision of the ministry, led by the missionaries Jaime and Cleide Nascimento, is to concentrate on the Bible teaching of small children.  For this, they have planned a church building that gives space to children and provides everything for their wellbeing.  This building is of timber construction with a palm leaf roof which is adequate for the vision and sheltered place for the children.  

The influence of business in a CP process is a growing emphasis on the organization of the churches from the point of view of good management of persons, structure and finances. Very often it loses the focus on the Word, prayer, worship fellowship and evangelism and gives attention purely to the structure that promotes well-being and entertainment.

There are clear differences between a director, a manager and a pastor.  While the first makes the institution work for himself and others around him, the second makes the institution to work for the good of itself, its valuation and distinction in relation to other companies.  However a pastor leads the church of God to desire God, to learn the Word of God and live to the glory of God. The focus of the pastor in his ministry is not on to the very church, its visible results, its organization and success compared to other churches, but the consciousness that, as pastor, he leads the flock to serve the Lord Jesus.

Sometimes we may forget that the desire of Christ is to have a Church that knows Him and follows Him. And for this the essential elements for the birth of a local church are not able to be defined by the concepts of market, consumption, quantitative success and projection of means, but by the spiritual maturity among the people, by their love of the Word, by following Christ.

The management of a church project can solve many social and human problems and contribute to the development of pro-active habits.  However only the study of the Word will mature the people and make them be more like Jesus.

The loss of evangelizing habit

Normally a new church, as well as its planter, has an evangelizing habit until it reaches around 200 members.  With such a membership it is possible to support the church and with the use of its human and financial resources to be able to define the physical structure that meets the needs of the group, as well as have sufficient believers to provide a local leadership. This is normally a dangerous point: the loss of the evangelizing habit.

In a missionary context, where churches are not planted yet, something happens normally after the 4th year on the field. Missionaries tend to adjust themselves in the environment in such way other activities will demand most of all their time and energy. Few missionaries continue to do evangelism, in an abundant way, after the 4th year on the field. Normally those are the ones who plant churches.

In Canada many church buildings are on sale and local missiologists note this phenomenon with interest.  Toronto, a city that had the greatest incidence of evangelical churches per person 50 years ago has become the city with one of the lowest incidence of churches that are still alive. Many factors contributed. Probably very few Canadian churches evangelize their own people, and very few Canadian churches evangelize their own families who attend their services.  The Methodist Church of High Park, one of the Christian communities in Toronto, did not give priority to evangelism some decades ago, when it had 3,000 members. Today this church does not exist anymore and its building is for sale. It is just an example that could happen anywhere, in any country. Without evangelism, sooner or later, the local church may die.

In their book How People Grow,  Cloud and Townsend throw light on the process of the growth of a local church. One of the distinguishing factors is the continuity of evangelization and discipleship.  We must understand that local church have a natural tendency to diminish.  It consists of people who die, move from their house or leave for other congregations. This factor, even in countries with high birth rates, is greater than the natural growth, linked to the growth of families in the church.  With the new phenomenon of floating members the tendency is to substitute the long term commitment to a local church for a growing tendency to attend and participate in various churches.  If a local church does not continue to evangelize and disciple, within a certain time, it will probably die.  

Many motives were given for the death of a large part of the European Protestant Church, after experiencing many revivals and being greatly used by God to send missionaries and church planters to a large part of the world.  One of the more empirical motives for this was the chilling and death by the decline of evangelism.  The Church that exists today in Europe is a reflection of this, for it faces great difficulties to express and present Jesus to those around it. This is because, as we evangelize, we not only communicate Christ to others, allowing the church to grow and mature, but evangelism also has the effect of doctrinal and spiritual reaffirmation.  We are reminded of the love and power of God, the sacrifice of Christ, the work of the Spirit convincing us of sin, and of the new birth in the Lord Jesus.

Absence of planning, goals and organization

Strategic planning helps us to define our goals, motives, strategies and methods. Planning is a very important tool in the hands of a church planter, or a CP team.

 There is a vast amount of material written about the organizing processes for implementing a vision.  I would like to share some steps that we have used in our ministry to help those in need to work on strategic planning.

