Momentum in Church Planting
This post is Part 4 in our series "The Second Plant in Every Church Plant." Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. I’m the outreach, mission, and young adults pastor at a church plant in its sixth year. Ok, so I guess we’re not a church plant anymore; after six years, evidently we’re now just a church. But, these past six years have been full. We’ve experienced the set-up game, the sweating and moving, the preaching, the building and then the tear down. We’ve canvassed neighborhoods and hosted mission teams countless times. We’ve gained church partners, and we’ve lost church partners. We even experienced a merger and the acquisition of a new facility.
When I look back over these several years, I’m amazed at everything that has been accomplished. And, as I look ahead, I see what still needs to be done. And throughout each step we’ve measured our progress, either rightly or wrongly, through the eight-letter word momentum.
I find that it is universally accepted that some forms of momentum are good and other forms are most definitely bad. The former, of course, is our own and the latter someone else's. Ill-gotten for sure, while our own, a blessing from the Lord.
Momentum is a strange thing. It doesn’t follow a moral compass--it just sits there, calling it as it sees it, like an umpire crouched behind a catcher. It’s less a noun and more an adjective; it’s a describer of nouns.
The word momentum has a technical use as well. According to the science books, momentum is the outcome of size and movement which gives an object a greater force. By extension we then apply this to organizations like Chipotle, beverages like Coke and, yes, local church plants. Like objects, companies and organizations are affected by size (their impact and notoriety in the community) and movement (the progress they are making toward their mission). As a church grows its presence in the community and they begin making greater strides in accomplishing their mission, they begin to experience this push, this inertia, this inevitability of growth.
As we talk about momentum, there are several realities we need to remember.
Let’s not confuse momentum with favor.
There are lots of reasons to be excited about growth. We like things that grow. They provide stability, excitement behind a vision, and a sense of invincibility.
Momentum does not equal favor, though. This is perhaps the greatest mistake we make we when experience or seek momentum. We see momentum as a sort of affirmation and seal about our ministries. [quote]Momentum does not equal favor, though. This is perhaps the greatest mistake we make we when experience or seek momentum. We see momentum as a sort of affirmation and seal about our ministries.[/quote] Every time someone asks the question of our churches - “How are things going?” - we answer with anecdotes of momentum, because that’s how we judge success.
But momentum isn’t success. Momentum is momentum. There are good examples of momentum and there are bad examples. The example of Jim Jones and Jonestown exemplify this extremely well—perhaps an example by extreme, but we often learn well through exaggeration, especially if it’s true.
What happened around Jim Jones was a religious movement. It identified itself as Christian, but there was nothing Christian about it. Jones built a community. In fact, one of the marks of his movement was multi-culturalism. Out of all the things Jim Jones got wrong, he got this right. In the middle of racial rioting and uproar, Jones built a community of diverse people, white and black, serving and living alongside each other. Eventually, he convinced this community of people to move their lives to South America. As pressure mounted, the movement hit a boiling point. In the end, a US congressman was dead, and a community of people committed mass suicide. The years leading up to this tragic moment can only be described as momentum—and lots of it.
But, Jones’ momentum was not a result of God’s favor. It was tragic, manipulative, and wrong.
Jesus described the way of Christianity as a narrow road that few find. This is not to say that momentum is something we shouldn’t seek after. But we should be cautious seeking after it, preparing for it, and experiencing it.
Let’s create an atmosphere where good momentum can flourish.
What we desire to do as pastors and leaders is to create an environment where good momentum can flourish. The driver of good momentum can only be good theology. [quote]The driver of good momentum can only be good theology.[/quote] What I mean is this: if we want to cultivate an environment where we are experiencing good momentum, we need to have the right foundation. If we too quickly seek movement forward, but the goal, the object is obscured, then so is our potential momentum.
So we lay the foundation for good momentum when we have gospel-clarity. Gospel-clarity happens when the leaders of the church understand the gospel, when the mission of the church is clearly defined to propagate the gospel, and when the church community is organized in such a way to grow in gospel understanding and application.
That’s it. Let’s get the gospel right, in our ecclesiology, and in our Christology. Let’s develop good habits of gospel-community, let’s build disciples as Jesus commanded, and then finally let’s get the gospel out, to the streets, our neighbors, and ultimately, to the ends of the earth.
The problem of course when we speak this way is that no one will ever admit to a lack of gospel-clarity. Everyone will say, “What we got right is the gospel!”
Another way to evaluate this is to use the Pillar Network's "gospel, community, and mission" as tools for evaluation. Whenever an idea is proposed or a strategy is thought through, evaluate it through the lens of gospel, community and mission. Are we being faithful to the gospel? Are we building healthy gospel-community? Is this helping us complete the mission Jesus gave, to make disciples of all nations?
Many sordid church strategies would come to a halting end if we used this simple tool.
Growth, which is sometimes what we mean when we talk about momentum, is an act of God.
The temptation to attribute growth and healthy momentum to the actions and the workings of man is very real. Our language hints at an underlying man-centeredness that is unhealthy. Where does growth and God-given momentum come from? Ultimately, it is from the Lord.
In ministry, especially in the early years of church planting, there come moments of weakness and failure. The only encouragement in those moments is that it’s not about us, but what God is doing in and through us. Each moment we feel weak and incapable is a good moment for the health of a church.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. In the midst of pastor-worship and leader exaltation, Paul served a sober word.
"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
The implications of Paul’s words are sure. When churches grow and the miracle of faith enlivens a person, it isn't the result of a contrived strategy, but the hand of God himself. [quote]When churches grow and the miracle of faith enlivens a person, it isn't the result of a contrived strategy, but the hand of God himself.[/quote]
We do well to remember that.