Church planter, one of the key questions to answer early on is whether you are committed to a compelling or a competing vision for your church plant.
Let me explain. After more than a decade in the church-planting world, I’ve seen many a planter crash on the rocks by pushing a vision that, in the end, can neither carry the weight of the task nor take the core group with it.
And at the end of the day, we already have the compelling vision we need.
Compelling vs. Competing
The gospel of Jesus Christ has enough wisdom, depth, wonder, utility, power, attraction, compulsion, and desire within it to plant and grow a church (Col. 3:6–7). And yet there’s been a church-planting culture over the years that says unless you can come up with some funky, original vision that nails it—or gives the impression that you know what you’re doing and are therefore trustworthy enough to follow—then this thing won’t fly.
Of course, we don’t plant churches in a cultural vacuum. There’s constant pressure on planters to justify what they are doing. In order to signal that we have a departure point from “the church down the road”—a difference in approach that legitimizes us—we feel the need to come up with a vision that grips people.
But I fear this is precisely where many planters lose their nerve. They pitch what they think is a more compelling vision in order to excite people, but which in the end—even if subtly—becomes something that competes with the already compelling vision of the gospel. And what we attract people with is what we attract them to.
What we attract people with is what we attract them to.
If you attract them with a household-church vision, then they’ll demand household church even if the gospel vision would take things in a different direction. If you attract them with a big-church vision with all the bells and whistles, then switching to an “unsexy” small church, perhaps meeting in a community center on a rough estate, will see them scrambling for the exit—even if there’s great opportunity for the gospel.
Your core group will be gripped by some vision, so make sure it’s the right one. If it’s not the compelling gospel vision of the Lord Jesus—and his call to proclaim his excellencies and disciple people into love and obedience—then no amount of bells and whistles will do the trick. You’ll end up with a church plant full of consumers, the very thing many planters are so desperate to avoid in the first place.
The safety net for all church plants, given the variety of circumstances that planters and their churches will experience, is the compelling gospel vision that enables them to keep going—even if their original planting vision must change due to external circumstances.
Because what’s the alternative? Change the gospel vision?
By no means. And yet you’d be surprised how commonly the ultimate compelling vision falls by the wayside. For example, I remember a church plant of about 15 people that had remained that size for nearly a decade. No (visible) fruit, no conversions, no baptisms, and more than a little ennui and drift from the core group.
The diagnosis, as far as I could tell, was that their vision of being a household church plant had overridden any gospel vision. They were a group of Christians tired of “big church” and, to them, household church seemed to be the answer. But their “solution” was an answer to the wrong question. Their approach was reactionary, their vision was not a gospel one, and the results were plain to see.
Of course, competing visions are nothing new. Paul brought the gospel to Corinth, establishing a church in that pagan city. But for some it wasn’t compelling enough, which meant they were easy pickings for the “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) who came with something exciting that matched the vision and values of the surrounding culture.
How could week-in, week-out gospel preaching, loving and serving each other, and seeking ways to quietly serve achieve anything in Corinth? The church blinked in the face of the pressure, and Paul had to spend an inordinate amount of time refocusing it on Jesus.
In our secular age, church planters must hold their nerve, first planting their people into the gospel’s compelling vision and then growing them up in that same vision. Keep it that simple, year-in and year-out.
Down and Up
From the beginning, our six-year-old church has sought to make the Sunday gathering our primary meeting. We encourage people to gather around food, to share Scripture, and to pray together at least once per month in whatever form helps them. We take peoples’ work seriously, giving them time and space to honor God in the 40 to 50 hours they’re in the office, on the site, or on home duties.
We said to a church culture that views ad hoc attendance as normal: “Discipleship begins by showing up.” We shape weekly gatherings around prayer, liturgy, the preaching of God’s Word, and communion. We’re constantly told that our approach won’t attract young people. Yet our fastest growing demographic is 18- to 30-year-olds.
We’ve watched ordinary people in our ordinary church begin to pastor each other—across demographics—on a regular basis through the Word.
We’ve watched ordinary people in our ordinary church begin to shepherd each other—across demographics—on a regular basis through the Word. And intriguingly, outsiders—both Christian and non-Christian—have noticed something different.
As Colossians 2 calls for, we’ve grown down and up in the gospel’s already compelling vision. Marriages have been restored, sins confessed, addictions and habits kicked, holiness renewed, love for the unlovely grown, and costly forgiveness offered.
How? By showcasing God’s compelling vision for his church and his cosmos (Eph. 3:10).
One of our elders is a race-car designer. His favorite engineering maxim is, “Add lightness and simplicity.” You don’t add something to make a race car lighter or more simple; you take something away.
Church planter, maybe it’s time to dump the urge for a super-unique vision that looks great on paper. Add the lightness and simplicity of the gospel’s compelling vision that will, by the Spirit, do the work in you, your people, and those you want to reach—that no other vision can.