Why new churches fail

I think there are two reasons new churches fail.*

Just Do It

For folks in the circles I typically run in (read: postmodern young adults) anything that seems like it comes from the immediate past era of church work is anathema. This especially includes strategic plans, goals, and objectives. We don’t like quotas. We don’t like benchmarks. We don’t like deadlines. And, because most of us want to do something fun and creative, we incensed at the idea that our funding will get shut off after 3-5 years. “They can’t expect us to be ‘self-sufficient’ in 3-5 years! This new kind of church doesn’t work that way!”

The way churches begun by this kind of person usually gets started is the “Nike Method:” just do it.

When we begin churches of this kind, we just jump in. We don’t think. We don’t plan. We just do. We live in the moment. We have fun. We talk about communities growing organically, and of trying to not stifle the Spirit. This means we don’t press too hard on one another. We don’t hold one another accountable for anything, because, usually, there’s nothing to hold each other accountable for. Why? Because we’re trying to find that one thing we can all agree on, and there’s always someone who “doesn’t feel called to that.” Believe me, I’ve sat through these marathon meetings. They suck. Hard.

Listen. Gathering a group of people and submitting yourself to one another is all well and good. I think it happens to be a large part of what Church is. However, it neglects a very important point: being church is not just about being with other people.

Business Plans

At the other end of the spectrum we find the hyper-anal method of starting a new community of faith: The “Church Should Be Run Like A Business” Method.

As much as I am annoyed by “just do it” churches, I am even more loathing of these. And that’s because, well, the church is not a business. I don’t think I need to expand on that. I wrote a lot about it in Open Source Church.

When we begin churches of this kind, it’s all about conformity. This is the way we do things. This is what we are “about.” This is how you will operate. We have pre-defined boxes that you can check, programs you can consume, and metrics we need you to hit. We treat people like cogs. No wonder they are leaving and not coming back.


Sorry to end on that downer of a note. But am I anywhere close to right?


*I’ve been reading Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup. These thoughts are reflections on what I’m reading.

Plant a church, but don’t do it alone. That would be dumb.

One of the perils in communication is that you will neither communicate everything you intended, nor will everyone receive what you did communicate accurately. One of those two things happened last week when I encouraged “Young(ish) Mainline Pastor Type People” to plant a church.

I got two basic responses. From old(er-ish), more established pastors the response generally was, “Yeah! Right on!”, while the future pastors in the crowd generally said “No way! We’re not taking the responsibility for this on our own.” (I was talking to a friend today and we both noted that, really, no pastors in their late 20’s/early 30’s who have had a call for 4-5 years said anything. Hmmm….) I would like to address a fraction of that second response.

Firstly, on behalf of the First Mainline Church of Everywhere I’m sorry that you are the folks caught in the middle of the biggest shift in Christian culture and structure in hundreds of years. Truly, I am. It is not fair, and I’m sure its stressing you out. I know that some of you are incurring debt (which we should really talk about sometime), and all you want to do is graduate, go serve a church, and start your life (which includes paying off your debt). But, the reality is: the odds are not in your favor of finding a job. Either you and a church don”t fit, you’re not willing to go some place, or the church can’t pay you enough even if you were willing. Each of these has a technical solution, to be sure, but the sum of these solutions is not even going to come close to addressing the massive shift facing the church. This bubble is about to burst and we all know it.

Don’t think I didn’t hear the core of your retort. I did. “Why should I take all the risk and bust out to do this by myself?” Financially, the truth is that even if you find that one church, the chances of them paying you enough is slim. Your chances of paying off educational debt is probably the same if you go get a job working at Starbucks (or Initech or Dunder Mifflin), and help plant a church during non-work hours.

But philosophically? Have you asked for support? I mean, have you done the hard work of putting together any kind of game plan and asked for support? The NCD I served as a seminary student did. They went to their presbytery and said, “We’re not asking for money, but we want prayer and support.” They got it. And some money. A good number of the private responses I got to the blog post was “We’d love to support folks, but where are they?”

So do this: put together an idea for a community. You know as well as I that there are dozens of ways to think about a church. Pick one and go with it, but….

Do Not Do It By Yourself.

This is where I assumed something in my last post that you did not. We are not built to do this by ourselves, but with others. The myth of the “lone gunman who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps” is precisely that. A myth. On this we can agree. In seminary I learned the powerful idea that nobody “owns” their whole call. I only have a piece of what I am called to do. Someone else has the other piece. Maybe there is a third (or fourth or fifth…) person who own another piece. But I don’t have it all.

