Wednesday, February 06, 2008

So How Many People Do You Have?

There are times in life when you meet someone or read something or see something that creates an "Aha!" moment. That happened to me this week.

For the past eight years we have been in the process of establishing a faith community, (planting a church, starting a new work, pioneering - whatever term you might like to use) in our community of Thornhill. When I meet people who know I'm doing this one of their first questions is "So how many people do you have now?" When I say "20-25, if everyone comes" they kind of look at me funny. If they are just making conversation, the conversation usually ends there. If they really want to know, I start telling my story.

I approached church planting the way I thought I was supposed to - because I really thought I had heard God calling. So I read all the books on church planting, attended a church planting bootcamp, had a church planter's assessment done, established a prospectus, read books about establishing a mission statement and core values, set up a time line, gathered a core team and started to pray. I did the demographic studies and determined that the least churched place in Ontario was Thornhill, got approval from the district, sent out prayer letters, decided on a name and started planning a kick-off event.

Even at the beginning I had the real sense that what we were supposed to do would be different in the church planting world. First of all, when I read other people's plans and looked at their organizational structures it just made me tired. I did not want that! I wanted to establish a community that was more organic than organizational. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant but I was sure that I was not going to begin a church plant with a structure that included 17 committees.

So we started. We did what we were good at. We had a great worship team. We had a couple of kick off events (a "shout from the Hills"), met in a church for a while on Sunday evenings and then took the leap to meet on Sunday mornings in rented facilities in a school. The evenings were good worshipping times but meeting in a school was kind of deflating. The school was expensive. We had to set up and tear down every week and transport our stuff to and from the school. It was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. It was usually not cleaned up from the week's activities (because the janitor used Sunday mornings to clean). It was a long walk from the parking lot (at one end of the school) to the gym (at the other end of the school). When visitors did come we couldn't spend time visiting with them because we needed to clean up and get out by one o'clock. I felt like a failure every week.

I know now that what we were trying to do was establish an attractional model of church in a neighbourhood that was not (and would never be) attracted to church. I had done my demographics - 80% of the community was Jewish! I only realized later that because of the demise of Christendom very few unchurched people are attracted to church (Jesus - yes, authentic Christianity - yes, but not normally a Christendom style church.)

After a year and a half of meeting in the school we decided to meet in our home. It was in the middle of the community. It was large enough to host the 15 to 20 people who came. Surprisingly enough we grew as soon as we moved into our house - 3 or 4 new people. And as soon as we moved into our house this artificial pressure to "be" something disappeared and I started enjoying church again. We started a process of sharing with one another, praying for one another, calling people up if we hadn't seen them for a week or two. We started becoming a community.

We started focussing on our community (or more correctly our communities). People began to realize that they were not there to run a machine called church. There were no ushers. There were no Sunday school teachers. There was no building committee or finance committee or outreach committee. It was just us trying to figure out how to make an impact on our world. So we started praying for one another's work environment and co-workers and neighbours. When someone was sick we laid hands on them - all of us! We went to one another's houses to bless their homes and to prayer walk their neighbourhoods.

Sundays became not the main focus of the week but a time and place to share with others the significant events of our weeks, the answers to prayer, the divine appointments. Ministry wasn't what happened on Sundays but what we were experiencing during the week - not just a place to hear sermons but to tell our stories. It was not about me pastoring a church but all of us pastoring a community (neighbours, family, co-workers and one another). People have come into relationship with Jesus but they don't necessarily connect with us as a worshipping community.

There are times where I wondered if anyone else was doing church like this. Most of my colleagues were talking about their busy counseling schedules, committee meetings, the programs they were involved in or their preaching plans for the year. None of it really related to where I was. I wondered if I was completely missing the whole concept of church. I wondered if anyone else was experiencing what I was.

Then this week I read some stuff that David Fitch had put together about missional churches and the processes they were going through - and it reverberated with me. I will talk about it more in the next post.

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