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How long does it take to plant a church?

by on March 13, 2014

Here in Canterbury we are definitely still a ‘church plant’. That is, we are not established yet. We don’t have much leadership yet. We are still highly dependent on outside help. That’s after three years.

But how long does that go on? When do we learn to stand on our own two feet? This is an important question, because some people have been supporting us for three years now. How much longer? Will they need to support us forever???

Back in the bad old days of Diocesan grants, the answer to that was: it should take you three years.” The Diocese would support church planters for three years. After that, it was expected that their ministries had become self-sustaining. The ‘money-tap’ was turned off. The Diocese let the air out of the planter’s floaties, and he was on his own to sink or swim.

Most sank.

There are reasons for that. But even before they sank, the pressure to achieve self-sufficiency in 3 years, distorted their ministries in all kinds of ways. Bums on seats – that was the great and pressing need. And of course the easiest bums to get on your seats are Christian bums – i.e. people stolen from other nearby churches. So church-planting was pushed strongly in a non-missional direction.

But even gifted member-stealers found it was nigh-impossible to get sorted in three years.

The result? At the three year mark, many plants fell over. Most, even.

Diocesan grants killed church plants. Largely because they were working with an unrealistic time-frame.

Here at Canterbury we are just past the three year mark, the point where those sort of expectations start to kick in. Up till now, people have cut us a fair bit of slack. “They’re just starting up”.  But from now on, the question, ‘Why is it taking so long?‘ will start to make itself felt. After all, it’s even in the parable, isn’t it: the tree that bears no fruit, they’ll water and fertilise it for so long, but eventually, its time to decide, this tree’s not a goer.

Fair enough. I wouldn’t want to keep supporting a ministry that was bearing no fruit long-term.

So when do you pull the plug?

I was speaking to the dad of some missios in Europe, the other day, and he told me they’ve been there over 5 years now, and still they don’t feel they’ve got much traction with the local people. Not much in the way of fruit, yet. They feel the time up till now has been largely preparatory: learning the language and culture and bureaucracy, etc.

Wow. 5 years. That’s a lot of your life to invest in preparation!

So let’s ask the question, what does it mean that it’s taking them so long? Are these guys just ineffective? Does it mean they’ll always be ineffective? Should their supporters pull the plug?

Probably not. Europe is notoriously difficult: hardly any missios get much traction there. Either we give up on the entire continent, or we keep funding people to have a go. Anyone there is going to take heaps of years to get anywhere.

So five years is probably too early to make a final and definitive judgement about whether these particular missios are any good. Though you’d certainly want to send someone over to check out how things were going.

The same sort of thing applies in church-planting. It all depends on the area. If you plant a church in bible belt territory in the US, it’s probably going to grow soon – there are so many people there who identify with Protestant Christianity. If you plant a church in inner Sydney, you may struggle to get traction in the short-to-medium term.

But in general, church-planting here is going to be a bit like mission work overseas. If you’re planting in a major city, you’re almost certainly in an area that’s harder to reach. Otherwise, why is a church-plant needed? So it’s probably going to be a bit like Europe. In other words, three years is not a realistic time frame for them to achieve self-sufficiency. If you’re going to get involved as a supporter of a church plant, expect to be in it for longer than that. 

When we started in Canterbury, we told ourselves to not expect any fruit for three years. Just to invest. Three whole years, just to start seeing the first good responses to the gospel. That was our expectation.

Why? Because this area has been badly neglected, because no one has reached out to these people with the gospel in their entire lives, because most people here were not aware that there even was a church in Canterbury. Because many belong to other religions or loosely belong to other denominations of church, such as orthodox or Catholic, and they would find it hard to join us. Because our church property is on a street that most people never go down. So they never see us. There’s heaps of barriers here. Lots of soil never even ploughed up, let alone sown.

So we were starting a fair way back. Actually, we have seen people come to Jesus before three years. But even now, many locals are just becoming aware that we exist.

