A prayer-less church is like a Ferrari without an engine. It might look good from the outside, but it ain’t going nowhere!
5. I Wouldn’t Start With a Vision for What the Sunday ‘Event’ Should Look Like
When I planted Hill City, it’s fair to say that I didn’t have a clue what the dickens I was doing. The vision didn’t really go much further than “Love God and tell everyone about Jesus.” If there was one thing that I did have, it was a clear idea of what the Sunday event would look like. Admittedly, I knew that our core team needed to grow beyond the the “two adults, a baby and a pit-bull in the living room” phase before my “vision” could be realized.
But I knew what the goal was—a windowless basement venue, dark walls, grungey artwork, a LOUD sound system, a smoke machine and a gnarly pulpit crafted out of solid Welsh oak (honest!). The church would consist largely of drug-addicts, criminals, single mothers and psychopaths (all of whom would be leading the church within a few years). I guess I envisaged a Sunday event that looked remarkably similar to Adullam’s cave.
But I really didn’t have much of a vision beyond that.
WHAT A PLEBE!!
For those who’ve ever attended a Sunday gathering at Hill City, you’ll know that very little, if any, of the decor I dreamt up has ever been realized (not even the pulpit!). And while we are blessed to have ex-addicts, single mums and former criminals in our church family, we also have those who are wealthy, married, professional, elderly and spiritually mature too!
For what it’s worth, I think that God’s vision for our Sunday gatherings is far better than my plan. But I also acknowledge that I missed something MASSIVE in those early days—namely that there’s A LOT more to church planting than the Sunday event. In fact, the Sunday gathering should almost be an afterthought—the logical outworking and expression of the church whose DNA was already being established behind the scenes.
A few weeks ago, my eldest son, Josiah, excitedly reported to us that he’d learned something important. In his own words, he had discovered that “church isn’t a building—it’s people standing on each other’s heads!” Not sure where he got that from, but he was probably closer to what church is really about than I initially was! Church is about Jesus and His people, not buildings, programs or Sunday events!
Certainly when Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16 v 18), He was not talking about a physical building with staging and a smoke machine. He was talking about His people, His body—the church!
If I was going to plant a church again, I’d start with a vision of Jesus and His bride and let everything else flow from that!
6. I’d Let the Gifts of Others Determine Ministries
a. Cutting-edge youth ministry
b. A rocking band
c. A hub for video resources
d. Recording studio
e. Coffee shop outreach
I wanted ALL of these ASAP when we started the Hill City adventure. I mean, what kind of church doesn’t need a recording studio, right?! In truth, there were probably loads of other ‘vital’ components to the Hill City machine that I wanted to see installed as soon as possible too. Amazingly, several of these things have actually been part of the Hill City story (we even had a community coffee bar at one stage). But no longer.
Truth is that the only person who was passionate about all these things was me. Furthermore, the only person who had the skill-set to set most of that stuff up was also me, and as I got busier and busier with the ‘important’ stuff that I was actually meant to be doing as a church planter—evangelism, one-to-one visits and pastoral care—I had less and less time to devote to my pipe-dreams. And there was no one else to make my dreams become reality. As such, Hill City started to look different than how I had initially imagined it to be.
It was into this situation that my friend, Acts 29 church planter John Hindley, spoke powerfully to us as a church. He had come to visit Hill City and do a day of teaching on the subject of his book Serving Without Sinking. In one of his sessions, he challenged us that maybe we had an upside down view of ministry. He suggested that it was unhelpful to start with of a wish-list of ministries we wanted to see happening, and then look for people to fill those ministry positions. He explained that this often led to round pegs being asked to fit square holes, which invariably led to frustration, joylessness and burnout.
The more helpful way, John suggested, was to start by looking at who Jesus had placed in the church and what their gifts and skills were. This allowed us to explore the best ways in which we could release them into the ministries that they were clearly equipped for and passionate about. It’s fair to say that this new perspective has been revolutionary. We have gladly laid down ministries that we didn’t have the right people to fill.
We have started to explore ministries that we hadn’t thought of before. And we have empowered people to say no when asked to serve in a way that they didn’t feel equipped to help in, which is liberating for all concerned.
If I were going to plant a church again, I would allow the ministries of the church to be driven by the gifts of those Jesus has called, rather than my own personal agenda.
7. I’d Stop Counting Numbers and Start Picking Fruit
How many people go to your church?
It’s the most awkward (and annoying) question that a church planter gets asked, and it’s fair to say that in the early days of Hill City I would do whatever it took to make the answer sound as impressive as possible!
“About 20? usually meant there were eight adults, four children, two unborn embryos, three pets, two that had said they might come (but never did) and my next door neighbor who sometimes pops over to borrow some milk!
What I’ve come to realize over recent years, however, is that numbers alone are a very poor indicator of the true health and growth of a church. Every preacher (myself included) loves the ego-trip of speaking to a big crowd of people—but that’s not what it’s all about. The gospel is not about bums on seats, it’s about hands on the plow! Jesus is the greatest crowd-puller who ever walked the earth, yet He chose against prioritizing the fickle crowds and spent the bulk of His time with a small band of ordinary men. It was these men, not the great crowds, who “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17 v 6).
As Hill City has experienced significant numerical growth in the last few years, both myself and my co-leaders have found far more joy in seeing the growth in character, godliness and missional zeal of individuals, than the mere increase in attendance.
If I were going to plant a church again, I’d stop obsessing over numbers and focus instead on the spiritual fruit of those God has called me to lead.