Reclaiming Church Planting as a Calling

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If I’ve learned anything during my time of involvement in church planting is that there are always different storylines happening simultaneously. Unfortunately, the louder voices win out and the lesser voices are muted. I’m sure that this is not intentional. It just happens. What do I mean by this?

I’ve always been intrigued by the geographic implications and realities in church planting. Let me explain. For example, in Portland, as in the case of most other cities, there’s a stark contrast and imbalance for where church planting takes place. In Portland that means the bulk of church planting happens in gentrifying (or gentrified) neighborhoods. Conversely, neighborhoods that are still predominantly minority and/or low-income have significantly less church planting taking place.

So the multiple storylines look like this … (1) there’s a push by denominations and church planting networks to mobilize church planters for the city. (2) There’s also the unspoken reality, particularly for planters moving in from the outside, that they most often end up in “good” neighborhoods and livable parts of the city. (3) At the same time neighborhoods with underperforming schools, unsightly streetscapes, and even higher crime receive little to no church planters.

My question always is … why? Why the disparity?

At the same time I’ve known countless people who’ve gone overseas as missionaries and they move into informal human settlements (or IHS, otherwise known as “slums”) and don’t think twice about it. I have a hunch that for many it’s the difference between a career versus a calling. What is the difference? Everything.

Recently we held our last graduation commencement for North Portland Bible College where I’m a Board member. The school was started in 1982 when this part of the city was home to Portland’s African American community. There was a recognized need for higher education opportunities which at that time were very limited for people in the neighborhood. However, fast forward 36 years later and so much has changed. Through gentrification the black community has been dispersed. Along with that access to higher education has changed as well. So the decision was made by the Board to stop granting degrees and certificates.

It was a celebratory event last night. While not somber, it was still a reminder of some of the pain wrought on by gentrification in the city and its impact upon this small college. During our celebration was sang a few songs together. One of them I had not sung in a long time (or can even recall singing it). However, the lyrics struck a chord deep within. The hymn was “So I Send You.” Here are a couple of the stanzas:

So send I you to labor unrewarded. To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown. To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing. So send I you to toil for Me alone.

So send I you to loneliness and longing. With heart ahung’ring for the loved and known. Forsaking home and kindred, friend and dear one. So send I you to know My love alone.

So send I you to leave your life’s ambition. To die to dear desire, self-will resign. To labor long, and love where men revile you. So send I you to lose your life in Mine.

I was taken back by the lyrics. They were almost scandalous as I sang them. That does not sound like the call to church planting I hear today. Instead we’ve couched church planting as a career change, a job transition, and then to move to a place where you’ve always wanted to live.

This is all part of the unspoken realities of church planting. Not only the geographic considerations but also this notion or tension between career and calling. When we talk about careers first and foremost the conversation revolves around topics like “advancing, moving up, climbing the ladder” along with other related topics like salary, retirement benefits, insurance, and more.

We go to university to get schooling and hopefully training for a career in whatever industry we’re pursuing ... finance, engineering, marketing, medicine, and the like. We have our career goals ahead of us. Part of that is also a financial incentive for many. One doesn’t labor for years in medical school (plus overwhelming student debt) if there wasn’t the reality that a career in medicine is financially worth the investment. That doesn’t minimize a calling or compulsion towards medicine.

The challenge when it comes to church planting is how are we to treat it? Calling or career? Both? Obviously regardless of what side one falls on there needs to be some sort of compensation to sustain one’s livelihood. What I would love to do and see is that we reclaim church planting as a calling. In other words, to push away this notion of church planting being a career change. To sing deeply in our hearts those words from the hymn I previously shared.

Here’s the reality in church planting that no one will straight up tell you. It doesn’t cost any money to plant a church. Zero. You don’t need a budget, paid staff, or anything like that. Seriously, you really don’t. That is an unspoken reality in church planting. What that does is (1) blast out of the water the idea that church planting is a career move, and (2) frees you up to pursue church planting as a calling regardless of your career.

So what’s the disconnect?

Since church planting has been professionalized we’ve made it a career track like going into medicine or marketing. That means long years in and school and training. Then there’s the notion that this new church plant is like opening a coffee shop or financial planning firm where in a couple of years it’ll soon be providing you an income and all of the other benefits like retirement, insurance, and the like.

Since church planting has been professionalized it then becomes accessible to only specialists with the right degrees, training, credentials, backing, and finances. Part of it certainly is cultural influences of our day. For example, we wouldn’t trust a medical doctor unless they’ve been to medical school, passed, and then received the proper credentials and licensing. But should church planting be the same?

Maybe some of you are nodding in agreement. We talk endlessly about church planting movements here in North America. Do you know what the number obstacle is? The professionalization of church planting. What we long for we short cut but making planting a career move and only done by those who’ve been properly assessed and then sent out. We’ve bottlenecked the process. Also, when you look at wherever in the world and throughout history where church planting movements have taken place it was not because of professional church planters. Instead, it was led by “non-professionals” who had jobs and careers in something else.

Think of it this way. What’s the primary tension faced by church planters? Finances. That is, to be able to sustain one’s salary. That takes precedence over launching worship gatherings, evangelism, and discipleship. If you don’t believe me, then what else keeps planters up at night? I’ve known many planters over the years. They’re not up at 2 AM in a cold sweat because new believers in their churches are not grasping the Trinity or even other stressors like the college dude in your core team who is still sleeping with his girlfriend. Money, that’s the primary fear and concern for planters.

I’ve known planters who move to their new cities making great money and living large, immediately buying homes, and taking all kinds of cool vacations. However, most planters roll into town already cash-strapped as they sank everything they personally had just to get there.

Regardless of how one enters it is usually around year 5 where the pressure reaches a boiling point. Supporters and donors are seriously questioning your ability to plant a “sustainable” church, wonder why you’re not “self-sustaining,” why your people are not tithing more, and why momentum seems to have stalled (if you ever had momentum). You keep pointing towards how “dark” and “lost” your city is, but the painful reality is that you’re just not that winsome as far as your personality and therefore have a difficult time attracting and retaining a crowd.

Unfortunately, that’s what church planting has turned into. No thanks, I’ll pass.

But what if we removed church planting from the career category? Not only that, take it out of the hands of the so-called professionals?