Challenge Eight: The Startup Goes Public before Road-testing its Core Identity and Discipleship Pattern
As a church starter or future starter, we’re no doubt excited to bring the church of our dreams into visible expression. We’ve been busy with the on-the-ground discernment and missiological work, and we may have even settled on the form of church we sense is best for our context. At this point, we may be tempted to raise the banner and project our public face as a new church, especially if we have supporters, sponsoring agencies, and interested locals pressuring us to get the dream out there. We’ve really thought and prayed this through, so is there anything else we ought to consider before we go public?
Let me suggest that there may indeed be a very good reason to hang in this gestation period a while longer.
I’d say it may be one of the most important readiness factors we might use to gauge the timing of our coming out, and I’ll frame it as a question:
To what degree have we as team actually road-tested our collective identity and our Jesus way of life?
By “collective identity,” I mean your vision, values, theology, ecclesial culture and prospective name. By “our Jesus way of life,” I mean that core set of up-in-out practices that help us to grow as mature, credible witnesses of the gospel. I’m asserting here that any church startup team ought to rehearse or practice these dual elements together for a season prior to going public. This up-front experimenting with our unique missional ecclesiology can pay huge dividends when we actually do “throw the doors open.” Let me explain.
It’s pretty much common knowledge that in the early stages of church planting, lead teams need to carve out time for deep processing together in order to articulate the critical “who we are” pieces of vision and values, philosophy of ministry, and guiding theology. At the same time, teams need to also define the base practices around which their community will be apprenticed to think, act and care like Jesus.
A deep buy-in on these together is key to establishing our initial DNA and the communal culture we want to create. This is church-planting 101. What I want to red flag is the tendency to move this crafted clarity into the public arena as a declaration of who we are and what we major on, without giving due attention to actually rehearsing these for a season ourselves.
If our team has done that initial 101 work well, we’ve reached some primal clarity about our communal identity and discipling pattern. At this stage, we may have already begun to populate a nice, image-laden website and other media platforms with all our well-crafted identity stuff under the banner of a catchy name. We may have taken on board a cutting-edge discipleship approach that’s proving fruitful elsewhere. I’m all in for getting the “who we are” and “what we major on” pieces as crisp and clear as possible, but where I’d caution us is to not take our arrival there as the signal of our readiness to go public.
We need to first get this clarity into deeper motion in an experimental “zone of practice.”
1. Practice What You Preach
For one, this helps those joining us to respect our judgment and trustworthiness. When we ask our community to adopt an identity and way of life that we ourselves as leaders haven’t even tested for validity, we’re gambling with our credibility. Sure, we’ve done our missional homework together, but that’s a far cry different than moving, quietly and behind-the-scenes in a lived expression of our DNA and our discipleship rhythm. It’s only through our own personal trial-run with a corporate identity and way of life that we ourselves can authentically say to others: “Hey, we’re finding this identity, culture and discipleship rhythm both doable and life-changing ourselves. Won’t you join us in practicing these too?”
2. Get the Lead Team on the Same Page
Another good reason to have a tested identity and way of life is that it helps your lead team to maintain crisp and united momentum forward. It’s much easier and more enticing for others to align with our experienced sense of identity and practice than when these are only superficially embraced.
3. Protect the Community
A third good reason for a practice zone is to help leaders protect the community that we’re all co-creating. When we can harmoniously attest to the fit and efficacy of our communal identity and core practices, it makes us less susceptible to the influence and muscling of strong personalities who come with their own, often hidden, agendas. An old timer once warned me that church startups tend to draw pathology, and I’ve discovered that there’s some truth in that. Startups of course also draw healthy strong personalities who smell something good brewing. Whatever the motivation, pushy types who want to impose their ideas about who we need to be will find it harder to violate our communal boundaries when we have a shared experience of what life together under Christ means for us (1).
