A history lesson

Istock 000003921899Xsmall Here's a lesson in US church history from Tim Keller from his article on Why Plant Churches?

In 1820, there was one Christian church for every 875 US residents. But from 1860-1906, Protestant churches planted one new church for increase of 350 in the population, bringing the ratio by the start of WWI to just 1 church for every 430 persons.

In 1906 over a third of all the congregations in the country were less than 25 years old. As a result, the percentage of the population involved in the life of the church rose steadily. For example, in 1776, 17% of the US population was 'religious adherents', but that rose to 53% by 1916.

After WWI, church planting plummeted. One of the main reasons was the issue of 'turf'. Once the US was covered by towns and settlements and churches and church buildings in each one, there was strong resistance from older churches to any new churches being planted in 'our neighborhood'.

New churches are commonly very effective at reaching new people and growing for its first couple of decades. But the vast majority of congregations reach their peak in size during the first two or three decades of their existence and then remain on a plateau or slowly shrink.

Older churches feared the competition from new churches. Mainline congregations, with their centralized government, were the most effective in blocking new church development in their towns. As a result, mainline churches have shrunk remarkably in the last 20-30 years.

What are the historical lessons?

Church attendance and adherence overall in the United States is in decline and decreasing. This cannot be reversed in any other way than in the way it originally had been so remarkably increasing. We must plant churches at such a rate that the number of churches per 1,000 population begins to grow again, rather than decline, as it has since WWI.

Church PlantingTim Keller

Discovering you are not God

I've been out and about around Oz lately building support for next1000 initiative with church planting leaders. Plenty of coffee and lunches with leaders of flagship churches, denominations and movements and some crazies on the fringe.

Somehow we get around to talking about how they're doing. I've been amazed at how many key leaders around the nation have seriously hit "the Wall" at some point in their development. Accomplished leaders who thought they might never recover and do ministry again.

For all of them, the experience was pivotal in their formation.

Because of my journey I assumed it was all about identity and spiritual formation. It was for some. But I've also talked to leaders who had to learn the hard way that they are not God.

They woke up one day and discovered they had been running on empty for a long time and couldn't go on. It took up to six months to recover.

I kept hearing, "I had to learn my limitations," and "I had to learn to take care of myself", and "Now I know the warning signs."

So if you wake up one day and discover you're not God and you can't go on, remember, it's not the end of the road. But it may be a long journey back, and remember, you are not alone.

Spiritual Formation

Church planting effectiveness

Patrick has been serving in Asia among Muslims for more than twenty years, first as a missionary and later as a tentmaker. He has established two churches and several profitable businesses and currently oversees teams in nine countries. Patrick spent six years surveying, interviewing and compiling data from 450 workers from many organizations and denominations serving throughout the 10/40 Window.

His focus was the effectiveness of tentmakers as missionaries. Effectiveness is defined in terms of evangelism, discipleship and church planting.

You can read his article in the EMQ: Tentmaking Unveiled (subscription required) or a longer version here.

Here are a few insights and surprises for missionaries and church planters wherever you are.

On preparing to go. . .

The most effective way workers can prepare to serve overseas is to invest one or more years ministering with international students.

Before moving abroad, effective workers regularly did personal outreach, campus evangelism, house-to-house visitation, led one or more evangelistic Bible studies with non-Christians and described their involvement with the majority of new believers they helped to bring to Christ as a “close friendship.”

Workers who attended Bible college or seminary are no more effective than those who did not.

On devotional life. . . Workers who have a daily devotional life and workers who are personally discipled by someone more mature in the Lord are also more effective.

The strongest spiritual factor is that those who practice fasting as an important spiritual discipline scored high in effectiveness.

On tentmaking. . .

Workers/tentmakers whose primary focus is their work (their entry strategy job) are less effective. Such workers are so committed to their jobs that they are all work and no ministry.

Workers who say that most of their co-workers are from the people group they are reaching are highly effective.

Having a real job in a real workplace that allows flexible working hours seems to be the ideal tentmaking entry strategy.

On building relationships. . . Workers who said that most of their closest friends are nationals, have nationals in their home (not counting house-help) three times a week or more and have taken a vacation with national friends are more effective. Laborers who spend their free time with their family or alone are less effective.

On contextualization. . .

