“Ideation” is one of my favorite words. Right up there with “chutney” and “Uzbekistan”. But as important as the imagination, brainstorming, think tanks, mental models, proposals, and prospectuses are, they’re preliminary. If all you have is an idea, you haven’t yet changed anything. You haven’t created.
In church planting, the quicker you can get to actually making something, the better. Especially if you’ve recently spent a few years in seminary dealing in the realm of ideas, don’t spend another 3 years reading about church planting. Make something.
Andy Crouch’s phenomenal book Culture Making: Rediscovering Our Creative Calling argues that an omelet is “culture”, while an idea is not. To change the world, you have to actually make something of it, not just criticize it. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick once told aspiring filmmakers that the way to become a filmmaker was to get ahold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.
It’s not enough to criticize existing churches. It’s not enough to have the idea of the ideal church, up there in your head. It’s not even enough to put forth a proposal that convinces others that you have a good idea of how you will go about planting a church. I was told, wisely, that if I wanted to plant a church, I needed to first begin exhibiting church planter behaviors.
I knew I needed to meet my neighbors. I needed to meet anybody outside the church that I was then pastoring. I needed to create environments in which Christians and non-Christians could mingle, talk, swap stories, maybe even argue a little, and get good and caffeinated together. That meant that instead of diagraming the perfect church, I needed to create a very, very imperfect batch of pancakes. Then I needed to do it again and again.
Incidentally, I learned a lot of practical church planting skills by making pancakes for neighbors. I learned that set-up and tear-down were things that had to be planned and executed. I learned how to exercise warm hospitality at the very same time as I had to think and execute on my feet. Being friendly and measuring and mixing batter while keeping the cakes from burning on the griddle simultaneously was, and is, a real challenge. I learned that doing ministry as a family required that I not be a jerk to my family while trying to get ready to do ministry. I learned how to treat people like people, with stories, baggage, needs, desires, and dreams, instead of treating them as “church plant fodder”.
It turned out that many of the people who we met and befriended through those pancake breakfasts did, surprisingly, end up in our church plant, even though at that point we weren’t even sure we were going to stay in Rock Hill to plant a church. We were just “rehearsing”. But our experience making something turned out to be a lot more valuable, and a lot more beautiful, than a notebook full of great ideas about what the perfect church plant would be like.
A couple of weeks ago, for our pre-service supper (is it any wonder that a church plant that started with food still includes both a meal and the Lord’s Supper every Sunday?), I decided to do the one culinary thing I know how to do well: flip pancakes. I and my assistants made about 150 pancakes for 50 people in 25 minutes or so. It was delightful to serve some of the same people who I met in my kitchen on Saturday mornings two summers prior. It was a joyous reminder that, in Christ, our labor is not in vain. It was a moment to reflect on God’s willingness to bless a small but concrete step toward what I felt I was being called to.
So, make pancakes. Or omelets. Host house concerts and hymn sings. Create something that fits who you are and invite others to co-create and co-concretize with you. Don’t plant the ideal church in your head. Plant a small, tangible sign of the gospel in your neighborhood. You’ll be much more prepared to plant a church. You may even discover, like I did, that the church seems almost to plant itself.
I’ll leave you with a video that my friends Aaron Rich, Noah Smith, and Jay Grant all had a part in. It documents the second summer of pancakes, house concerts, and hymn sings which, in addition to cultivating great friendships, also generated a church.
PS, This Saturday, like most Satudays these days, I played softball. There are a bunch of folks that work at a chemical company—half in the warehouse, half in the lab. And they’ve created culture by hosting a softball game every Saturday. They’ve welcomed other non-chemical company people into their game. This is an example of how natural ‘context creation’ can be. They’re not trying to start a church. They’re not ever thinking about ‘context creation’. As far as I know, they’re just your average mixed bag of varying spiritual perspectives and lifestyles. They just enjoy the game and the people. If a church planter succeeded in getting two teams fielded every Saturday morning, we’d think he was a pioneering genius and give him a slot at the next church planting conference. It’s really not so hard.