So our practiced clarity gives us credibility as a leadership team, it motivates others to join our community, and it protects us from the counter agendas that will be thrust our way. However, there is yet another compelling reason we ought to defer going public. It relates to the timing and priority of our centralized worship gathering.
To many starters, the move into a weekly worship experience represents the epitome of what it means to go public. Yes, I would argue this too ought to be delayed in favor of rehearsing our identity and discipleship pattern. It may indeed be helpful to run a “preview service” for some months before our official “launch service,” as many startup teams do. But, even then, worship only covers a certain spectrum of what ought to involve a wider, more holistic array of practices that form people in the way of Christ. In other words, there’s a lot more we should be previewing or rehearsing before projecting a public face than our pithy weekly-worship liturgies.
I’m blending the worship gathering issue into this conversation because many church starters end up spending way too much time and energy on designing and fine-tuning our primary weekly gathering. If we overemphasize our weekly worship service, whether that happens early on in the process or later, that gathering will likely become the center of gravity for our plant. Once that happens, the rising commitments demanded to provide quality preaching, worship, attentiveness to youth and small children, set-up and tear-down, responsiveness to visitors, etc. will likely cripple our ongoing attention to mission and other key aspects of holistic discipleship.
Even though we may be able to provide excellent, growth-challenging experiences for attendees on a weekly basis, we all know that’s not enough to help our people navigate life and grow spiritually (2). So, to conclude…
…don’t just do a preview service, preview the whole shebang of what you’re inviting people into, and do it for a good six months or longer.
Well, hopefully all this makes sense as we consider our own pre-public practice together. Road-testing our identity and discipleship pattern may well be our next best action as a team. Of course, this is not a science, and exceptions abound in the wildness of startups. And, if we’ve already gone public too hastily in the way I’ve described, it’s never too late to fess up and then create some new zones of practice where we can freshly engage or revise those critical “who we are” and “how we grow” pieces.
Here’s some parting questions that may be helpful to consider:
To what degree are we as a lead team activating, in our own individual and communal lives, those elements that define our collective identity and Jesus way of life. Where might we need to make adjustments, and what might a fresh “zone of practice” look like for our team to credibly say, “we ourselves are living into this identity and way of life?”
How will we prevent our gathered life as a church from becoming the main drain on staff, community energy/time, and resources? How will our team help incoming people understand and support our plant’s unique identity and discipleship pattern?
For more on how to craft and rehearse the identity and Jesus-life we’ll be inviting others into, see Dynamic Adventure: A Guide to Starting and Shaping Missional Churches, by Steigerwald, Loyd, Crull and Kuder (Centennial, CO: Communitas, 2017), pp. 79-98.
Just to be clear on the subject of Christian “floaters”: 1) Some healthy deprogramming and re-infusion of new DNA usually needs to happen among all those coming into the core community of a plant; 2) Every forming church will have a sub-culture emerge, and that’s okay and to be expected. Followers of Christ do need to be socialized into a countercultural way of life where the damaging narratives of mainstream culture (consumerism, hyper-activity, individualism, etc.) can be effectively resisted. However, many will need to be “un-discipled” from extra-biblical religious behaviors; 3) To reduce the friction of values clashes and hidden agendas, planting teams do well to introduce a process for incoming Christians that debriefs their previous church background/experience, draws out their story and values, and explores their fit with the plant’s vision, formational practices, and desired internal culture.
This is especially true if we’re employing this weekly format and other attractional gatherings/events in ways that extract people from their natural connections with people outside the church. We thereby socialize them into non-incarnational ways of living their faith. The church must remain a missionary community throughout its life. Our core group needs to practice spiritual rhythms together that accommodate different age groups and that also don’t require an undue focus on the gathered life of the church. Acting under the assumption that a Sunday gathering is the best way to meet the spiritual needs of their kids, parents will often push team leaders to go public far too soon. It’s wise to include vested participants early on in the crafting and practice of a discipling culture that meets not only the needs of children and youth, but the needs of all the participant groups represented.
written by Dan Steigerwald