A large number of workers (sixty-five percent) eat local food the way the locals do, abstain from foods locals abstain from and dress the way locals dress. However, these factors did not make a difference in their success in winning people to Jesus.

Whether the worker's home is contextualized like a local's home, styled after their home culture or a mixture of both has no effect on effectiveness.

Workers who are fluent in the local language consistently scored among the highest in the research.

On going to church. . . On the highest level of effectiveness are workers who are regularly involved with a national congregation or house church that uses the local language. Being in active fellowship with other tentmakers or missionaries in the area has no bearing on effectiveness.

On evangelism. . .

Workers are not effective who find it hard to initiate conversations about their faith and who share their faith only when obvious situations arise. Also, laborers who prefer not to verbally share their faith (rather, they let their lives be witnesses) and workers who try to build relationships with people before sharing their faith are unfruitful.

On accountability. . .

Workers who have a clear strategy for planting a church are very effective, while workers who do not have a clear church-planting strategy are normally ineffective. Laborers who have someone holding them accountable in ministry at least once a month have a better probability of being effective

On marriage and family. . .

Workers whose marriages are not good (spiritually, emotionally and sexually) before moving overseas are likely to be ineffective. Workers who have emotionally-needy families are also likely to be less effective.

On team size. . .

The data indicates the ideal team size is eleven or twelve members. A team becomes more effective as its size increases from three to twelve members; it then plateaus until fifteen members, after which the effectiveness of the team decreases. Workers whose team meets weekly or bi-weekly score better than teams which meet less frequently.

Finally. . .

Men and women are equally effective. Age is not an issue either. The organization the missionary/tentmaker is associated with has no impact on effectiveness.


What is God up to when the wheels fall off the wagon of your life and ministry? You find yourself asking these questions: Will I ever do ministry again? Will I ever make a significant contribution to the Kingdom of God? Will I always be alone and filled with this much pain? Will I ever be in a job that is fulfilling? Why aren't you answering me God? Will I ever hear your voice again?

It's David in Psalm 42. It's Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. It's Paul in second Corinthians. It's many of the great founders of movements that make history.

Years ago Bobby Clinton passed on an article by Shelley Trebesch, one of his students, on what Bobby calls Deep Processing.

I've lived off that article ever since. Now you pick it up in book form.

"Isolation--A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader" (Shelley G. Trebesch)

Bobby ClintonLeadershipSpiritual Formation

Wilberforce's Dark Night of the Soul

Amazing GraceI've only just got to see Amazing Grace on a flight back from New Zealand. For some reason the film has only just been released in Australia.

The experience inspired me to pick up John Pollock's biography of Wilberforce. Pollock tells the story of Wilberforce's "Dark Night of the Soul" recorded in a small red leather notebook he kept as a journal throughout his struggle.

It provides a rare insight into the inner journey of a great movement leader. At one point he prays:

Lord, thou knowest that no strength, wisdom or contrivance of human power can signify, or relieve me. It is by thy power alone to deliver me.

I fly to thee for succour and support, O Lord let it come speedily; give me proof of thy Almighty power; I am in great troubles, unsurmountable by me; but to thee slight and inconsiderable; look upon me O Lord with compassion and mercy, and restore me to rest, quietness, and comfort, in the world or removing me hence into a state of peace and happiness, Amen.

His prayers reveal that he dreaded the fight for Abolition. Contemplating the opposition, the possibility of physical assault and of losing friends who owned slaves.

He prays again:

Almighty God, under all my weakness and uncertain prospects give me grace to trust firmly in thee, that I may not sink under my sorrows or be disquieted by the fears of those evils which cannot without thy permission fall upon me. . . .

By the time he stops using the notebook his prayers ask calmly for grace to do his duty, freedom from worldly motives, from desire for applause and from the temptation to depend on human aid alone.

Pollock's biography is out of print. But I hear good reports of the one by Eric Metaxas.

"Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery" (Eric Metaxas)

LeadershipSpiritual FormationWilliam Wilberforce

Getting the outcome right

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Heb 13:7

What will be the outcome of your way of life?

Sooner or later 95% of leaders - and church planters are no exception - find themselves in a place where they can't go on. Truth is, nothing prepares you for that.

But there are some healthy disciplines into your life right now that would help you navigate the storms when they hit.

