The Problem with Church Planting

I think the phrase church planting is extremely unhelpful. I am finding it to be more and more cumbersome all the time. We love the church. We think the church matters, and that is why we are working to plant churches. But here is what I am wondering…re-read the last sentence. How confident are you that what […]

by bob

Feb 25, 2016

I think the phrase church planting is extremely unhelpful. I am finding it to be more and more cumbersome all the time.

We love the church. We think the church matters, and that is why we are working to plant churches.

But here is what I am wondering…re-read the last sentence. How confident are you that what I meant when I wrote it, is what you understood when you read it?

And I’m realising more and more that this is something we need to talk more about in this space…I haven’t done a good job of communicating some of what we’ve been thinking, learning and experiencing since the idea of moving to Dublin first grabbed us. But today I want to start this conversation…about what we mean when we say plant churches.

I won’t be able to complete it in a post or two. In fact, I’m wanting this to become more of an ongoing conversation.

Speaking of conversations…There is a common one that church planters over here in Ireland have with each other. (I’ve heard it among other CA folks in Europe too, but can’t speak beyond that).

So what do you tell people when they ask what you do?

And the majority of us…me included…hem and haw a bit, give an answer we’re not all that happy with and then quickly shift to, “Well what do you say?” mainly hoping that they’ll say something really good so that we can steal it.

This goes for people who are new at this, and people who’ve been doing it for decades, and I’ve yet to meet a church planter who seems comfortable and confident with their response.

I believe the biggest problems is that once you put out that word, “Church,” everyone now has a picture of what it is you mean. And most just assume you mean what they mean.

Complicating the matter is that we do not have the same picture…not even close…people who don’t go to church, generally have negative images come to mind (hope that isn’t a surprise). For many, words like abuse, sexual scandals and hatred are images that come up when they hear the word church.

And here in Ireland, a common conversation goes like this:
“We are starting churches.”
“Oh, like Catholic churches?”
“No, it’s more like…”
“Oh, are you like Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
Deep sigh…

Of course, people who do go to church, have generally positive images, but there is a box in which their image of church fits. So for many people who are part of a church, we say we are wanting to start a church and a number of specific things pop into their mind:

  • Sunday morning (well, maybe Sunday afternoon to start, but when you’re a real church you’ll switch to the morning)
  • Kid’s ministry
  • Worship Sets
  • Sermons
  • Ushers and bulletins
  • Small groups & Youth groups

I’m not making a judgement here on any of those things, I’m saying for many people they can’t imagine church without most of these things. Or at least not moving towards having all of those things.

And of course, most likely your ideas of church are shaped even more by the local congregation that you are a part of.

Shift from church for a second. Think of all the incredible change that has taken place in your lifetime. I still remember my Grampa Ray seeing one of my cousin’s new dolls at Christmas when I was a kid. He heard the doll talk and said, “What will they come up with next?” A lot Grampa.

And not just technology…the human genome project…just this month what we learned about gravitational waves. We are without question living at a time of rapid change in almost every aspect of our lives. And keeping up is a monumental challenge. I read this week that the court case cited in the FBI versus Apple proceedings was written BEFORE ELECTRICITY!

I bring that up because the world is changing rapidly…you know that. And just as rapidly also a major change happening in and to the church. Questions are being wrestled with that were assumed for a long time, or never even brought up. And these changes directly impact the church of Jesus and specifically, what it means to be the church. But many churches still operate like it is the 1980s…or the 1680s (we visited this church a few months ago).

The world is becoming less and less interested in what the church has to offer, and too many in the church are asking, well what if do it better.

The overwhelming majority of people in our city are not avoiding going to church, because there isn’t one that has relevant messages and a good worship band. They don’t even think like that…church people think like that. For many, they don’t go because “that was tried and it didn’t work.”

But we keep behaving like if you just come one more time, you’ll see how much better we are than those old models…and this time you’ll really like it…but they aren’t buying it.

Since I really care about this stuff, I find myself reading a lot of other people who are thinking about these things. And many of these people (Alan Hirsch, Scot McKnight, Michael Frost, David Fitch to name a few) have added so much to the conversation, and I have learned so much from them.

Others…their answers are more about slapping a new coat of paint on an old problem…I read one this past summer that made me want to bang my head against the wall…the guy’s first big change the church needs to make is basically that the Sunday message needs to be more relatable to outsiders. My first thought was, how sad that you have to tell people that…my second was: BUT THEY AREN’T COMING INTO YOUR CHURCH TO HEAR THESE RELEVANT MESSAGES IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I think this conversation is so difficult for many, because our image of what church is so firmly set, and beginning to look at it differently challenges things that we’ve considered sacred.

Let me close with this…and then we’ll pick it up again next week because there’s a lot more I want to say.

Last week Liz and Méabh planted some bulbs in our garden. Because of the picture on the package, they have a very good idea of what the flowers will look like eventually. But what you plant is determined (or should be) by what will actually grow. They don’t plant orange and banana trees in Ireland. You plant based on the soil, the climate and other factors that I’m surely missing.

I think too much church planting is coming from a package like Méabh’s bulbs. It has a picture on the outside of what it should look like…and that is what people are expecting it to look like…the problem is it was cultivated somewhere else and isn’t going to thrive in a place where the soil and climate are so different.

What about Bob?


I grew up in Western New York and have started and led missional church planting efforts for a little over 30 years. As you might gather, I have opinions about the church, and I share some of them here.

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