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Sanctuary or Living Room? Senior Pastor or “Community Organizer”?: What You Do The First Year Shapes Your Congregation for Decades

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It is common in church planting for N. American churches to rush in a.) naming a main leader and b.) starting a public service (what has often been called the launch). For instance: the Acts 29 Network – a training network for planting churches – puts an unusual importance on a.) choosing a strong male leader to plant the church, and b.) the launch of a service where “the gospel” is preached clearly, contextually and authoritatively. The impression here is that the preaching itself, led by a strong male leader, is sufficient to draw the lost into the gospel.
Although there is much to be thankful for in what God is doing with Acts 29, for me, this is an approach heavily dependent on the cultural conditions of Christendom. The preaching requires people already habitualized to go to church and hear a sermon. It requires people who understand the language. It organizes the church structure toward the center – where the single strong leader is – instead of outward where lost people are. It will work where there are wandering peoples who have a Christian past and/or have discontent with existing forms of church (i.e. Roman Catholic or traditional evangelical) who are easily drawn to something new and impressive. This is not, however, a Missional strategy because in many ways it sets the new community up to be a centralized attractional community. Its dynamic works against invading the rhythms of a context, living the gospel in ways that invade the secular spaces of the world that is living oblivious to God and His work in Christ for the world. If we would be missionaries, we need to think differently about congregational formation.

Our church is in the beginning stages of seeding two new communities. We’re helping with two others.  Over the weekend we gathered in Hyde Park (for the Missional Midwest Roundtable of EcclesiaNetwork) with several leaders of missional communities. I led a discussion on the goals, purposes and dangers of the first year of congregational formation in what we used to call church plants: the gathering of a community amidst a new territory for mission. I said there should be three goals for the first year of a church plant- a seeding of a missional community:
1.)    Establish a small community of fellowship in the neighborhood who can pray together for the Kingdom. This community will develop as friends, dialoguing, listening, praying – learning to listen for God’s voice, observing where He is working so as to respond and participate in what He is doing to reconcile, heal, create anew and birth righteousness.
2.)    Get to know the neighborhood. Exegete it so as to know how to pray, minister, adopt rhythms, hang out, and be Christ’s presence.
3.)    Facilitate hospitality. Become a place to facilitate hospitality in the neighborhood as well as helping people move to the neigborhood. I urge a contant calling of people into the KIngdom. When these people don’t live in the neighborhood, I encourage the community to help these people of the kingdom find jobs, find a place to live at reasonable cost, know how to live in this community.

If these are the goals of the first year (or two?), I said (at the Hyde Park meeting) we should then consider two questions:

A.) Do we need a pastor or a community organizer? My contention is naming someone a “pastor” – dare I say “Senior Pastor” – starts to order the community’s life around this one person’s centralized leadership. It sets up the community for expectations that this one person shall provide for certain needs, services and the making of decisions. The community’s life becomes a centralized orbit around this one person as opposed to a dispersed activity (of God) living in and among the neighborhood. This habit will be almost impossible to overcome in the years ahead. I suggest putting off naming someone “the pastor.” Instead name him/her the “community organizer.” There will be a time and a place to name pastors (I purposely put this in the plural). But at the beginning stages a single pastor could really jam up the workings of a missional community’s involvement in the community and participation in the work.
B.) Do we meet in a sanctuary or a living room? My contention is that meeting in a sanctuary (i.e. a meeting place with rows and a pulpit) is bad for meeting the goals of the first year as stated above. Meeting in rows, with a pulpit up front creates a passivized audience but it also creates a certain expectation as to what church should be. This expectation will be almost impossible to overcome in the years that lie ahead. Instead we need to develop relationships. We need a space to voice questions and dialogue. We need to hear stories of what God is doing and express hardships and ask “what is God saying?” This is why I suggest the first year’s gathering should have the feel of a living room as opposed to a service in a sanctuary. There will be a time and place to start the rhythm of more formalized preaching/worship. But this itself should be an extension of the fellowship that is developed during this one crucial year.

In both cases, there will be a time to both ordain pastors and formalize worship (see this post here). However, what I learned at Life on the Vine is that moving too early on these two fronts (which we did) will not only force the issue, but ingrain bad habits in a community that shall harm it for years to come.

At the Midwest Missional Roundtable, four other church planters discussed their struggles with these ideas. What do you think? What are the pluses and minuses of the Acts 29 approach versus the approach proposed here? What are the pluses/minuses of “senior pastor” versus “community organizer”? What are the pluses/minuses of “sanctuary” versus “living room”?

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