1. Take a break

Jesus' rhythm of life and ministry was engagement and withdrawal. So if you're always "on" who are you following? Show me your diary. Where's the space for renewal? When was the last time you took a proper day off? When was the last time you had a family holiday? Are you really that indispensable?

2. Get a coach

Sit down monthly, even better weekly, with a good coach and you'll greatly enhance your effectiveness as a leader and your ability to ride the bumps. The first job of a good coach is to get you talking; to help you reflect on reality and to help you refocus as you move forward. Find someone who can do that. The Startup Guide to Coaching Leaders will give you an idea of what you should be looking for in a coach.

3. Confess your sins

You're not even in the game as a leader if your life is out of control. So who knows about your struggles. Who do you confess your sins to on a regular basis? Who is holding you accountable? Neil Cole has come up with a simple model of accountability groups. All you need is one or two others and an hour week.

4. Find some companions

Either Bob Logan or Neil Cole came up with this idea. Find two other church planters at a similar stage. Meet monthly for 90 minutes. Each one shares their story for 30 minutes. No fixing. The others just ask good coaching questions. Then you pray for each other.

5. Get perspective

Leaders who finish well have a lifetime perspective on their development. They see their current assignment in that context. They see God shaping their character, faith and ministry skills and leading them towards an ultimate unique contribution.

6. Cultivate a secret history with God

No leader finishes well without going this journey. Does God deeply satisfy your soul? What spiritual disciplines work for you and how can you get more of them? What new discipline can you add this year? The late Brent Rue has a great message on this theme: Secret History.

7. Have some fun

Is it sailing? Is it hiking? Is the theatre? Is it the garden? Is it watching your kids play sport? Whatever it is that you love to do, make sure there's some time in your calendar to do it. And remember to feel God's pleasure as you waste time in this pursuit.

On planning

Gps Golden Gate Bridge

Church planters and movement leaders are instinctive beasts. Action is their forte.

But even the best of them can greatly improve their effectiveness with some good planning.

Guy Kawasaki has posted an interview with Tim Berry on How to Write a Business Plan. Some great insights on planning. Here are the highlights:

On why plan. . .

A business plan is a way to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate with accountability and tracking. It should get all the key people on the same page. Nobody can execute a plan they don't know about.

A plan should set priorities with the understanding that you can't do everything. After all the buzzwords and analysis, strategy is focus. What can you do better than anyone else? What's your core competence?

On the common mistakes in planning. . .

The worst by far is focusing on the plan instead of planning. This generates the idea that you create a plan as a document, and the related misunderstanding that the plan is for somebody else. You don't postpone life while you're developing a plan; you're always developing the plan. In the meantime, “Get going.”

On when to revise a plan. . .

You need to revise a plan regularly, like steering a car or walking, both of which are constant small course corrections; but you also need to stick to a strategy consistently for two to three years at least to see it working.

It's better to have a mediocre strategy consistently applied over a long term than a series of brilliant strategies contradicting each other every six months.

On how to know when you're done planning. . .

A good business plan is never done. You're going to be circling back around it for as long as you care about your business and want to manage it better. If your business plan is done then get out of that business, it's dead. You're always moving towards the horizon, and you're business plan is always there to track where you're going, mark the steps, and help you steer.

The absolute worst business plans ever, anywhere, are those plans in a drawer somewhere. If you're not keeping it alive, it's not planning; it's just a plan. It's history. It's of no business value.

On the “Big Fat Plan” vs “planning”. . .

Planning is vital because it keeps you on track and mindful of important long-term strategy and objectives. A plan, on the other hand, a plan taken by itself, is only as good as the implementation it causes.

Planning is exactly what you need to deal with the speed of change. You have to remember that your business plan is always wrong—it has to be because it's predicting the future and we're human, we don't do that very well. But it's still vital because it's the way you lay down tracks so you can follow up on the constant difference between plan and assumptions.

Without a plan, when assumptions are wrong you don't even know what they were, how were they wrong, in what direction, and what can you do about it. With a plan, you use plan versus actual all the time to manage the difference between what you thought and what actually happened.

That's what I love most about having a GPS unit in a car. When I screw up and take the wrong turn, the GPS still remembers where I wanted to go and tells me how to change my course. That's what good managers do with a sound planning process.