During our first Forge weekend in January, a statement was made that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about:

We have a hard time stopping starting with church.

Out of context, it’s a bit confusing, so let me fill it out a bit.

Last week I wrote about one of the problems with church planting, which is simply the huge amount of baggage the word church comes with.

Despite that, when many of us “church planters” talk about what we’re doing, we start with the church.

We say things like: “We’re starting churches for people who don’t like church,” or “we’re starting Jesus Centred communities of faith.” You get the idea…I’ve used both of them. But the point is, we’re starting with the church.

To which you may be thinking…But if you’re a church planter, of course, you start with the church.

But are we? Are we “church” planters?

Think about this…Are we planting churches, or are we planting the gospel? Are we trying to make churches or are we trying to make disciples? Is there a biblical mandate to start churches…or to make disciples?

This is not a chicken or egg type of discussion…and it’s not a matter of semantics. I think what we are focused on doing, actually matters.

When I was being coached as a church planter back in the 90s, I heard over and over again that the first thing you need to do if you want to build a successful church (is that a biblical phrase?) was to do was to gather a crowd of people as quickly as possible. Build momentum…build excitement…Get as many people to your Sunday worship service as you can, then, once you’ve got the crowd, you begin making disciples. It was a big idea when we were planting back in 1999 in New York, and it is still a popular philosophy of planting a church.  (Go and google “launching a large church.” I’ll wait.)

Now if you’re a church planter, it feels a lot better when 100 people show up than it does when 10 people show up. But hopefully, we didn’t go into this for some weird ego boost. (Trust me, there are easier ways to get that)

Anyways, contrary to all the advice we received about gathering a crowd, we did the opposite. And we did this for a number of reasons:

  • We didn’t want to gather a bunch of “church people” who were only looking for the next cool thing. (Because as you’d imagine, we were quite cool…okay, not really, but you get the idea)
  • We really wanted to have an opportunity to build a certain type of culture into this new community. That was going to mean a lot of time spent with people who were bought into what we were trying to do.
  • And well, as you’ve probably heard, I’m a bit of an introvert…and the idea of walking into cafés, chatting up countless people I didn’t know and inviting them to this new church we were starting…Let’s just say God and I had a number of chats, and while I told him I’ll do anything you ask me to do if I needed to become an Extrovert in order to plant a church, it probably wasn’t going to happen…I mean he is the one who wired me this way.

And in looking back, I know that that was an important decision for us.

But as I’ve written previously, over time, there were two key decisions we made in our time in Ithaca, which I look back on and wish I could have done them differently (not that I only made two mistakes…trust me…these two just stand out). And in both of them, I chose to gather a crowd instead of protecting our community’s culture.

And even as I was making those decisions, I wondered about the current “crowd gathering” strategy, in light of how Jesus interacted with crowds.

Sure, he ministered to them. He taught them. He healed them. He had compassion for them. But he never dealt with them the way he dealt with the 12. In fact, rather than ever trying to gather crowds, his common reactions to them were to flee from them (for example John 6: 14-15), or make the crowd flee from him (further on in John 6). I can’t think of an instance where he tried to actually gather a crowd. He recognised the crowd was never there for the same reason he was.

Mike Breen has written in many places, “If you make disciples, you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.”

It seems clear, that we should start with discipleship. But we keep starting with the church.

I do think some of that comes because for a long time it made sense to do that. When we are explaining to our friends back home, we often say, we are planting/starting churches…because in general people understand that. It’s just easier.

Maybe we assume that if we say, we are making disciples…that will be too vague. And besides, once you have disciples, you’ll have the church, so technically, we are starting churches.

But by doing this, we encourage people to focus on something that isn’t really the focus:

  • “If you are planting churches, where is the church?”
  • “Okay, great, you’re having conversations…you’re building relationships, and talking to people about the gospel. Talking to people about Jesus. That’s great…but where’s the church you are supposed to be planting?

Starting with the church, even with people who are very much for what we are doing, can cause misunderstanding.

And then, we talk to people in our current context here in Dublin…it makes even less sense. We know the issues many people have with the church, yet more often than not we find ourselves starting with“the church”. As if talking to them about discipleship or Jesus, will somehow mark us as just too weird. So instead we talk about the thing that they already don’t like and try to explain it in a way that’ll make it more palatable to them. “No really, this is a different kind of that thing you have no use for. You’ll like this one!”

For so many of us, the paradigm we are used to is:

1) we start a church

2) people come to church

3) people who come to church become disciples.

But I think Breen is right. I don’t think this way makes disciples. This model makes people who go to church…but not necessarily disciples of Jesus.

I was at a talk last autumn and the speaker asked a question that I love. If I could give you 500 people for your church, which would you choose? 500 people would show up every Sunday, but only 20% were active in serving Jesus in any way. Or, 500 who were actively involved in ministering the kingdom of God in their community, but you could rarely get 100 of them together on a Sunday?

Do we chase the crowd, or do we seek to make disciples?