Death of a Church Plant – Some Reflections and Hope for the Future of Missional Church Planting

I don’t know Jason Coker (except through blogosphere), but I love reading Jason Coker. And what he has done in a recent series of posts is simply amazing. In these posts (here, here, here, here, and here), Jason reflects on the sorrows of closing down a church that he and his wife Jenell worked so hard to plant in San Diego. Jason is a good writer. Yet Jason does more than that, he is brutally honest. He gives us a window into the world of church planting. I think everyone who seeks to plant a church should read these posts.
After I read Jason’s posts I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I often find myself  worrying about church planters who do the kind of church planting that Jason and Jenell were doing. Jason’s posts fed that angst. Jamie Arpin-ricci’s recent post poured more gas on the flames of that anxiety. So I started to write this post. This post is not meant to tell Jason or anyone else what they did wrong. I do not dare to suggest I know Jason or San Diego or anything else enough to be able to do such a thing. I admire Jason, Jenell and Jamie and a whole bunch more church planters of their ilk. I’m just reflecting on their experience out of my own experience. If it helps everybody, so be it.

Planting missional communities is a different animal from the prototype church planting that is so familiar in denominations and places like Acts 29 and Redeemer City to City. The attractional dynamics that often typifies these kinds of church planting depend largely on existing Christianized populations. The emphasis is on meeting the dynamic of the population group so as to present the gospel in a cultural savvy way.  I have no doubt that the success of many of the New Reformed Missional churches in the cities is the result of the influx of twenty-something populations into the cities in the past fifteen-twenty years with little or no place to go to church. Of course this is worthy work, and it has its own costs – let me tell you. And just so every body hears me – even in missional communities – there is the coalescence of already existing Christians of some sort for the task of listening to God and living in mission in a neighborhood. But the task of missionary church planting is different. Can I say that one more time? MISSIONARY CHURCH PLANTING IS DIFFERENT and the demands require a “mental training” of a sort.

So I have just a few observations to offer from reading Jason’s posts.  After all I need the therapy! And thinking through Jason’s posts are like good therapy for every church planter I know. Again, just to reiterate, I don’t know Jason and I have only visited San Diego so these comments aren’t really about him. I applaud the hard work and the journey. Church planters like Jason and Jenell are golden. I hesitate to comment because perhaps people will think I’m saying they did something wrong. NOT! I think they are extraordinary for their work. I offer up these reflections as fodder for the much needed conversation on the nature of church planting for our time.  Feel free to go at me on these comments.

4  Observations of Jason Coker’s post-mortem reflections on the closing of a church plant.

1.)Church Planting in Post Christendom is hard. I really can’t tell if Jason/Jenell were intentionally engaging post Christendom contexts, but their emphasis on justice, culture, and various approaches to ministry articulated here suggest that that they were doing just that. They were avoiding the competition and negative orbits associated with attractional ministry. Going against this grain is hard.

Nurturing community with an external focus and vibrant missional life often goes against the cultural assumptions of denominations and support networks. Denominations/American business want to see (immediate) results. They think like business people. Jason never said the Vineyard people placed these expectations on them. But the pressure is there regardless. It’s an American church cultural thing. Yet has anyone ever doing missionary work in India ever been expected to produce a self-sustaining church in three years? Overcoming these cultural pressures is hard.

Missional community also goes against the grain of already existing Christians who simply see the church as a place to sustain their own lifestyles/families in the Christian ethos. Leading people into a new imagination for the way God works in our lives and mission is painstaking. It is asking Christians to take discipleship to a new level. This – IMO – takes several years of cultivation. As such, many church plants have neither the patience, internal security or plain finances to be able to work that long on this kind of cultivation. Many get way-layed, pulverized by the turnover and the plain stubborn headedness of American Christians. All this makes church planting in Post-Christendom hard. Jason, Jenell should be commended for their true hearted commitment to work as missionaries … BECAUSE THIS KIND OF CHURCH PLANTING IS WHAT IS NEED IN A COUNRTY WHOSE ACTIVE CHRISTIAN POPULATIONS ARE SHRINKING.