We can talk about “call” some other time, but the point is this: You should go plant a church, but you should not do it by yourself. Yes, your original idea might change when you begin working with someone else, but, hey, more heads are better than one, right?

Further thoughts on my “plant a church” post

I wanted to follow up on my post from yesterday about young(ish) mainline pastor types planting churches because there is a thought that I want to flesh out a tad more. I am struck by the reality that we want to “play like its a new church, yet be paid like it’s the old church.”

“Old Church” sets its benchmark with the questions “How many? How often? How much?” (hat tip Reggie McNeal) When you can track how many people are showing up for your programs and how often they are showing up, you have a pretty good guess as to how much they will be forking over. In cash. Not time or talents. We’re talking treasure here. And so “old church” tries to maximize the many, the often, and the much. That’s the way the game is played, and that has defined “success” for as long as any of us can remember.

“New Church” hopes to not fall victim to that mentality, but those interested often hold on to one significant piece of it: Old Church Salary and Benefits. Often, it’s because we go to get trained to “be a pastor” before we’ve done anything else in our lives. We’re scared to death of not having the security of the (even meager) paycheck. So we try to convince others to let us play a different game than the one that brings in the cash. We don’t want to sully our hands with that Old Church score card, but we’re willing to take the “support” and we justify it by saying they told us this is what they wanted us to do.

So all of this was bouncing in my head today when I stumbled upon a couple of posts from the Tall Skinny Kiwi, Andrew Jones. I used to read him all the time, but had stopped a number of years ago. I’m glad I found him today. Here’s the two posts I glommed onto:

9 Reasons NOT to plant a church in 2012

Practices of a New Jesus Movement

In the first post, Jones lays out much more clearly than I why we should not pursue “church planting” if it even remotely resembles “Old Church.” His basic thesis is that “church planting” seeks to maximize the Old Church Scorecard (my words) to the detriment of measurable society transforming practices. Because of this, church planting ignores those who are not rich and without status. Church planting sets up a consumer mindset among new members and promotes competition among and within churches.

“Boo,” I say. That’s not a church culture I want to be a part of.

Luckily, Jones offers some hints of a better way (yes, I said “better”)  in his second post.

I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself, but he lays out 11 practices of what he’s calling a “New Jesus Movement” (NJM) that seems to be catching hold in Asian countries that he visited over the last year. I’d like to see how they fit with Mainline sensibilities.

1. Bible Study

Done and done. Mainliners (quite to the contrary of what our Evangelical friends think) take the Bible very seriously. When I teach folks using the Historical-Critical tools I learned in seminary, they eat. it. up. Taking the text seriously, but not coming to it blindly has transformed many peopel’s lives. I know it did mine.

2. Open Houses

Hospitality is an assumed way of being for the NJM. Jones talks of people crashing with others allover the place while they were being loved and their lives were bring transformed. Jones described a decidedly non “what’s mine is mine” culture. What’s mine is yours – freely and unreservedly.

3. Fringe Focus

These communities were not the pretty people. “Christians” have bought the lie for too long that we’re supposed to be popular and loved. Well Constantine lied to us and we believed him. We’re the freaks on the fringe called to love other freaks on the fringe.

4. Simple Habits

Things were simply done and one didn’t need to be a “professional minister” to lead anything. Jones relates that Bible Study, for instance, consisted of reading the passage and answering 3 questions: 1) What does it say? 2) What does it say to me? 3) What am I going to do about it? And then we hold each other accountable for our answers.

We’ve made this too complicated (not complex, there’s a difference).

5. Good Business Products

I love this one. These are not NPR/Public Television Pledge-a-thon organizations. They were financially stable from running a micro-business.

6. System for Rehabilitation

For the NJM, “sanctuary” is not the place where worship takes place, but where people could come and be nurtured and loved into Christian maturity.

7. Native Flavor

Whatever was done had a decidedly indigenous commitment. the practices and gathering reflected the place they inhabited. In the Asian countries Jones visited, “Western” things were conspicuously absent to his eye. The NJM allows the incarnation to radically influence the life of the community.

8. Daily Rhythms

Jones found people were together almost every day, usually around meals. This was not a once a week kinda thing.

9. Not outreach TO but outreach WITH others

For the NJM, being a Christian is a way to be a decent human being, and they would often organize outreach to the poor and marginalized with their Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and atheist neighbors.

10. Something for the whole family

It seemed, from what Jones observed, that there was a concerted effort to minister to the whole family a person came from and not just the one.

