What Is Good Soil for Starting New Churches?

Last week I visited one of my favorite spaces in the world: London’s Tate Modern museum, which is currently featuring an installation by artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, called “Empty Lot.” Cruzvillegas’s sculpture is a labyrinth of raised garden beds built from recycled wood and filled with soil from dozens of neighborhood parks across London.

Nothing has been added to the exhibit over its six-month life except water and light, and yet day-by-day, it changes. It’s a complex piece of living art. Some of the planters have become fields of green; others, scraggly tangles of brambles; a few show no visible growth at all.

emptylotdec2015

As I pondered this weird micro-farm, I thought of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, in which Jesus describes four different kinds of terrain, three of which produce little to nothing when farmed, and one of which — the “good soil” — produces an extraordinary harvest. The traditional interpretation of the parable, stemming from Jesus’s own teaching, is basically that receptivity to God (that is, good soil) will yield increased manifestations of spiritual growth (that is, good harvest).

Abundance Rates & Failure Rates

I once heard a conference speaker use this parable to talk about starting new churches. He extrapolated a bit, noting that since only one in four terrains (25%) yields abundance, there is a 75% failure rate. Therefore, he advised, in order to be fruitful, we should not only start more churches, but we should also learn to focus our planting in the ideal terrain — in the “good soil.”

With the speaker’s first point, I am all in. I definitely agree that we should start more churches and faith communities. In my opinion, church planting — or pioneering, as it’s often called in the United Kingdom — should become standard operating procedure for every region of the Church. It should be as “normal” in the mission strategy and budget of a judicatory (conference, district, diocese, synod, association, etc.) as children’s ministry, property insurance, or the salary of the bishop.

That said, I thoroughly disagree with the speaker’s second point, particularly when it comes to denominational or judicatory planting strategies.  We should have deep reservations about directing our energy only toward the demographic “soil” we perceive to be the best. Such a selective focus not only potentially limits the diversity of people we might be in ministry with, but also reduces the options for church-starting models that might be employed. If the conventional wisdom is that “one soil is best,” then what usually follows is the conventional wisdom that “one planting model is best.” To my mind, that’s not real wisdom. (Additionally, it’s very boring.)

Moving Beyond an Either/Or Strategy

I’ve noticed this either/or tendency in my conversations with leaders and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic — and in myself, too. Large church planters say that good soil is wherever you can eventually grow a weekly worship attendance of over 500 adults. Niche pioneers say that numbers don’t really matter and that good soil is wherever you can have a meaningful conversation with someone. Some believe that an attractional model is the best way to grow a church; others disparage trying to attract anyone at all and lift up a missional or incarnational model as the most authentic, regardless of whether there is any numerical growth.

My sense is that, at the end of the day, most of us tend to go with what we know. That’s an understandable if unreflective human bias.

Don’t get me wrong: going with what we know is not necessarily a bad practice, especially at the beginning of a particular project, as long as we don’t superficially award the “most faithful” label to the model that is, if we’re honest, really only our personal preference or cultural default.

But a monocultural, “what you know,” “one-soil-and-one-model” practice is absolutely less than ideal, in my opinion, when the goal is developing a long-term, multiple-project strategy of church starting and church revitalization for a whole region.

Another Take on the Parable

As I pondered the “Empty Lot” last week, a museum guide told me that the installation would soon be taken down. The whole exhibit, made of found things, will be recycled again. I found myself thinking of the raised beds where there has not been any growth yet: “But it’s only been six months! What if it just takes longer in some places for something to sprout?”

It does sometimes take longer. Actually, these days, when it comes to starting new churches and faith communities, it often takes longer.

We’ve been so conditioned by the “only-one-soil-is-good” interpretation that we miss the truth hidden in Jesus’s parable that growth actually happens in three of the four terrains. The “success rate” for initial growth is actually 75%, not 25%, but long-term potential, according to the parable, is stifled by oppression and trauma or choked by greed and egocentric desire.