So let’s ask, if it did take three years to see the first local people come to trust in Jesus, how long till you have a self-sustaining church community? Again it depends. If you can get some Christians to come and join in, create a ‘critical mass’, it might happen in a few more years. Say six years. If you can’t get many Christians to come, and you have to raise up most of the congregation through conversions, then I’d say an absolute minimum of ten years. To reach self-sufficiency. Just like the time frames OS mission organisations work with normally.

In Canterbury, we have found it hard to entice Christians to join us from elsewhere. We have a few, but not many.  So we’re probably looking at raising up a congregation more-or-less from nothing. I.e. we’re more in the ‘ten-year’ category, rather than the six.

But even that’s not the whole picture. Because some churches, even when they’ve become more established, still need financial support from elsewhere. Why? It’s because the people in the church are so poor. This is not a rare and unusual case: many churches worldwide are in this situation.

In fact, in this region, the Georges River, many churches are likely to need support for a long time. Not full funding – but some help. Even the growing ones. Because this is the poorest region in Sydney.

So how long does it take to plant a church? The ‘how long’ question may even not in the end be the right one to be asking. Maybe a better question is, ‘Is the support that I contribute (prayer, money, attention, etc) helping to make effective gospel ministry happen this year? Are people being reached for Jesus, and over time are some people responding in faith? Is a faith community growing there? Are people there learning to give, rather than developing a culture of dependency on handouts?

In other words, you may need to keep informed about what’s going on in the church plant you support. You might want to ask for regular updates. If the ministry is in your city, you might need to even visit, say once a year, and see it for yourself. You might need to meet some of the people whose lives have been touched by the ministry, and hear about it from them directly, rather than hearing the ‘massaged’ version the church-planter will be tempted to send you. (!)

That takes more effort than just counting to three, like they used to do around here. But it’s probably necessary if you’re to be a good steward of the resources you devote to church-planting.

Here at Canterbury we send out weekly brief updates. We give our supporters an open invite to visit any time. And we hold occasion info mornings, where supporters can meet local people who’ve got involved in our ministries. That way people can decide for themselves whether they think it’s worthwhile to keep supporting what we’re doing. We hope people will do more than just count to three. And we hope they will be inspired by what they see here, even though we’re a bit povo!

From → General

6 Comments
  1. JonB permalink

    I remember conversations around three years ago to the effect of ‘if we get to self-sustaining it’s probably time to plant again’. I hope that’s still part of the plans.

    • Nice to hear from you John. Yes we are still talking that way. We actually did start planning a second plant, but the planter then started using eharmony and things changed direction! 🙂

      I would say, before we become self sustaining its time to replant. Otherwise it’s too slow. One plant every ten years won’t cut it. We’ve got a million people to reach in 40 suburbs.

      But to fast track the thing we need partners support from elsewhere. If we can keep some long term partners with us, and ‘transfer’ some over to a second plant, then everything moves quicker. Like 7 years instead of 10! Still a bit slow…

      Here’s a thought:

      Would you like to come and speed things up, John? 😉

      File this comment as ‘Last comment John B ever makes at our blog.”
      🙂

      • JonB permalink

        Maybe eharmony could help you find a church planter. You can file that as my last comment if you like 🙂

      • That would be only fair – they owe us one.

        btw we’ve always said that planting a church shouldn’t be that hard – but planting a church that plants churches, that is hard. Easy to lose the bigger vision along the way. Every plant feels like they’re struggling just to survive, so why would you give away some of your resources to somewhere else?!

  2. Chris Webb permalink

    Your thoughts sound pretty sound to me Jonathan and I hope people keep helping you stick at it for many years to come. May God bless these years you’ve taken to lay a good foundation as you’ve sought to understand the situation and culture of the area and what the best way to communicate the gospel might be. Hope people don’t give up on us after 3 years either! Has the diocese given up on its 3 year model in favour of a better one?

    • Hi Chris, thanks for weighing in. Much appreciated esp. as you are yourself a cross-cultural missio.

      Re the Diocese, they haven’t exactly had a change of model, so much as a change of bank balance. The GFC cleaned the Diocese right out. We’re skint. They can’t even afford a bishop for our region!

      So the new model is zero-year grants. Which, yes, I would say is an improvement on three years!

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