11. Prayer

Prayer was a casual and normal part of everything they did.

Notice that worship is nowhere to be found. It seems to fit nicely with Jones’ thesis in the first post I listed. As he says,

Also, the intentionality of the movement was focused on impacting people’s lives with the gospel and NOT on creating community or starting churches which they saw as a natural outgrowth.

When I say to Young(ish) Mainline Pastor Type People, “Please go plant a church” these are the kinds of things I mean, and I am grateful for Jones giving better words to the idea.

So… Are you up for it?

Dear Young(ish) Mainline Pastor Type People: Please Plant a Church

I am about to write something that I’m sure is almost completely at odds with what I hear a lot of youngish (particularly progressive) types that I know saying. So, here’s the disclaimer: If you believe yourself to be the exception to what follows, then you’re the exception. I’m not interested in fighting you about this.

UPDATE: Further thoughts here.

I know a lot of people who are damn smart and gifted in all things church. They have obviously been called by God to be a minister of some sort. Many of them are pastors and teachers in the classic sense, in that their gifts are the leading and instructing of communities. Given the circles I run in, most of these folks are mid 20’s to late 30’s. They are hip and smart. They love the church that birthed them in faith, but they aren’t necessarily content with it. They see themselves as “agents of change working to preserve tradition.”

Yet among these folks, I notice an odd tension being held. In some places and with some people it is an extremely strong tension, and, I admit, I would like to break it like a rubber band that’s been pulled too far.

The tension I see is the result of what I consider to be two contradictory desires regarding the church.

  1. There are people want to do something crazy and radical, to imagine church in a new way, to sometimes buck the system or jack with the status quo,
  2. and they want the system/status quo to pay for it.

Am I the only one who sees a problem here? Not only do we want to “screw up the church,” but we also want the little old ladies pay for it? And then we have the audacity to be aggrieved when it doesn’t pan out? Come on. I thought we were smarter than this.

Certainly, I acknowledge that there might be an argument to be made (and many do make it) that the church has promised us something. Many people believe that they were encouraged to pursue ordained ministry and told that there would be a “job waiting for them” when they came out of the other side. I must be honest that I’m never sure what to do with that claim, for I only know a couple of people who were kinda sorta told that, but not really. This is mostly something that I think we throw around as an emotional ploy.  More accurately, I think that rather than promising people something we, instead, do an awful job of reminding them that ministry is a tough racket, not for the faint of heart, and that “No, Landon, you’re not really cut out for this.”

(Again, if you’re the exception then you’re the exception. But not everyone gets to be the exception, and I hope we can be honest about this.)

But getting stuck here is not ultimately helpful. Spending our energies trying to convince the church to love us and let us do what we believe in our heart of hearts that we’ve been called to is, I think, a waste of time. Sure, get out your frustration and anger, but then get over it and move on to something productive. Trust me, I’ve been the guy at the Jr. High dance begging a girl to like me. It ain’t fun, and you don’t want to be wrapped up in that.

So here’s Landon’s First Law of Church Work: The system does not pay you to buck it.

That’s a fact. No amount of bitching is going to change it. We need to stop spending our time trying to play like the new church while expecting to get paid like the old.

So. What’s a young(ish) mainline pastor type to do with themselves? Plant a church. Now. Today. Go do it.

“How?” you ask. I suggest taking a look at the experience of our non-denominational brother and sisters.

My uncle used to coach non-denom church planters, and here’s what he would help them do: Find a job in a “ripe” area (define that as you will) that would pay them just enough to pay the bills, but not enough to sap the hunger of needing to do something worthwhile. Then, start gathering a community.

That’s it.

Sure there were conversations about logistical things, but mostly it was my uncle kicking some planter’s butt to do what they said they believed God was calling them to do. Listening to my uncle talk about it, I noticed a difference between what he was helping folks do and what we seem to think it should be like. The pastors my uncle worked with understood that they needed to be responsible for gathering a community. It seems that most of us expect someone to hand us one, even though we’ve never done a day’s worth of evangelism in our lives.

I believe a lot of us have what it takes to start a new worshiping community. But I also believe that we’re scared and lazy. I know I am. I’m petrified and I’m an Introvert to boot.

But one of these days, I’m finally gonna put my money where my mouth is. One of these days, I’m gonna stop foisting my idea of what a church “should be” on a congregation that doesn’t want to be that and go gather folks that see it the way I do.

One of these days, I’m gonna be as faithful as Abraham and simply go East when God says that there’s something cool for me over there.