Towards a “Mixed Economy”

What if, instead of starting new churches only in demographically targeted patches of “good soil,” we broadened our scope of approach and model? Actually, what if, instead of defaulting to obsessive market segmentation, we began to see all soil as good soil and all contexts as good contexts for being on mission with God (and being missioned ourselves by God)? What if we acknowledged that in some contexts, an attractional model really works, in other contexts, an incarnational model really works, and in most contexts, some hybrid will work best? What if, in addition to planting in fast-growth places, we made it possible to minister long haul in places where growth is trickier due to materialism, unchecked white privilege and white supremacy, addiction in its many forms, or other contemporary versions of the thorny and rocky conditions that Jesus diagnoses in his parable? What if the rubric for evaluating the “success” of church planters included not only how quickly she or he or they are able grow a harvest in easy soil but also by how thoroughly committed she or he or they (and their church) are to engaging and dismantling the pernicious systems that restrain God’s vision of wholeness for all people?

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, uses the economics term “mixed economy” to describe such an orientation: a diversified portfolio of (even contradictory) attitudes, theologies, missiologies, models and practices that can be employed across a range of terrains for the common good and the common goal of starting new things to reach new places and new people. Williams’s prayerful, humble brilliance knows that it is always context — not your preferred model or theology du jour — that should shape mission.

Planting and pioneering strategies for a mixed economy are necessarily more complicated and more difficult to oversee and lead, which is why, again, we tend toward what we know. But flexible, future-oriented leaders will accept the challenge because they know that a mixed economy is actually both more faithful and, over time, more successful. So they put together a weird, counterintuitive, Gospel portfolio that in the long haul will mean fewer and fewer empty lots.

Just a Few Suggestions

My personal experience with a mixed economy approach comes from helping start Urban Village Church, a multi-neighborhood and multi-group project in city center Chicago, and from mentoring and coaching scores of church planters, residents, and interns across a wide range of contexts.

A few suggestions for a mixed economy strategy:

  • Make bold plans.

A mixed economy approach does not give permission for missional vagueness or entitled laziness. Placing a high value on a diversity of approaches should not be mistaken for laissez-faire oversight. Diverse planters and pioneers should be encouraged to dream boldly; challenged to contextually communicate those dreams in clear, compelling, vernacular (non-insider) language; and then coached to build practical plans to humbly try to bring those dreams into being.

“What are you doing to experiment with that idea or accomplish that idea?” “How are you moving from imagination into action?” “How will you involve people beyond yourself in that action?” These should be a regular questions and conversations in coaching and supervision relationships across the mixed economy.

  • There should always be metrics, but the metrics will be different for each context.

Please, let’s do away with the false dichotomy of “numbers mean everything” or “numbers mean nothing.” Benchmarks are important, of course, but make sure you’re measuring appropriate things. As a coach, I’m interested in how many folks turn out for small and large gatherings that a church hosts, but I’m equally interested in how many times the pioneer/planter AND members of their leadership team have met individually with neighborhood leaders and unaffiliated folks in their community or locality. And I’m even more interested in how lay leaders are being continually developed for real ministry.

One church plant I’m coaching is just at the very beginning of casting an intentionally multi-ethnic and anti-racist Gospel vision. Because of how racism works, though, building a diverse leadership team around that vision will probably require more time and more intentionality from them than building a mono-ethnic team would require. We absolutely must take current realities and power histories such as that into account when setting appropriate metrics and benchmarks. Context, context, context.

  • A mixed economy strategy is for local churches, not just judicatories.

I believe that every Christian community, both established and new, both inherited expression and fresh expression, should build into their five-year ministry map a risky experiment of starting something new in a different terrain, hopefully outside of their current building or default mission framework. This will help dismantle the suspicion that church planting or pioneering is something that only a certain type of leader or congregation does and will reposition planting as a normative practice not only of judicatories but also of local congregations.

Conclusion

With an increasing receptivity to the counterintuitive truth that abundance and failure are both integral parts of any healthy approach, the good news is that it’s a weird and wonderful time to be making plans for new churches and faith communities.

And the even better news is that God is always ahead of our plans: active in every city block, every village green, every empty lot, every square inch of soil in all of creation. Together let’s partner with God to see what will grow.

If you’re interested in finding out more about my ministry as a coach, check out the website of the Epicenter Group. Or email me at trey@epicentergroup.org to schedule a free conversation about how I might partner with you in the future.

 

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One thought on “What Is Good Soil for Starting New Churches?

  1. This morning, I reread notes from a sermon you gave in November of 2014, where the last note I took was, “How you spend your money is a reflection of how you want the world to be.” It immediately made me think of this blog entry, in that maybe where and how you choose to start and grow a church is a reflection of how you want the world to be, too. Just a little morning connection!

    Liked by 2 people

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