Controversies, Part 2: Bastard Church Plants

You may not consider the topic of church planting and launching controversial at all but I do. Why? I’ve marvelled since I was a young girl at the number of churches you find on one block. Growing up in Indianapolis, I could count fifteen churches for every seven blocks on just about any given street, especially the east side.

But I also marvelled at something else:

The lack of community transformation.

I’ll use three rough neighborhoods I lived in as a kid to underscore the issue. In the neighborhoods I grew up in, there were a plethora of liquor stores, taverns, and bootleg numbers-playing operations (that would be illegal lotteries). Worst of all, crack dealers were on the rise and doing business in broad daylight.

The remedy, some would say, is to plant a church in that neighborhood. That will fix everything! Or plant multiple churches. That is exactly what I witnessed. Unfortunately, few if any of these churches were able to be change agents for the kingdom of God. What the heck happened? I was a perplexed young teenager wondering why folks were wasting time and energy in such a hellhole.

Looking back now as an aspiring church planter/launcher, there are several problems:

1. Illegitimate Conception. One of the first questions that I always ask leaders is how their churches were birthed. The more I learned how a number of these churches started, the clearer it became why the churches failed. They were started by some guy or gal who was offended that their pastor wasn’t allowing them to preach. I kid you not. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard fake wanna-be pastors complain about how their old pastors were “holding them back” and “quenching the Spirit” by not releasing their giftings. So their response was to leave and “pioneer” a new church. Look, God is no cosmic dead-beat dad. What He fathers, He cares for. Whenever we plant churches that God did not birth, we create bastard church plants that are doomed to fail. I know: I was a part of one when I was about 8 years old. Please see Perry Noble’s #1 piece of advice to church planters.

2. “Loving” from a Distance. Another pattern I noticed as a teenager living in these neighborhoods was that the leaders and members had little or no interaction with the people they said they were called to minister to. I give credit to one particular ministry who held youth rallies every weekend with free food and games for the kids. At least they were consistent in doing something with the people. But most of the churches were content to come on Sunday, shout a little, tell folks how they “had the Holy Ghost,” and then leave until the next Sunday. We have plenty of examples from the New Testament where Paul writes churches in cities where he is not residing. In fact, Paul wrote most of the New Testament from prison! I’m not trying to be legalistic here but people need to know that you care about them as people before they’re willing to give you their ears. Jesus ministered to the whole person; so must we.

3. Cowardice. I hate to pull this out as a reason but a lot of the church members were scared to engage the people, not sure if they’d get “jacked” (in my ‘hood, that means getting your behind kicked) or shot. I lay most of the blame at the feet of the pastoral leadership who I rarely saw engaging anyone even after Sunday services. I am not cracking pastors for being afraid of circumstances in the communities in which they are planted. I live across the street from a gang-infested apartment building in Los Angeles and don’t go out of my way to instigate drama. But I won’t allow anybody to control my space. Churches that God launches into areas like the ones I grew up in had better understand the authority they have from Jesus. Why would Jesus begin the Great Commission by talking about the authority he has? Because the apostles needed to know in whose power they’d be making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, TNIV). Jesus promised that the “gates of death” would not prevail against the Church. That means that the Church is coming against the gates of hell and those gates will not overcome us. But for too long this verse has been misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied to mean that the Church is always on the defensive. WRONG! The kingdom of darkness is on the defensive, at least from Jesus’ perspective.

4. Soil Ignorance. If you do not know who God is sending you to, then attempting to minister to those people will be hijacked. God-ordained church plants will seek to know the people before they attempt to do anything else. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in seminary came from my Small Church professor who said one of the first things any new pastor of a church should do is to find out who the influencers are in the church and then get to know them. I believe that same principle would work well in the community. I remember certain grandmamas who knew every family on the block and could diagnose the root cause of just about any social ill on their block. How much more could the kingdom of God advance in this area if church leaders reached out to the influencers (not exclusively, of course). But you have to actually hang with the people long enough to know who’s who. If gang activity pervades your area, find the leaders and chill with them. Yes, I said that.

5. Mission Shrinkage. By this I mean that for too long, we’ve heard that churches are to impact the neighborhoods they are in. And that is true. I’ve heard myself say the same time and again. But I realized just last night that I needed to abandon that mentality. Missional churches are not content to impact only the neighbhorhoods in which they reside; they seek to advance the kingdom locally and globally. I am convinced that seeking to impact a neighborhood alone is one of the main reasons why we have a bajillion churches within a one-mile radius of each other but few people are receiving Christ and communities are still drug-infested, crime-ridden pissholes where kids can’t even sit on their porches in peace. To anyone wanted to plant a church to impact a neighbhorhood, I’d say please don’t. We have enough unhealthy churches with small vision multiplying as it is.

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4 thoughts on “Controversies, Part 2: Bastard Church Plants

  1. Great post! I agree with what you said and it is true that there are a lot of people (including planters) who want to share Jesus without getting their hands dirty. Shaun Garman of Red Sea Church shared a similar story about your topic once and it has resonated with me ever since. I won’t get into the details but essentially he talked about you have to get in the crap to find the diamond. Another great story is that of David Wilkerson; The Cross and the Switchblade.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. James, thanks so much for that story. Shaun’s observation hits me square in the eyes (and heart for that matter). Jesus should be our model for how to engage people but sometimes I think we’re too freakin’ smart and educated for our own good. There are some awesome pastors and leaders who put on great conferences on church planting. But conferences are no substitute for a Spirit-empowered, Christocentric engagement of people where they are and not simply where we want them to be.

    By the way, LOVE your site. May I include it on my blogroll?

  3. You’re welcome! And I try and stay uneducated so that I don’t get too smart for my own good. : )

    It is easy to get caught up in the conference stuff and focusing on the wrong things. I have seen guys who have been bitten by the “church planting hero” bug and talk about being missional but prefer sharing Jesus at Starbucks rather than the hood. But not all church planters think that way and I feel Shaun is one of those genuine dudes who meets people where they are. I have found this to be true of many of the A29 guys. Personally I prefer hanging on the “wrong” side of the tracks. It feels more like “home” to me – but that’s another story!

    Thanks for your feedback on my site. I’d be honored if you listed me in your blogroll.

  4. Loved your description for item #1. The ‘church on every streetcorner’ mentality is starting to permeate the city where I live and many of their pastors have the same excuses you stated and try to use the “Moses / Joshua” mentality of them as Joshua and their ex-pastor as Moses to justify their actions. Also, I hear and see this mentality of ‘we’re the only ones doing anything for Jesus and you need to get on board’ coming out of these same churches and when people do criticize, resort to the pragmatic point of ‘what are you doing for Jesus’ to shut people up trying to equate you ‘doing nothing’ in their eyes does not give you any right to observe, analyze, and comment..

    You are exactly right, God is not a ‘cosmic deadbeat dad’ and these churches that are formed out of this mentality do fail leaving hurt people behind that the other churches are either not equipped to deal with or the other churches want them to get ‘resaved’ again.

    Unfortunately, very few of these pastors that pastor these types of churches ever go back to the home church like a prodigal son. Instead, they pick another demographic in another city based on some cultural trends they analyzed in some magazine or saw on MTV2 and try again.

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