16 Church Planting Lessons

Someone recently asked me for my thoughts on planting a house church (or a ‘simple church’ as they prefer to call it). I too resist the ‘house church label’ – at ‘Living Room’ we don’t refer to ourselves in that way.

My thoughts or advice or lessons on Church Planting are only given hesitantly as they are OUR lessons. ‘Ours’ not because we own them or have a patent pending but because they are what we’ve learnt in our context in the period of time that we’ve been experimenting. They may or may not be universal lessons applicable to all. I’ve previously written quite a few of these ‘lessons’ and rather than rehashing them all here I thought I’d just provide some links and headings:

The first ten lessons were written after one year of being established. They were perhaps a little more ‘theoretical’ than the last five. We were very much testing and experimenting in the first year.

1. Get your DNA right

Getting some sort of DNA/Core Values etc together has been really important for us. I would recommend that any group starting out take their time on working through this stuff as it is foundational. I’ve seen a number of new churches fall over because this was not done – it was assumed that everyone was on the same page, but when the time came to make important decisions there was a whole heap of different expectations on what the group existed for. For us this process centred around story telling – I think you will find descriptions of some of the process on my blog back in March sometime.

2. Make Mission Central

Too many churches (and individuals) have the attitude of having to have the worship, constitution, structure, preaching, buildings etc worked out before they do mission. In this sense they want to get their ecclesiology worked out before they work out their missiology. I believe this is the wrong way around. Ecclesiology should emerge out of missiology. This is the way I see it happening in Acts. The early church didn’t really have much worked out when it came to how they organized themselves when the Holy Spirit got them into Mission. As you do mission you begin to see what the church should look like. As you begin to interact with your wider community you begin to see what shape worship might take etc.

3. Read Shaping of Things to Come

The Shaping of Things to Come’ – by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost is the best thing I’ve read written about missional church. It will give you a language to talk about Mission and help people to challenge some of their paradigms of church/mission. We ran it as our main meeting – I would suggest either running it as a separate meeting or to break it up a little with other stuff if you’re just starting out as it goes for 3 months and you might need to be also working on other things. I know of a number of groups who started with Ignition and ended up planting churches – its a great starting point that will give your group a great paradigm and language for mission.

4. Multiplication rather than Addition. So far this is only theory for us – we are yet to test it but I have seen other groups take the principles of multiplication and really have an impact. The principle is simple, rather than growing one large group by adding people to it one by one – start multiple new groups. When the initial group grows to around 12-15 (this is the number I’m thinking about for us – what number this is is up to each group and probably will depend on a number of factors) start to plan to start another group. I’ve seen this principle lived out in a couple of circumstances and the growth has been quite amazing. Neil Cole’s organization in the US has started around 400 communities in 5 years this way. If you put multiplication into the DNA of groups at the beginning their growth can be quite virus like.

5. Simplicity – Replica-table (is that a word?) – in order for a virus to spread – the organism has to be pretty simple and easy to replicate in a variety of different cultures. By replicate I’m not talking about cloning but rather taking the DNA and allowing something new to emerge elsewhere.

For us – our DNA (our 3 Core Journeys) is pretty basic, but has the scope to express itself quite differently in different groups of people. For instance if our next cluster/community is birthed among café goers it will express itself quite differently to if we started a cluster among artists, or families meeting in homes etc. We’ve tried to keep things as simple as we can – not only in DNA but in gatherings etc. Renovare is also a great tool that helps with this – again it can be run in a variety of different groups very effectively effectively.

6. Incarnation – I’ve already hinted in the last point that we’re interested in different cultural groups. This is not because we want to keep people separate from each other (I hope that the different clusters that emerge our of Living Room will meet together regularly and be involved in a variety of activities in partnership) but because our approach to mission and church is incarnational.

Christ gave us a model for mission – he came and made himself a part of humanity – in particularly a culture within the human race. He learnt the language of that culture and operated from within the rhythms of it. This is an approach I believe we can take as we look at the different cultural groups in our midst. For us this is quite accentuated as I live in a very multicultural city with many ethnic and sub cultural groups. Mission (and then church) will look different in each of these groups as it takes seriously the culture. In the same way that we respect and work within the culture in overseas contexts when we do mission (these days) we should also respect and work within the subcultures we move in here in Melbourne.

Instead of converting people and dragging them from their host culture back into the church (where they will become like us) – the Incarnational approach is to GO into the world and make disciples there.

7. Sending vs Attractional approach
– Central in the idea of incarnation is ‘going’. Churches often take a very ‘attractional’ approach to mission. They say things like – ‘if we just tweak what we do or look like more people will come’. If the band plays a different style music, if the car park is bigger, if the foyer is a warmer color, if our preaching is better – people will come. I’m not sure how biblical this is. Christ said – GO into all the world and make disciples where you find them. Of course the ‘attractional’ models do ‘work’ with a certain percentage of the population – but I think in Australia this percentage is shrinking. I’m excited that more and more churches are gathering ‘in the world’ rather than hoping that the world will come to them.

8. Participation is key. This is something I have learnt but also something we at Living Room can work more on. Church has been too passive in most settings for too long. I don’t see the call of Jesus as being passive at all. All members of Livingroom participate in what we do almost every week. This happens best in the meal we eat in that everyone is responsible to bring something to the table whether it be a main dish, bread, wine, sweets or fruit. Even new people are asked to bring something on their first or second week. Participation can and should extend beyond this to the gatherings themselves. Worship, learning, prayer etc can all be very participatory. Even very reflective meditative exercises can become a group process with the right debriefing.