Vision. There is no sense to develop a plan without a defined vision. The vision determines the direction, the price to pay, the importance of the task and its relevance.  In 2001 when we were challenged to start a missionary team in the Brazilian Amazon we took the necessary steps to conclude the remaining projects in Ghana where we worked.  In 2002 we made the first surveys in the Amazon and I remember the impact in our lives of so many unreached tribes we met. It was during that time the vision was formed in a more applicable way. You may have the concept in your heart of reaching the unreached, but it is necessary that the unreached become faces and names for you to have a clear vision for CP.

The vision is what you want to see in the future. Perhaps it is a town with small local churches adoring the name of Jesus; or a mature Christian leadership in the country where you serve; of a united team working together in certain area. Pray for a vision defined by God.  Seek from the Lord His vision for your ministry.

Let me mention some possible organizational steps.

1.    First it is necessary to a defined a vision that shows us the direction.
2.    With this vision well defined in mind (and it is good to write it down) the goals are born.  
3.    The strategies are the methods to achieve a goal.  
4.    The methods are the tools with which we apply the strategies.
5.    The activities are the actions, using the methods, under certain strategic definition, to reach a goal and, finally, to see the vision fulfilled.

At this point it is possible to write out the project, dividing it into phases and propose a chronogram.

A CP project may have:

1.    Introduction (Presentation of the vision)
2.    Problematic (Presentation of the challenge with some details)
3.    Sociocultural description (Characteristics of the group or area)
4.    Justification. (Why one or more churches should be planted in this place among this group?)
5.    Church planter profile (the person, or team, who plant to plant churches in the mentioned context)
6.    General goals (The major ones)
7.    Specific goals (The specific ones, with important details)
8.    Strategies (to reach the specific and general goals)
9.    Methods (to be used according to the mentioned strategies)
10.    Activities (a list of fixed and punctual activities, under the methods mentioned)
11.     Phases of the projects and a chronogram of activities in each phase.
12.     Periods of re-evaluation.
13.     Conclusion.

I perceive, however, that the existence of a project with a defined vision, goals, strategies, methods and activities is not sufficient to keep us organized in the process to plant churches.  It is necessary that the church planter have also a good personal organization.  I know of brilliant projects with clear visions and excellent proposals that never were implemented because of the lack of personal organization of the one who was in charge of the activities.

It is imperative the church planter understands, very well, the CP project that he is involved with.
He needs to maintain a list of activities linked with this project, in small details.
He needs to register those activities with the results and important considerations.

Personally I work with four lists: The permanent (that contains activities or ‘dreams’ of medium to long term); the present (that contains activities for development of projects with which I am involved); the  monthly (that selects from the present the activities to be developed that month); the weekly (that are to do that week).  It is necessary always to revise the permanent and synchronize well the other three.

A diary is also another form to organize your time and activities. There are people who don’t like to register anything, and others who love it. It is important that you use a system that helps you to know what you must do, with what priority and when.

I imagine the church planter as a person that has in the heart a defined vision from the Lord, who has in mind the strategies and constantly thinking about the importance of each one. This church planter is not recluse, but among the people.  At home he has a diary and an archive,  he organizes his project in a way to always know how to pray, to think on the next step and to evaluate the progress.  In his mouth is the Gospel.  He does not cease to speak of Christ in any opportunity he has. He also creates opportunities when they don’t appear by themselves.  Even when silent he must try to influence those with his life. If he works in a team he must keep the balance between the vision and the team.  The vision defines the goals but it is necessary to know his team, its capacity and limitations, to plan viable strategies.  He prays always, seeking God and His goodness.  He desires to serve the Lord with everything that he has. He has in mind a church to be planted in a contextualized format, and he’ll plant it by the grace of the Lord.

Also a good way to help us planning our ministries is the end-visioning method, or “begin at the end”. End-visioning is a key component of the process and the initial part of the planning phase.  It can be defined as developing a vision of the end which will serve to guide the entire planning process.  “End-visioning” starts with a functional description of the churches that will be planted. The planner then backs up from the end result to the present, describing each step of the CP process.  

It is a very helpful way of planning. However, keep in mind that no matter the planning method you choose you’ll need constant evaluation as the steps first planned in the beginning may need to be adjusted in a new situation.