I was sitting with a brother who mentors church planters, both in Canada and in Europe. He was concerned that too many groups have continued to clone American models rather than allowing the new works to be shaped uniquely by the Holy Spirit. The first question church planting agencies often want to discuss is governance. Who is in control? How does leadership function? What structures are in place? Of course, when you are throwing denominational money at something accountability is important. But sometimes — and often, in the case of complex systems — centralized control is counter-productive. Particularly when centralized control is driven by corporate measures: attendance, buildings, cash. (See “Movements that Change the World” or “The Forgotten Ways.”)

I was reminded of the “wine and wineskin” analogy in Matthew and Luke. It seems like we want to give priority to the wineskin – perhaps familiarity gives us a sense of security. Sometimes perhaps we don’t genuinely trust God or the people he anoints for the work, so we want control. Maybe it gives us a sense of usefulness, or justifies our position, to maintain that level of input from a centralized office. Sometimes we would just rather have something concrete than have to trust in the Holy Spirit. Cynical perhaps?

The diagrams that follow are borrowed and reproduced with slight changes from Mike Breen and Bob Hopkins, “Clusters.” Clusters are mid-sized missional communities, usually 25-75 persons. They function as both sodality and modality – as community, and missionary band. And they correspond roughly to the “social space,” one of the four distinct and necessary social groupings identified in the research of Joseph Myers. Mike and Bob argue that cluster size communities are the missing piece in the life of the local church. Groups this size are best at developing leadership and significant connections and grow more rapidly than any other size group.

diagramThis first diagram represents the two traditional models of authority exercised in inherited, Christendom churches. Model 1 is the presbyterian model we see in .. Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Vineyard and many other groups. Model 2 is the opposite: the congregational church. In this diagram we see a typical hierarchy: authority is exercised by elders appointed by a Bishop or pastor from among the people. This was once the typical Mennonite form. Both groups can function effectively, as both community and mission band, under certain conditions. But as Mike and Bob point out, “these two environments tend to predispose the system towards control and the degree of releasing rarely achieves significant multiplication” (Clusters, 77) As most of the literature on organic church indicates and as is increasingly borne out by experiments on the margins, actually releasing the whole body as a priesthood is rarely attempted, and it’s messy and dynamic. So what does the option look like?

diagramIn the second diagram we turn the traditional pyramid on its side. Mike and Bob (and elsewhere Hugh Halter and Bob Roxburgh, if you look around) intend to illustrate a missional movement. In this system authority is given to those recognized as bringing the apostolic and prophetic vision that shapes and energizes movement. These leaders provide “momentum and direction rather than control. The main principle, rather than control, is to release leaders and teams to exercise initiative and creativity.”

Bob and Mike follow up from here to make three critical points. The only way to achieve this kind of shift (other than it is miraculous) in an existing body is for the very framework and foundations to shift. The movement is from control to accountability; from fragmentation to shared values; and from formal connecting structures to relational trust. They spend the next six pages detailing this shift. There is no diagram for this section, but I have one in mind. It is a bell shaped curve, with socio-emotional support on one axis, and control on the other. The movement of maturity for the discipling/formation process is from high control to low, and from strong support to low.

Context is king

It seems to me that it is simply naive to expect that we can take Florida oranges and grow them in Port Rupert, or in Saskatoon. We have to be sensitive to the soil. We need more than good strategies and more than models that have worked well in the past. We need to become genuinely open to following the movement of the Spirit in each neighborhood. In the outstanding little book The Open Secret Lesslie Newbigin expressed it best: “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decision about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources” [rather] the significant advances have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge.”

In short, our best planning won’t suffice. Instead, we should focus on preparation. We need to train navigators, not map readers. Moreover, our best strategies will often fail, because in the face of increased complexity we can no longer reliably predict outcomes based on what has worked in the past. We live in a new world. So what are the unique factors we should pay attention to as we plant new churches? Ok, for ease of memory, how about four P’s —

* Place – or Context. What is unique in this soil? We exegete our neighborhoods, listen to the stories. What are the narratives? Some aspects of AI can be helpful
* Purpose – or Telos. Where do we want to end up? What is God’s purpose in the church? How does ecclesia relate to the missio Dei? How does church relate to kingdom?
* People – What is God’s provision for this place in the gifts he has given in people? Ministry and mission are incarnational and an expression of charism.
* Pneuma – Spirit. Mission involves discerning what God is up to in our communities, then partnering with him. It also means priority to wine over wineskin. (Form follows function as in “liquid” church).