9. Community – Shared life.
Read Acts 2 and you get a picture of a dynamic community of people who are very involved in each others lives. Community extends beyond a cup of coffee after a service or a ‘sharing time’ at the end of a bible study. It includes these things, but I think we need to be striving to really know each other. To go around the group and say one thing that happened to us this week seems a rather empty expression of community – shouldn’t we already be aware of what is going on in others lives because we’ve been connecting with them and sharing life already? This is a challenging one for us – we live in a culture that is very individualistic, to break the patterns takes intentionality.

10. Have fun – Ok, this might not be the most technical lesson or one you’ll find in too many books – but if the process isn’t life giving and enjoyable people are not going to want to be a part of it. Let your creativity run rampant. Try new things, keep them surprising and unpredictable (Jesus did). Eat lots of good food, drink some good wine, enter into the celebrations of your culture, watch movies together go on trips as a group, laugh lots and enjoy one another’s company. Don’t be too serious – life’s too short.If that wasn’t enough I also wrote More Church Planting Lessons from the LivingRoom after another 6 months of meeting. These tips were perhaps a little more out of our experience. They are:

11. Go Slow – It takes time to build relationships with each other and with the wider community. I’ve seen a number of people start churches who have gone in with guns blazing and the up shot of it was that it didn’t last. We spent a long time getting to know each other as a core group of people, spent a lot of time working on our values/dna and whilst I was a little frustrated at the time at the slowness of our growth (we had one new person in a year!) I’m really grateful for the strong foundations of values and relationships that we now have.My online buddy asked me at this point about buildings and how early to start talking about them. I responded:’I’m not against buildings – but I think they should emerge out of the dna and the opportunities that arise and that takes a lot of time to discern. If we’d got a building when we started it would have been the wrong building for where we are now.’I’m not sure if or when we’ll have a building – at the moment I doubt that we will – but if we do I’d hope that it emerges out of our missional activity rather than anything else.

12. Make it as connected as possible to people’s real lives – We’ve really tried hard to ground what we do in our weekly gatherings in what people do in the other 98% of their week. I think the temptation when you are involved in a little group like ours is to hide away and be all ‘spiritual’ and ‘holy’. So we don’t do just ‘spiritual stuff’ – or rather we’ve widened what we see as ‘spiritual stuff’ and talk a fair bit about real life – work, friends, social issues. Our recent ‘food’ series was good in this way.

13. Don’t just meet in Houses – This is related to the last one I suppose but I have been pondering it today. I think we can begin to break down the wall between the ‘holy huddle’ mentality that its easy to fall into the trap of and the ‘everyday spirituality’ that I talked about above by actually shifting the gathering space to an everyday space on a regular basis. I’ve documented some of our attempts to do this on this blog and I find it to be an incredibly rich experience every time we do it. I think its easy for a church to be defined by the building it meets in (house church, pup church, cafe church) and think its useful to mix things up a bit and to find other words to describe what you do (the reason why I rarely describe LivingRoom as a ‘house church’).

14. Don’t let Church Dominate Life – Again this is related but its been such a big lesson for me personally. Its so easy to let Church become an overwhelming dominant thing in one’s life. Now I’ve got nothing against church – as far as things go its probably on the good end of the spectrum of things that you could allow to dominate your life – but as a minister I think I’ve been guilty in the past of expecting my congregations to give every spare moment in their week to the programs and ministries that I run for them. In the process I created a monster that consumed people’s lives. In the process I ran the risk of disconnecting them from their families, work places, social clubs, friends, neighbors and personal hobbies and interests and what God was doing around them in their natural rhythms of life.

I’m learning that if we allow people (and ourselves) time to live a little that they actually become much more effective in mission and that they find God and grow in their understanding and relationship with him in some amazingly surprising places!

Again – I have nothing against programs or ministries – but I think that we need to really take our time and ask some big questions about them before we rush into adding another expectation into people’s lives.

15. Be Shaped by the Outsider – I’m reading a business book by Seth Godin at the moment called ‘Free Prize’ and today he talked about how when developing a new product you should focus your attentions NOT on your satisfied customers but those who were dissatisfied and who had a need. There is no point in developing a new product for your existing happy customers because they will probably buy it anyway – the way to expand your customer base is to focus on the dissatisfied ones. Now I’m not wanting to say that those who attend church are ‘customers’ – but it made me wonder who most churches spend most of their time and energies focussing upon.

I’ve got a friend who once said to me – ‘What we do in our church is defined not by who attends it – but by who doesn’t attend it.’ In saying this he was advising me to spend time thinking about my culture, my neighbor, my work mate and allowing who they are to help shape what we do as a church. I think there is some real wisdom in those words. Not that we forget about those in our community when thinking about how we are shaped as a church – but that we also allow those on the edges and outside our community to shape it also.

I’m sure there will be ‘even more Church Planting lessons’ that I’ll write at some stage after a little more reflection but this will have to do for the time being. I will however add one more brief one:

16. Be careful what you blog about – whilst blogging is a wonderful tool for communication, learning and networking it can also be used inappropriately. It might be worth having a brief conversation with your group as to what you can and can’t blog about. – I personally have chosen not to identify by names people in our group. – I have posted a few photos from time to time but limit this. I also choose not to blog about decisions we’re making in much detail until they have been made. – I do not blog about our disagreements or about what individuals said unless I get permission first.

Whilst I want to be transparent with the world through this blog about who LivingRoom is – there is nothing to hide – I also want to keep in mind that our community is made up of real people who are entitled to privacy and a safe space to express themselves and their journeys. They are also entitled to not have our dirty laundry (not that there is much) aired publicly. This is just my position – I know other bloggers have taken different approaches – some it has worked out for, others it has caused some massive problems for. Just be careful.

I’m interested to hear your ‘lessons’ or advice to a group of people just starting out.