Our Church Planting Model Is Broken

Our model is broken.

For decades we’ve planted mid-size to large Hope Chapels in Hawaii. Mostly shooting for 150 at start, some grew beyond it. Most stabilized around the original size. Some shrank then stabilized. And a couple failed.

No More Public Schools

But we almost always planted in public schools. Two factors pretty much killed that: A. When others jumped into church planting, the schools became filled with churches. B. A lawsuit against a large church frightened school leadership from renting to churches.

With nowhere to launch, our model is broken. But, that is a good thing. Read on and I’ll tell you why.

No Change Without Pain

Organisms seldom adapt without a threat to their existence. We were stuck reaching middle-class, middle of the road people. The changes force adaption and innovation.

By moving to “micro-churches” we are more able to fulfill the Great Commission. I especially like the “disciples of all nations” bit. We know that the large nation-state may have been included but Jesus actually insists on something more tribal—“ethne.” Because our past model broke we have a shot at doing the real thing.

Urban church planting requires microchurches in apartments, food-courts, bars and coffeeshops. Workplace meeting spaces don’t need to stick to supporting Bible-studies, they can house churches (there is a vast difference between the two).

We are learning to touch people who would never fit in a church like those we started in the past (some grow large enough to rent schools or even buy property, but they are few).

An Untapped Source Of Church Planters

We have tapped into a tremendous leadership base. Lots of people in our churches feel called to plant a church but could never pastor more than 50 people. Many are in communication with groups outside middle-class society. One microchurch serves recent graduates of our prison system. A group of surfers meeting on the beach is another thought—as are recent immigrants. One man will plant in the gay community (he refuses to perform weddings, either homo or hetero).

The Future Belongs To The Unconventional

The future is waiting to happen. We just need to invent it.

Nobody knew they needed an iphone till Steve Jobs obsessed over change. He was one of those rare individuals who looked for change without being forced into it. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren come to mind as does Henry Ford–the guy who invented our modern system of personal loans (he also built a few cars, but that is a different story).

Most of us only make significant change when pain overtakes us (it is better to change your diet before the first heart attack).

Sometimes one door closing opens several others. Keep your eyes open and you can make similar moves without being forced…





6 thoughts on “Our Church Planting Model Is Broken”

  1. Ralph,

    I think your last statement, “The Future Belongs To The Unconventional” is so true. (As long as the “Unconventional” is God) Our traditional models of church in the modern cultural and societal context are what is failing in many ways. Recent studies conducted by Pew show that traditional denominations are in decline and have an uphill battle. Conversations with those who are not churched show a general distrust of organised “impersonal” religion.

    Here’s an example: a neighbour who had professed atheism now believe they were wrong in their former beliefs and are now seeking God. But traditional church venues are threatening to them as too big. My local area has several mega-churches with attendance well over 2,000 in any given service. These multi-site campus models are great in one way but have many challenges. (Especially to those who fear large crowds) So what is the answer for my neighbour? We encourage them to join us for worship in our home church and continue to offer an invitation and faith that they will join us soon. In this case, smaller is better.

    One neighbourhood church has been without a pastor for about a year. I just heard their Associate Pastor is moving on to plant churches. Members are leaving or ageing out. The upper middle-class demographic which had filled our local churches 30-years ago have raised their children and moved on to be replaced by a predominately immigrant population. It’s like a reverse mission. Peoples that would otherwise be reached via overseas missions are coming here. I see great opportunity in this but do not know what this church is (or is not) doing about it. I do know they recognised the trend and implications for the future of the church as it was discussed in a general meeting shortly before the Senior Pastor left for another church out-of-state.

    Another church, locally rooted 30-years ago, has dwindled in the same way with their elementary school now having been closed due to lack of enrolled students and the entire campus now on sale. Thankfully they have leadership inviting the community to grow with them as they downsize and move forward. Their interest is to trade mortgage and maintenance costs for missions and outreach. They are keenly seeking church planters to support and retune their vision to being a church that plants churches and presses intentional engagement on a missional level more and more. The large and beautiful campus is being converted into funds to advance the Kingdom in missions and outreach.

    So even established churches are having to reinvent themselves and re-plant as they look toward missional engagements to serve in their modern context. But for those of us who are asking where to go in the field to plant? Sometimes we only have to look as far as an app to find it.

    BBC is running a story called, “As an open-air heroin camp is closed, options narrow”. It is a horrific, tragic yet fascinating read highlighting in SCREAMING RED HILIGHTER a place where the “unconventional” be found. An open air heroin camp in a Philidelphia neighbourhood where addicts have what they consider a safe place away from predators, the police and public. Local users call their sanctuary a place where they can lay their head at night and not sleep with one eye open. Their fear is that the local authorities will clear-out the area and force them from their “haven”. The article quotes Kensington as the largest open-air drugs market on the East Coast.

    The local neighbourhoods are largely boarded-up and abandoned. Used needles litter the landscape from users like one 41-year old father of two who lost his wife last year by drowning after a heart attack in the bathtub.

