There’s a certain desperation in the air. Not necessarily the kind that’s derived from a sense of hopelessness, as if the dispiriting upshot is inescapable. It’s a desperation that’s motivated by reality—the kind that takes a long, hard look at the facts and resolves that risk, experimentation, and change are no longer a nicety but a necessity.
Few lucid observers question whether such desperation is needed among the church in North America. Pastors, planters, missiologists, and missionary strategists have long acknowledged the seismic sociological factors that have shifted the current landscape of missional engagement. Debate rages as to whether these changes are for the better or the worse, but one thing is certain—things will never be the same.
So, how should we respond?
We could bury our collective heads in the sand by doubling down on a failing course that most comfortably suits our sacred sensibilities. We could offer some ecclesiological tweaks with the hopes that an amplified commitment to cultural relevance and production excellence will usher in a new era of spiritual productivity. But both of these alternatives will inevitably fall short. The failed church growth experiment has convincingly demonstrated this reality in spades.
Instead, could we consider leveraging the current climate of desperation to make some Kingdom shifts that could foster a gospel movement? Could we redesign churches from a biblical template, instead of a historically European pattern? If local churches were intended to advance the Kingdom of God, what should their priorities become? From my seat of leadership at the Send Network at NAMB, here are five shifts that we are driving toward:
Shift #1: From Launching Worship Services to Disciple-Making Communities
The cultural ecclesiastical fluency that gave rise to the church growth movement is over for the vast majority of North America’s population. Shockingly deteriorating returns on an attractional strategy’s investment puts a bold exclamation point to this fact. Savvy leaders should leverage this transition to vigilantly pursue planting disciple-making movements and not simply reproducing an over-programmed, highly-resourced, intricately-polished icon to religious consumerism. Rather than lamenting the need for such a transition, we should lean into the primacy of the disciple-making mandate Jesus gave His church. Church planting training that emphasizes this reality will better prepare planters for the facts of their context.
Shift #2: From Pushing Gatherers to Empowering Multipliers
If the multiplication implicit in disciple-making is at the core of the church’s task, then those we entrust to lead must become masters in this work. Natural charisma, leadership prowess, or entrepreneurial insight may mask the reality that many who are given the mantel of leadership simply do not know how to make disciples. Highly tuned gathering skills devoid of a commitment to multiplication simply exacerbates the failing narrative. Those assessing and sending leaders into the harvest should shift from a focus on gathering skills to a hyper-intentionality on multiplying practices.
Shift #3: From Recruiting External Leaders to Building Indigenous Pipelines
Disciple-making skills are best developed and refined in the context of an externally-focused local church. In the past the normative strategy for finding leaders was recruiting them from outside sources—be it a seminary, parachurch ministry, or a staff member from another local church. This preoccupation with recruitment masks an ecclesiological malaise that substitutes addition for an indigenous effort to nurture leaders by developing an internal pipeline designed for multiplication. To that end, we at the Send Network have spent the past three years developing, testing and implementing a Church Planting Pipeline as a tool to assist local churches in their desire for Kingdom expansion through internal multiplication (www.namb.net/pipeline).
Shift #4: From Inadequately Resourcing All to Jet Fueling Some
Funding mechanisms for church planting often drift into to a one-size-fits-all pattern with little regard to future sustainability or catalytic potential. Such socialized funding strategies fail to incentivize the behaviors necessary for movements, nor do they properly prepare a necessary co-vocational army to attack the most difficult contexts. Funding mechanisms for future movements will preserve capital for leaders gifted and equipped to lead multiplying movements of co-vocational teams. By shifting from the diffusion of fully funded planters who become bi-vocational at the end of their funding stream (often because of the difficulty of their contexts), to concentrating resources on a sustainable and catalytic leadership, we will exponentially increase our likelihood for movement.
Shift #5: From Organizational-centrism to Celebrating Multiplying Churches
A final Kingdom shift will be the refocus of attention off of mission organizations, networks, and denominational structures, and onto courageous and sacrificial multiplying churches. Church planting infrastructure should strive to stay in the background as servants to the church of Jesus Christ. As a measure of victory, networks and church planting agencies should see their future irrelevance as a sign of amazing success. The local manifestation of the Body of Christ is the context and conduit for preparing and propelling indigenous teams capable of giving everyone in North America exposure to the gospel message and access to a healthy church where they, too, can be discipled and deployed. Without question, healthy, multiplying churches are the best hope for gospel movement in North America.
So, maybe desperation is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it forces us to do the things we should have been doing in the first place. Perhaps, in God’s economy, the current cultural chaos is actually a great gift to the church as she more accurately reimagines her place in Christ’s eternal Kingdom.