Witness

The Big Problem with Barna’s Study on Church Startups and Money

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A recent Barna Group study has revealed something many of us have known for years – our funding models for church planting are deeply entrenched in Christendom. Well, that’s not exactly true.

The research simply revealed that the current financial picture for church planters is not good. It was the Barna Group’s call to action about the funding problems that reveals our entrenchment in Christendom. Stay with me. They were off to a good start when they said this,

“In releasing these findings, our hope is to liberate planters to have open and honest conversations about their financial reality—and that those conversations will lead to innovative ideas that advance the church planting movement into a season of unparalleled health and growth.”

Well said. We need to talk. But let’s not ruin an important conversation by framing it like this…

“We see in this data a call to action to denominations and planting networks to provide greater financial support to startup leaders—especially those in urban neighborhoods…If we believe in the work they are doing, we must commit more financial resources to their success.”

Check the Engine

Ok, so there’s your problem right there: The check engine light just came on for church planting in North America. This is no time to hit the gas, keep rolling, and simply hope the problem cures itself. We need to pull over and figure out what is going on.

Many of us believe that Christendom is coming to an end. Perhaps our sagging finances are just symptoms of that. If that’s the case then we don’t need new money, we need new ideas!

If we truly are in the twilight of Christendom then excessive external funding could just as easily mask our problems as solve them.

If Christendom is ending, we don’t need new money, we need new ideas! Click To Tweet

5 Ways Too Much Money Can Rot Your Church Plant

Planters and denominational folk, please pay attention.

Excessive external funding can kill a church’s feel for context.

Church plant structures and expectations need to be tied to context. Intimately. The best kind of church planting is committing long term to a specific location among a specific people group. We’re at our best when we tie our fate to people and place. It worked for Jesus and it will work for His church. Your life, your practices, and even your finances all need to be shaped by context. This is fundamental to incarnating the gospel.

Too much external funding interferes with this process. Tuning your communal lives to your context takes feel. It takes tension. To do it right your church will need to live somewhere between what the people want and what the people can afford.

Too much external funding interferes with incarnating the gospel. Click To Tweet

Excessive external funding can make us miss important discipleship opportunities.

Lack of financial stewardship is a particularly acute problem for North Americans. Especially in Canada. Canadians are among the worst savers in the developed world. We also rank among the highest for consumer debt. Church plants that do not allow for adequate financial tension in the lives of their people may never get to talk about this.

It could be that the real reason your church plant is underfunded is because your people are slaves to materialism and are racking up huge amounts of consumer debt. Stewardship is a discipleship issue. Perhaps one of the largest discipleship issues of our time. Then again it may also have something to do with the financial carrying capacity of your context. What if your financial expectations are simply out of context?  If you’re too quick to chalk this up to “times are tough,” avoid popping the hood, and instead call for reinforcements you’ll never know the truth.

Perhaps your church plant is underfunded because your people are slaves to materialism. Click To Tweet

Excessive external funding robs us of creativity.

You’ve heard that necessity is the mother of invention? Excessive external funding robs us of necessity. Without the tension created by necessity you won’t be as likely to actively seek out novel contextual solutions. Forcing your church, as much as possible – to be here in this place with these people – creates irreplaceable fuel for your church’s imagination.

This lack of invention doesn’t just affect the local church either. It spreads to the broader church too. One of the great gifts that planting gives the broader church is inventiveness. Less local innovation means less denominational innovation. Calling us to double down on the same old models should be a sure sign that we have a growing imagination deficit. More money won’t fix that.

Excessive external funding robs your church of its survival instincts.

The will to survive properly resides within the plant itself. Denominational coffers should never house your church’s survival instincts. Instead, the will to survive should come from a deep collective sense of God’s calling, love for each other, and your deep burden for the needs of your context. Your survival instincts have to be built together piece by piece over time. Too much outside financial support messes with this process. It can also make people outside your church the owners of your church. Not good.

Excessive external funding can mess with your sense of calling.

Planters would also do well to check their own motivations for church planting. The kind of planting work we have ahead of us will not be for the faint of heart. Reaching the hard to reach peoples in North American culture is going to take time. The harder to reach the more fruitless years you may have ahead of you. Are you ready to put in 15+ years with next to nothing to show for it?  That’s not an uncommon missionary reality. Google it. It may soon be our reality too.

If our models only work on the promise of a full-time pastoring gig within the first 5 years then we’ll neither have the stomach nor the staying power to engage with hard to reach people. Ask yourself this. What if you could never earn a salary from your church plant? Would you still do it? If not then this next round of planting might not be for you.

What if you could never earn a salary from your church plant? Would you still do it? Click To Tweet

Building on What Barna Got Right

Ok, that’s enough of that. Now that there is some counter weight in this conversation let’s start this important dialogue. What I love about this study is that they used perceptual – “feel-based” categories.

Church planters describing their financial situation as either Surviving, Struggling, Stable, Secure, and Surplus is really helpful. Let’s keep those categories.

Drawing our attention to the differences between planting contexts is also really needed. Rural churches and Urban churches are very different animals. We need to see them as such. In the end, denominations and networks can still play a vital financial role in helping church plants get off the ground. No matter the future there is still a place for sharing the burden together. Equitably. The key will be avoiding underfunding or overfunding our churches. That being said, staying in the sweet spot will require a healthy ongoing dialogue.

So internets: A penny for your thoughts. How do we start tackling this question of adequately funding the work of church planting?  What new models do we need to start exploring?

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