    Quoting BBC: “‘I had everything, ‘ he said. ‘I had a beautiful life, I had a beautiful wife. In the blink of an eye it got took from me. That was a year and a week ago.'”

    Now an addict, he lives on the street and under the bridge which houses this community of junkies.

    One of the locations that users congregate is an abandoned church on Westmoreland Street. Homeless addicts had made a makeshift home there hiding their stuff under the organ pipes. When the authorities arrived to kick them out, some of them discussed moving to a different abandoned row house, debating which ones were safe. Saddest of all is the note that is handwritten on the wooden door of the abandoned house of worship, “Time to move on”.

    The future belongs to the unconventional. In my area that seems to be so true. Established churches are having to reinvent themselves to reflect the community in which they are planted, or go extinct. We as new church planters have the opportunity to innovate and adapt to the needs of our communities, especially micro-communities, and establish specific and targetted missional outreaches that connect and cultivate trust that points hearts to the living and loving God.

    I think Brian Houston said it best in the title of his book, “Live Love Lead – Your Best Is Yet To Come”. Smaller churches that foster social connection and support per the model given us by our First Century brothers and sisters offer a field of opportunity to spread the Gospel and plant micro-churches where the saints live out life together as a natural function of their daily lives. Not a function of seeing each other for an hour every seven days.

    Yes, the future belongs to the unconventional. The future belongs to God!

  2. Bobby Gilbert

    It is good to read this article. I got a “go” to begin a bible study in our “church hall”. The format will be reading a chapter of the day and then in the next seven days read the following chapters. In the next meeting in seven days, we will review the last six chapters and then pick up on the chapter of the day. The focus is on reading the bible. The priest and I had a short go around and he gave me a go.

    I was going to go with “FranzVine” as the gathering, but I figured I should for the time being leave “name out” and focus on what the bible study is about which is basically, “bible for beginners”. Again, the focus is reading.

    I am trying to hook up with Vineyard Pastor in Munich who also the “main man” for the South Bavaria area. The Vineyard Augsburg finally died. It should have a couple years ago. It was running on fumes. My suggestion was to break them up and “grab the productive possible people into a group”. Let the others stay on fumes. Anyways, the final outcome happen and it completely died.

    This is maybe a open door to get a “ministry” that could possibly be backed by a denomination that leaves a lot of room for other “christians to be involved without leaving their denominations”. Vineyard has its problems which is doctrinal although my friend in Munich runs a tight ship and focused. He has not gotten back to me.

    Honestly, my wife is for all practical, spiritual and heartiful not really a church planter. What is good with our work with the Catholic church is she has found herself a “working ministry” with the kids/adults/parents who are involved in altar work. We have a few adults who still do altar work. We have also developed a “clique” that has taken almost 2 and half years to jell. This is good. We are gathering. The challenge is where do we begin and how do we begin to make the gospel of Christ in their lives beyong the liturgy. A lot of more slow work.

    I have other reasons and other goals. I would like to get a ministry or church plant happening. I have a few people who would jump in to help, but they are mostly the problem “children” from the Vineyard church. I guess I don’t have to look to them or have them following me around for now. They have their hands full with their marraigge problems. It is very complicated problems.

    I have thought on the topic of “where we meet”. A lesbian pair who ran a restaurant where we met to get a “feel” for bible study is again crossing our paths. They are separating. In the course of their separation, I was allowed to be honest about my position. In fact, they have a smaller bowling alley in their restaurant. We took the “altar kids” there today. For some reason, I am crossing paths with them or one of them. I think she has a new “friend”.

    In September, I can use the church hall on Thursdays to do “Bible for beginners”. We are moving to a place where we were never before. I never advertised the bible studies or meetings that we had going. It was more of a “training field” for Petra to get a feel for doing ministry. I am hoping to develop in the next year, “Love Feasts” at other people’s houses. ‘We had one barbecue with the families at one house. We went to the botanical garden for a night lighting showing. Dragging the bible into the gatherings hopefull will turn into “Natural acceptance”.

    Very slow work . . .

  3. Hi Ralph,
    This is the creative thought that fuels mission. When called people see possibilities in mission they grow confident and go for it. Here is a case in point:
    I will never forget the impact of an interim pastor we had here in Southern Nevada.
    He had a 1 year mission to help a struggling church of 200 that had suffered the tragic loss of its long time pastor. Within 6 months he had released three different leaders into their planting and missions call. He just talked about the great commission every Sunday and all the possibilities there were to plant churches in different contexts! The mother church blessed the export of the Gospel and hundreds (I know this for a fact) of new people have been reached for Christ since that time!
    Ralph thanks for pushing the missional ball forward. Lives depend on it, for eternity!

    1. Wow, just talking about the GC and granting permission is pretty much all it takes. Unfortunately, most people make this far more complicated than it is. Don’t believe the early church required elders to do much more than shepherd people and discuss truth in light of scripture. Wish we were all smart enough to see that.

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