Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Means of Grace vs. the Means of a Desperate Church Planter

“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” --Matthew 16:18 “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” –1 Corinthians 3:5-7

I am a man who was called by God to be used of him to plant a church. I am not technically a church planter. I am technically someone who waters and sews, but ultimately God is the one who builds his church, brings growth, and tends his vine. In my just over two years of ministry, I have seen God work in incredible and precise ways that have encouraged me greatly. I have watched as God has shaped me as a pastor through this process. He has shown me incredible grace in keeping me faithful the majority of the time. However, I have also become faithless and searched for means to accomplish the “vision” I have for the church. In these short posts, I hope to walk through some of my more glaring moments of faithlessness. My hope is that this will be helpful for the encouragement of future “church planters” to avoid my same sins.

Sin #1: My Vision for Sovereign Grace

When I first started Sovereign Grace I was convinced I needed to have a “vision.” All of the church planting gurus told me that I should work hard on coming up with some master plan of how the church would look in a year, five years, ten years. What was my dream for this church plant? How will it be different from other churches in my area? What is my target group? How will I articulate my “vision” to the congregation?

I got to work on creating a vision for the church. I wrote it, put it in power point, told it to leaders, core group members, and visitors. My “vision” and its clear communication had definite advantages. I was giving people something they could visualize and would desire to join. I was communicating it in such a way that they knew where we were going. The “vision” had measurable goals so we could check our progress. We had definite numbers attached to “the vision” which helped with budgeting. When my “vision” was being accomplished, I was greatly satisfied. When it was not, I was deeply discouraged.

In the midst of my discouragement, I have spent time praying and seeking the Lord in his Word. It became clear to me that I was committing at least three errors:

1. I was basing my “vision” of the church more on contemporary business models, than I was on Scripture.
2. I was more interested in the means of effective church planters in gathering people, than I was in the means of grace provided by God.
3. I believed that building the church was more a function of my ability to cast a clear and compelling “vision,” then it was a function of the power of Christ’s Spirit.

The church is not a business in which we set up a “business plan” or “vision” and clearly communicate that to our customers and investors (By “vision,” I do not mean the clear picture God provides of the church in Scripture. I do not mean starting a church around a particular set of theological commitments, or with the goal to preach expositionally, or pray frequently, or send out missionaries, or have strong small groups. I mean the kind of vision that goes beyond basic biblical commitments and into the realm of measurable outcomes and target groups). The church is the elect people of God who are gathered through the preaching of the Word. When we endeavor to cast a “vision,” we are generally coming up with a picture of a preferable outcome for our venture. We are saying we would like to have “x” number of people, plant “x” number of churches, see “x” number of people baptized, etc. We set measurable goals and we strive to achieve them. We sell people on our preferable outcome and call them to participate and invest.

What happens when our vision is not coming to pass? What happens when people start attending our church who don’t match our target group? What happens when members start to become disappointed that our vision has altered? What happens when a more dynamic church planter with a grander vision and more resources comes along?

All of these questions are generally answered in the same manner: “We need to rethink our “vision”, reprogram our ministries so we become better at achieving it, possibly re-staff our church to align better with the “vision,” and redouble our efforts to bring the “vision” to fruition. We should attend more conference, read more books, and listen to more messages about what other guys are doing to bring about the picture we want to see here.”

Instead, we should repent, read our Bible, and pray for the Lord to align our wills with his. We do not need more “vision” or “better techniques” or “greater effort.” What we need is a Biblical vision of the church! We need to see the church as the gathered people of God. We need to understand that these people are gathered to hear the Word preached, to pray, to sing, to care for one another, to be equipped to build one another up, and to be sent out to evangelize the lost. Certainly, we should plan how this is best accomplished. However, to establish some “vision” with numbers and a timeline attached is to assume that our job as pastors is grander than it is. It is too assume that we build the church, or we bring the increase. It is also to assume that faithful and fruitful ministry always equates with growing numbers of people in our church plant.

How do we gather people to our local church? We simply pray and preach the Word to everyone we come in contact with. We depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to call out Christ’s elect. If we simply employ the means of grace and look to God to work powerfully, God will do far more abundantly than we could ever hope or think. We may not draw in large numbers of people or be erecting buildings on our timeline, but God’s Spirit will be working to powerfully change the people he has gathered to the local church he is building through us.