2.) Finances are really important and often out of our control This is why I encourage those who plant a missionary church to have a minimum of a 5 year financial plan. You can raise these funds, but often, for many reasons, the work of this kind of fund raising CAN (ALTHOUGH NOT ALWAYS!) work against the very missional impulses your working to go with. I urge beginning church planters to get a job, especially if they’re in the twenties. Gaining a skill and experience in the workplace is monumental for your own personal development. It offers years of flexibility and freedom. I suggest church planters get a job where you can learn a skill and commit to getting good at. I urge church planters to only think about working 15 hours a week in their missional community pastoring. I urge every missional church plant to have three core leaders/couples who similarly have jobs who together can give 15 hours a week to the cultivating of this community.  This is enough time for pastoring/cultivating (it’s actually the equivalent of one full time pastor). Since the community is very small (maybe only a few people to as many as thirty) you’re going to be ordering your life together in mission in the community. You aren’t going to be spending 50 hours producing an attractional service to compete and draw Christians from other places. 15 hours a week by three people is sufficient to lead and nurture the beginnings of such a community.

The job that these pastors get then provides the means to take all the pressure off and spend 5 years cultivating. It will also help each pastor gain a sense of identity and reality. This changes everything. It changes the way we look at ministry. Changes the dynamics of why we get paid and the pressures. And it provides the seeding ground so necessary in a missionary plant. It puts you out and about and alongside the community.

Jason had difficulty finding work. he got caught in the 2008 financial collapse vortex. It took a toll on him big time. For me, this issue of a job is perhaps the key part of navigating one’s entry into missional church planting. It’s a hurdle so many M Div’s can’t get past. Many M Div’s place their entire identity into getting a pastorate (this was definitely NOT THE CASE WITH JASON). They struggle to see tent-making as an identity marker that marks you as a revolutionary. Jason already was past this hurdle but couldn’t get that job for a long while. I suggest an alternative might be to raise funds with the plan for those funds to provide the time necessary to find a job.

Finances are probably the single number one debilitating factor in planting churches. I think it’s more psychical than it is material. For these reasons, as we plan a missional church plant, we must take the time to get firmly planted within a sustainable life financially that is also a walk of faith.

3) Finding at least two other strong mature leaders/couples that can join in with you and lead this communal imagination is essential. It is the APEPT principle – it takes an Apostle, Prophet (preacher), Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher (organizer) to nurture a community into existence and flourishing (Eph 4). Until then you struggle.  Jason certainly struggled to find the right partners. He struggled courageously. At the Vine, it took us four years to get our leadership together. We struggled awfully until God led us into the right partnership with the right leaders. I feel like I nearly died psychically several times as a single leader with others who did not understand the mission with me. But when God provided the right partners, life changed, it made sense, and things started to take on a life of its own, the life of the Spirit.

In Christendom, one guy(or woman), with some charisma, can rustle up a crowd of Christians using Facebook and attract them with some preach-tainment long enough to establish a base from which he/she then builds systems. Not in missionary situations. One charismatic person cannot carry the load, and if she/he does, it will primary be an internally focused mega-church servicing Christians of some variety. Nothing wrong with that (necessarily).  But it won’t be a missional community like Jason and Jenell were seeking to cultivate.

4) 5 Years. I simply don’t believe cultivating such a community will even begin to take on sustainable way of life that breeds life in the Spirit for a minimum of 5 years. Many disagree but I just don’t see it. The cultivation work is too important.  It takes long patience and sustaining of oneself financially. Jason and Jenell had to close the church after 2 to 3 years. Yet I don’t think they should see this as a failure. Certain contingencies worked (all of which I have no knowledge of) to prevent from continuing. But 2 years is too short to consider this community a failure. I don’t believe in missionary work you can expect to see vibrant transformational growth until the end of year five (this may even be too short). I realize there are exceptions – this is just my historical perspective. For some reason, many many times, the Holy Spirit requires cultivated ground, open minds, prayer that opens the minds and hearts of the world to His working.  TO ME MISSIONAL CULTIVATORS MUST EXPECT TO CULTIVATE MANY YEARS before they see the kinds of numbers, conversions etc. that Christendom has gotten us so used to.

Missional Communities Aren’t Worth It!

Some may look above and read of the struggles of Jason, Jenel and Jamie and others and say “missional communities then are not worth it.” Uh, I think Jason, Jenell and Jamie would disagree (although maybe not today).  It does however require a different imagination, a different set of expectations, seeing ministry as a way of life, dare I say a sense of identity as a revolutionary, a Jesus radical. The kind of pastor I tried to describe HERE. To me Jason, Jenell and Jamie ( to what degree I know them which is only through blog world) provide us some examples as to what such “radicals” might look like as we go forward as missionaries in N America. Way to go!! Jason, Jamie today and yesterday I have been praying for you guys. I don’t know you, but you inspire me and others. I pray for you as God leads you into the future of His Mission!!

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