These 4 P’s remind us that God uniquely shapes the work in each new location. We don’t need to clone more churches. Every biologist knows that cloning gradually reduces genetic diversity until we lose the ability to adapt to new environments. We gradually lose something we can no longer replace. In “Mission Shaped Church” the authors write,

“The Anabaptist writer and practitioner, Stuart Murray Williams, has been the most trenchant critic of the tendency of older church plants to copy the outward forms and style of their sending church, without asking whether the new mission context was different. This can result in failure to let the shape and form of the new church be determined by the mission context for which it was intended. The call for new kinds of churches can become subverted into the production of MORE churches.” (20)

While this captures the method and the need to exegete culture, it needs to move one step further to explicitly recognize the creativity and freedom of God the Spirit. New initiatives will not be unique only because of the new context, but because God is endlessly creative. And if we allow the Spirit the freedom to move among us, he will continually surprise us. The uniqueness of new initiatives will rise in large measure from the unique persons who compose the living body, from their unique gifts, perspectives, passions and relationships. As William Cavanaugh aptly put it, “We are God’s body language.”

It is simply wrong-headed to place questions of leadership or governance up front when planting new churches. Rather, we should let forms rise out of the unique matrix of people, place, and purpose in each location. The wine will shape the skin. Jesus is the living Lord of the church and he will build his church as he sees fit. It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, it is the God of mission who has a Church in the world. We need to trust the mission to the Spirit, and then resource and entrust the workers he calls into the field.

Part 2

Related: Fitch: Three P’s of Flat Leadership and Gibbs, The Evolution of Hierarchy, and Roxburgh, The Evolution of Clergy and Vision, not THIS.

5 Comments on leadership in new churches

  1. John L says:

    Really good thoughts Len, though I’m not visualizing the “bell curve” – perhaps you could diagram it?

    I wonder about “prophetic” leading. Maybe my experience is unique, but it seems like ‘prophetic environments’ can often exhibit some of the most imbalanced forms of ‘religion’ – forms we personally abandoned long ago. I see a transformation of the idea of prophet from some OT-inspired, stage-focused village shaman (think controlling pastor x10) to a mostly virtual-based, resonant collective of global voices. Virtual space is where the power of change is growing, and it is no different in the church – the prophetic becomes a collective global voice speaking into local-physical gatherings. Just a thought.

  2. len says:

    John, these days everything needs qualification. I’m working from the same texts and same perspective as Alan Hirsch and Alan Roxburgh on this. So, prophetic and apostolic voices include a charismatic dimension, but they do not necessarily (and probably only rarely) participate in the so-called apostolic and prophetic movements. Many of these leaders and voices would not identify themselves with the charismatic movement at all. Yet, of course, that doesn’t exclude the activity of the Spirit or the recognition of his gifts – Ephesians 4. Some would say this is a “post-charismatic” perspective. It is definitely post-hype and post-platform. It is not about public prophetic ministry. I do want to recognize the gift of the networked learning conversation that is occurring globally. But that is only one component and cannot exclude local listening – to the believing community, to the mission context, and to the voice of God. I attempted a reworking of the Wesleyan quadrilateral here in part 9 of “the leader as listener”:

  3. len says:

    Oh, and watch for a followup post on this issue, likely tomorrow. Yes, I will add the bell curve diagram 🙂
    We need to move, as Hopkins and Breen explicitly argue, from contexts of control to contexts of accountability and support. There is a world of difference, but authority still exists.

  4. John L says:

    “We need to move, as Hopkins and Breen explicitly argue, from contexts of control to contexts of accountability and support.”

    This is where the work of Florida, Ray & Ruth, et al can help in identifying healthy forms of crowd-sourced wisdom and authority. To begin with, the crowd needs to regain the idea that it has the innate creativity to lead. We have collectively forgotten, but virtuality is helping us to regain our memory.

  5. jay says:

    Great thoughts