As part of my research for a recent series of lectures on church planting I came across this article by Tim Keller. Keller is the Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York. You can find the article here.
In the article he identifies five principles for initiating a church plant in an urban context. I’ve reworked and commented on them but essentially they’re his observations.
1. We need to live in the community
We need to live near or close by the community of people that we’re trying to reach. That’s especially true if we’re a ‘neighbourhood’ rather than a ‘network’ church plant. [Network church plants are non-geographical specific churches constituted of an eclectic gathering of commuting individuals, like TBT or St Helen’s]. But the point is that if we don’t live in the neighbourhood then we we’re unlikely to know the community or their issues. And so we won’t know the people and we won’t know how to help them. This will have a massive impact on our missional effectiveness. Keller uses the incarnation as theological justification for our responsibility to live in the neighbourhood. Whilst it’s undoubtedly true that Jesus did not commute from heaven to earth to bring us the news of salvation, I’m uncomfortable of trying to locate a binding church planting principle on such unique grounds. I’m more comfortable saying that I think it makes sense to live in the community!
2. We need to learn the community
If we’re going to serve the community in which God has placed us then we’ll really need to understand the issues that people face. We can approach this in one of two ways. The informal way is to ‘hang out’ with the people who live there and listen to what they have to say. The formal way is to plunder the demographic information, study statistics and read the last census. Something like a community survey project is a hybrid of the two and a very attractive option. But when carrying out this research, we’re simply trying to find out what makes people ‘tick’. We want to know what type of people live in the neighbourhood in terms of their racial affiliation, their socio-economic background and so on. We want to know what their aspirations are so that we can identify and critique the idols that have captured their affections. We want to know with what set of assumptions they approach life since that will govern their decision making and their prejudices. And we want to know what they feel about religion. If we get this right we’ll have a better chance of engaging them and not simply missing them with the gospel.
3. We need to link gospel ministry to the community
We need to create a contextualised ministry model that takes account of who we are and where we’re church planting. Whilst the principles of word ministry driven church planting are unchanging, the patterns we employ can be flexible. Therefore we would not expect word ministry on an urban priority area in Peckham and a lunchtime city based meeting to look the same. We need to be wary of slavishly following the ministry patterns of the sending church without paying sufficient attention to the contextual situation in which we’ve been planted. That’s a massive temptation because those patterns are familiar and presumably we’ve seen them work! But we need to give thought to the ways in which the gospel will best be presented to the people in our context.
4. We need to love the community
We need to recognise that God has placed us in a local community to love and serve the people of that neighbourhood. The conviction that we’re there for others and not for the church, that it’s all about Jesus and not about me is fundamental. Unless these convictions are deeply held those who lead church plants will question their competence and their worth. We don’t church plant simply because we want to do something meaningful with our lives. We do it for others. If the church plant doesn’t take off as we’d like it to then it can lead to bad patterns of ministry. Keller says that, ‘In your own personal ministry you will tend to over work, deal poorly with criticism, worry too much about attendance, giving, and signs of success, and be less than a good and gracious model of a gospel-changed life‘. I’d say he’s right.
5. We need to launch in the community
There are two main ways of launching a church plant in the community, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The first is the ‘top down’ approach, where the sending church launches with a large group of people in a new location. This is the default planting strategy for our theological constituency. This church plant works best where the leaders have good preaching gifts. The advantage of this way of planting is that a sizeable church will ‘make a noise’ and ‘a crowd attracts a crowd’. Therefore, it may gather new attendees quite quickly. The weakness of this type of plant is that there’s a great tendency to simply replicate the mother church, paying insufficient attention to the geographical locality in which its situated. The second way of planting is the ‘bottom up’ approach where the sending church puts a leader and a much smaller contingent into the new area. This type of plant works best with leaders who have strong evangelistic gifts. The advantage is that much of the growth will tend to be evangelistic rather than transfer growth. The weakness of this approach is that it will fail to attract Christians moving into the area who want to see something happening. It may also put an unbearable burden on the church planter who feels under pressure to balance the finances. There are, of course, other approaches to church planting including a hybrid of the above but these two delineate the two most common approaches.