In the fast changing missional environment of North America, the typical worship-centered new church launch is often only about half the size we would have seen in the 1990s with exactly the same strategies and excellence of music and preaching. Most of our best mainline new church plants (that begin with a high focus on public worship) are now weighing in at just enough people to offer financial sustainability, and with little more. And for every new church project that hits a financial sustainability threshold within a few years, many others fall short–either bleeding denominational grant funds for years, developing the DNA of small, struggling church or just closing down before they really ever got started. It is a shame, since so many of these church plants are offering excellent ministry, excellent teaching, excellent arts and so forth.
Even dicier than the conventional new church plants are the non-conventional ones! You know, the ones that really reach for folks who are not church people, the ones that use local mission engagement as a gathering strategy, the ones that meet in bars, that seek to create ‘safe space’ for pagans and believers alike. They can be a heck of a lot of fun – but only the rarest of exceptions ever gets off external financial life support. Important note: The shrinking remnant of would-be church-goers in the USA is skewed toward (1) new immigrants, (2) lower education, (3) rural or suburban childhood history, and/or (4) more conservative social ideology. Even among those populations, it is getting harder. But unless your mission field is characterized by two or more of above four dynamics, planting and sustaining faith communities is getting extremely difficult in the United States.
There is one strategy that will be front and center for all faith community movements that get anywhere in America in the decades ahead. Regardless of theology, ideology, worship style or lack of worship, the one key deal to any movement that is going to multiply is this: leader development.
- Leaders who mentor others.
- Leaders who regularly pull aside four, six or eight disciples to go very deep into the adventure of faith, so as to help people discover and respond to God’s call on their lives.
- Leaders who multiply the leader capacity in the system.
- Leaders whose lives are obsessed with the promise of following Jesus, and pass that obsession on to others.
Too often in both the worship-centered church and even the missional church, we offer church LITE: very consumer-oriented, user-friendly and entertaining. There is nothing wrong with this. It is a good starting point with almost any sort of population. But this approach (often called attractional) is insufficient if we are not intentional about adding a house to the front porch. If we only build and stay on the porch, whatever it is that we are building will cease growing, and most likely cap out at a size unable to sustain itself for the long-term. Simply organizing worshippers into volunteers, or (God help us all) into committees, will not solve this problem. Volunteers and committees will enable us to eek along and manage a barely-sustainable church enterprise. But did God really call us to bare-subsistence church work?
It takes disciples for a church to really thrive. The heart of developing leaders is taking folks on a high-impact journey with Jesus, and cultivating in them the same kind of spiritual intensity that Jesus worked three years to cultivate in his first twelve. If you aren’t intentionally, personally, systematically, intensely developing disciples of Jesus, your church will not come anywhere near its true potential. And neither will any of your people.