Redefining a Successful Local Church: Planting Churches that Plant Churches

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The Lesson from Evolutionary Biology

People often have difficulty grasping one of the basic tenets of biology. It is simple to understand, and once you 'get it' it becomes the most obvious truism. The difficulty lies not in the complexity of the thing to be understood, but in the conceptions we already hold that predispose us to other ways of thinking. We are so used to thinking about things in a certain manner, that it becomes difficult to conceive, much less think critically, in any other manner. This difficulty has to do with the evolutionary fitness or 'success' of a particular organism.

More specifically, it is the definition of evolutionary fitness that is difficult for people to see. An organism's biological 'success' is determined solely and completely by its ability to reproduce. Reproduction is defined and measured by the ability of the parent to produce viable offspring, the greater the number of viable offspring, the greater the success of the parent. Viability is, of course, defined by the ability to reach mature reproductive age and produce yet another generation of offspring.

The reason this can be difficult to grasp is that our own conception of success is so radically different. We are used to thinking of success in terms of strength, size, skill, power, intelligence, virtue, even pleasure; in short, we are used to a definition of success that thinks solely in terms of the well-being of the parent organism without any regard for the relationship of that organism to the future of its genetic code. The parallels to the Church should here become obvious...

A Successful Church

My main contention here has to do with our definition of success. While it would be pushing the analogy too far to suggest a one-to-one correlation, I contend that our definition of church success must share the same emphasis on reproduction that we see in evolutionary biology.

There are of course, other concerns when it comes to church health and faithfulness to our King; love and devotion to Jesus, deep and powerful ties to each other, practical initiatives to peace and justice in the world; but these can perhaps be seen as the content of the genetic code, whereas success is conceived as perpetuating those Kingdom genes. We must be explicit and clear on this, a successful church is one that produces other churches, in short, it is imperative that we tie organizational success to reproduction.

Competing Paradigms

This is not, however, the definition of Church success that we have inherited. The Vineyard (and those within it) come squarely out of the 20th Century American Evangelical tradition. We have differentiated ourselves in significant ways from that tradition (without repudiating it), but have yet to significantly differentiate ourselves from the ubiquity of 'Church Growth' methods and theories that hold sway within that tradition.

We still largely define success as our American Evangelical cousins do: the strength, size, skill, power, intelligence, virtue, even pleasure, that is present within the local congregation. In short, we are used to a definition of success that thinks solely in terms of the well-being of the parent organism without any regard for the relationship of that organism to the future of its genetic code.

I know of too many 'mega-churches' with no value for church planting. They are the envy of all of the churches and christians in the area, yet they are like a wealthy, elite, but aging, suburbanite wife, who has produced no children, and is growing more and more concerned with bridge games, botox treatments, and social events. No one seems to notice, nor to point out, that these healthy churches are not healthy at all. They are sterile... No one I know would point to a young woman who was biologically incapable of becoming pregnant as a model of health, yet we have little difficulty thinking the Bride of Christ is healthy, while remaining barren. So how is it that we can divorce health from reproduction?

Practical Methods for Redefinition

The real problem, is that we hold these churches up as models to replicate in our own location, when they are incapable of replicating themselves! We are blinded by the sheen of consumerism and the glow of individualism to the reality of God's vision for the church.

We must begin to hold up different models. We must stop buying books from large church pastors, we must stop reading their blogs, we must stop placing them in places of denominational leadership, we must stop inviting them to teach at conferences. We must stop counting Sunday attendance, we must stop talking about these numbers. We must stop using these as measurements of success. We must start spotlighting individuals and communities who are planting churches! We must read their books and blogs. Invite them to speak at our conferences and lead our denominations. We must start counting the number of church plants sent out, and the number of church plants that have planted others.

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For those of you interested in some further reading, I have attached a link to a series of posts exploring three other metaphors for Church that deal explicitly with reproduction and missional success. They came out of a sermon I preached at a friends church a few years back intended to spur on the cause of New Church Planting: Apples, Dandelions, and Horse Manure