This is one of the most frequent questions that I am asked. Rightfully so, it is a very important question and one which has caused more pastoral growth in my heart than any other question. This will take a couple posts to accomplish, but I not only want to answer the question but also bring you along the growth journey.
The tide has begun to change a little in the recent days, but when I began as a church planter the tome of literature prescribed a very specific path to success. As a person who is an addictive learner, I read everything I could get my hands on about church planting. Not only did I read, but I also emailed and met face-to-face with any church planters that I could find. I was a sponge, soaking up any and all information that I could acquire.
At that point in time the sum of the message was pretty clear. I felt strongly that success in church planting was about reaching specific numbers at specific times on our timeline. Sure, I believed strongly that solid biblical preaching and discipleship were vitally important. The majority of the convictions I hold today about church were established way back then. The difference is that I believed success wrought from those convictions had to look a very specific way.
The Church Growth Movement began at Fuller Seminary through the work of some professors in the late 70’s. As is often the case, the academic world was blazing new territory and the practical impact of it would materialize some years down the road. Their findings were based on a study of the contemporary culture at that time and an understanding of the mission of God. Our culture and society is constantly changing… to be a missionary within any culture demands the posture of life-long learning.
After the research had trickled down into practice and then had been republished by highly esteemed pastors, there was a prescription for success in place. Out of that early research there were ‘growth barriers’ described at the numbers 65, 125, 250, 500, 1000, and on. The identification of these barriers are understandable because they are sociological. They are based on how people interact and connect as a group at various sizes. That was good research.
After these sociological observations came a timeline. The timeline became the measure of success for those planting churches. It went something like this… you had to launch overcoming the 65 barrier… you had to finish the first year over the 125 barrier… and if you didn’t complete year two over the 225 barrier you probably were not going to make it. As a student of this era’s teaching and influence I find myself in a personal crisis. Although we might have had 65 people at our first worship service (on a Christmas Eve) we were a complete failure by all of the generally accepted measurements and bestselling authors. But God had me right where he wanted me…. (hang around for Part 2!)