Church Planting: It’s Not One Formula

An acquaintance of mine among the Independent Christian Churches used to say, “Eric, there are three ways to plant a church: the hard way, the harder way, and the hardest way.” At times I have wondered whether I was doing it the hardest way. Today, I believe God is seeing us through and that maybe we are only doing it the hard or harder way.

Eight years ago, my family and I sold or gave away most of what we had to make a big move from the Deep South to New England. I transitioned from “big church” and “senior minister” to “no church, no salary, and no supporting organization.” In the church planting world, you would call us “parachute church planters.”

Today, we live in a small New England town, five miles from Plymouth Rock and thirty miles from Fenway Park. We have a community with a small group of people, hold no debt, and the four-year-old church has six million dollars of property including the historic church building and a parsonage. To God’s credit alone, I believe the greatest witness to what is taking place with this small church is that our town would notice if we were not here and that we would be missed.

So, how did that happen? How did God use us to engage this town? What works? What doesn’t work? Perhaps an analogy will help.

A great family therapist, Salvador Minuchin, once penned a book called, “Family Therapy Techniques.” It was a primary text in a course I took at Harding University in 1994. Minuchin explained that, “training in family therapy should… be a way of teaching techniques whose essence is to be mastered, then forgotten” (Minuchin, 1981, 1). As I trained to become a family therapist in the early 90’s I had little idea how much that would affect my call to church planting these many years later.

Perhaps one of my favorite family therapists in the early years of my field was a man named Carl Whitaker whose preferred technique seemed to be no technique. According to him a good family therapist is not a person who applies technique, it is the one who can survey and size-up the landscape in which a family lives. As the therapist “does” this a joining occurs so that as the therapist moves the system (family) to which they are now connected responds.

This explanation was lost on me when I first began to learn the techniques of family therapy. There was a time when I sought diligently to “do” what my teachers did. It seemed elementary that if I did what they did, I would be a good therapist like them. It didn’t happen that way for me and it was a process of trial and error, months and years, before “being” a family therapist felt natural.

Today, I am an adjunct at a small college in Boston teaching family therapy. Based upon my own previous anxieties as a student, I regularly remind my class that they have what it takes and the techniques they employ mean nothing next to how they regard their client. A good therapist doesn’t “do” therapy. It’s not a shirt you take on and off. Joining with an individual or other system is more about who you are than what you do.

Even though I instinctively knew these things about the practice of therapy, I did not associate the value of these experiences with church planting when we moved to New England. I thought I might just learn the techniques of church planting by spending time with a newly planted church. We spent a year with a church plant that began by meeting in a movie theater. I could “do” what they had done in New England and be successful. Perhaps the organization that planted the church would consider sponsoring us to do the same. After working alongside this church for a year, the organization said I did not have the gifts or “techniques” to successfully plant a church with them. I felt like a failure.

In truth, I was guilty of the same thing I struggled to learn so many years ago as a budding therapist. Underneath what we “do” is the more important question of who we are. But, in this experiment we call a secular culture that truth can go missing. How? In our secular culture religion is just another menu item that one might choose. You have your private life, your work life, your religious life, and so forth. For so many following Jesus is something you “do.” It’s formulaic.

But, following Jesus isn’t about wearing a Jesus shirt. Jesus owns my whole suit of clothes and my person, right down to the bone. Discipleship, spirituality, religion, we use a number of words to say the same thing. What I hear Jesus saying is that following him is not a technique. There isn’t a formula. How do I know? Well Jesus said so. The cost of discipleship is everything. There is no need for a list of things Jesus requires from you or me when it includes everything. Jesus didn’t come to give us a full spiritual life. Jesus came that we might have a full life – all of it.

Perhaps the greatest experience I have had in these years since moving to New England is the shedding of a formulaic faith and the embrace of a sacramental faith. It was not a failure to learn that I am not gifted for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and planting a hip new church in a movie theater. It was freedom to discover there is not one formula. The hardest way to plant a church or follow Jesus would be to follow the formula of someone else.

Sacrament simply means sacred mystery. A sacrament is a sort of portal – a connection between heaven and earth. Yes, the church has struggled over that term and what sort of things are sacramental and what sort of things are not. I’m going to weigh in on this and I could be wrong, but if you are reading this you are a sacrament. There is something about you that is uniquely you. You have what it takes. And when Jesus is not merely a shirt that you try on and off but the One who is about making your life full and meaningful, then you become an extension of who Jesus is. That is sacramental.

It is a mystery to me. I have no formula to share. Over the last eight years, I have shared sacred moments on barstools, in parking lots, by deathbeds, in doctor’s offices, furniture stores, ambulance rides, and the list goes on. So, this is not a how-to-do-it blog. It’s more a how-I-think-I-learned it blog. How does life happen to me? How can I get more to happen? May more and more happen to you.

~ Eric Greer

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Eric Greer sounds like he’s from Tennessee but he is a New Englander. He pastors a new church in Kingston, MA and loves beekeeping, the Red Sox, and fire engines.

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