Planting a church isn’t for the faint of heart—only those with an appetite for risk and impatience with the status quo should apply. Maybe more churches should take that attitude to heart.
I realized the importance of risk-taking all over again last week while visiting Portland, Oregon, one of America’s premier cities but also one well-known for its resistance to the gospel. My church sent one of our young families there last summer to start a new congregation and my wife and I went to check out how they were doing.
Kevin and Jenn Lott along with their four children left their long-time home here in South Carolina to take the message of Jesus to Portland. Like so many missionaries before them they weighed the spiritual need of that region against the comfort of their ordinary lives and made the decision to plant a new church. Our church went all in with them. That’s them in the picture at top, along with the team of people who moved along with them.
It was a risky thing to do. To change the trajectory of the life you’d so carefully planned. To uproot your children from all they’ve known and set out into the unknown for the sake of a call that sometimes even the people closest to you don’t understand. To step outside the support structures and familiar patterns of life you’ve come to depend on. Many people wouldn’t dream of doing something so uncertain.
It’s hard to nail down just one reason why they did it. You have to take into account Kevin’s vocational call to ministry. How he studied at a seminary that encourages its graduates to consider ministry in places beyond the safety and comfort of the Bible belt. Also, like many of us, Kevin was brought up in a denominational culture that values missions above all else. But beyond the obvious reasons, I think Kevin and Jenn and the many others like them are willing to risk their futures because they’re more interested in living on the vibrant edge of the Kingdom than remaining in the safety and predictability of the large, institutionalized churches that dominate so much of modern American religious life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for large, established congregations. It’s been a great blessing to serve several as pastor and I’ve seen first-hand how their love, stability and generosity help make ministries like Kevin’s and many others possible.
But many of the people in our congregations–for good reason–are hungry to see the power of the gospel at work in areas of need and darkness beyond our comfortable church life. They yearn for something more than weekly church attendance and the same routine of classes, programs and socials. They want to be a part of something greater than themselves that demands the best of what they have. And they’re willing to risk what they have to find what their hearts are yearning for.
Jen Hatmaker is in many ways the voice of this generation, even though she’s recently moved outside the parameters of orthodox doctrine. In one of her earlier books, “An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess,” she put it this way:
“I don’t want my kids safe and comfortable. I want them BRAVE. I don’t want to teach them to see danger under every rock, avoiding anything hard or not guaranteed or risky. They are going to encounter a very broken world soon, and if they aren’t prepared to wade into difficult territory and contend for the kingdom against obstacles and tragedies and hardships, they are going to be terrible disciples. I don’t want to be the reason my kids choose safety over courage. I hope I never hear them say, “Mom will freak out,” or “My parents will never agree to this.” May my fear not bind their purpose here. Scared moms raise scared kids. Brave moms raise brave kids. Real disciples raise real disciples.”
I think the Lotts would agree with her. And I’m growing more and more convinced that if we don’t make it easier for people to make these kinds of decisions and test the waters of risk and bravery, our churches will continue their slow, inevitable decline as they seek comfort and predictability over the vibrant life of faith the Kingdom requires.
So here are a few ways we can make our churches less risk-adverse and began challenging our people to growth:
- Separate the gospel from the surrounding cultural values like professional achievement, financial success and personal notoriety. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but when you point to successful, wealthy and accomplished people as the evidence of the gospel, you’re setting up a spiritual dissonance that sucks the life out of the gospel, the church and your people. What you’re left with is churches that perpetuate the American dream instead of churches raising up a new generation of passionate Jesus followers.
- Be less focused on programs and structures and more thirsty for the movement of the Holy Spirit. The fact is that wherever the Holy Spirit is active and moving, risk-taking follows. He’s more interested in transforming lives, churches and nations than building up institutions. The more we seek his presence and filling the more our churches and people will be drawn into the kind of risk-taking that characterized the early believers.
- Quit acting as though acceptance by the surrounding culture is critical to the church’s mission. It’s not. I’m not saying that we should be angry and hostile on the one hand or condescending and judgmental on the other. Just that the more we in the church we try to be accepted in the business, cultural and political worlds the less we’ll be acceptable to the Kingdom. To be sure, our congregations are filled with solid, godly people who are active in those arenas—and we must always support them in that. The secular world needs to be influenced by godly people! What I’m saying is that without a clear distinction between the direction of the culture and the direction of the church, there’s not enough clarity for people to risk anything. What’s the use of risking anything for the message of a church that lacks the courage of its own convictions?
- Find ways to make our people aware of opportunities to take risky moves for the gospel. Stop playing it safe and look for edgy creative ways to challenge people to make real impact for the gospel instead of just training them to be mild-mannered, orderly church people. The Lotts would have never stepped out in faith to go to Portland if they’d been limited in their church life to little programs and community events.
Leading our people to be risk-takers for the gospel—as are the Lotts—moves the church in a new direction. When we place less value on the comfort of our membership and give more attention to sacrificing for the gospel, I believe we’ll experience new life and hope.