10 Thoughts After 10 Years of Planting & Directing Microchurch Networks
This summer marks ten years of planting microchurches, developing microchurch networks, and collaborating with other network directors around the world. While taking some time off in May, I wrote a rambling reflection of some of what I’ve learned and noticed, in no particular order.
1- God’s people are ready to lead far sooner than our pipelines allow.
The priesthood of all believers, the great commission, the empowerment of the Spirit and the five fold gracious gifting of the church for maturity and kingdom ministry is real. The greatest barrier I’ve observed holding those realities back is leadership development expectations and pipelines that withhold permission and empowerment from people until finished, taking on average 2–4 years, and often including hoops to jump through that are irrelevant to the goal. There are numerous reasons why this happens, ranging on a spectrum of innocent caution and risk aversion at best to command and control at worst. Either way, caution or control shouldn’t be on the throne, Jesus should be, and when he is trusted to lead the church, it’s amazing how quickly people are both called and equipped according to His purposes.
2- God’s mission is more diverse and creative than our vision can capture.
Over 80% of the hundreds of microchurches I’ve seen and served had a vision, or method, or strategy that I had never thought of. Honestly, there’s been dozens of times I thought to myself, “this won’t possibly work, this is a terrible idea, we should shut this leader down or steer them in a different direction”. Almost every time I’ve said that, the proposed microchurch is supernaturally fruitful and God is clearly at work. God’s redemptive work is far more diverse and creative than I can imagine, and so the people of God must be protected from my biases of what will or won’t work, what is or is not worth trying. This is the inherit risk of a network-level constrictive vision/mission statements, which might inadvertently limit what we affirm as Kingdom activity, or exclude called disciples from empowered missional life.
3- There’s a little megachurch dream in the heart of every leader that needs to die.
Naming it is the first step. I have one, too. I thought I buried it a long time ago, but it still whispers from its tomb every once in a while. The whispers typically try to convince me to be disappointed in a turnout, to think more and bigger is better, to build a tower instead of plant a garden, and to sink hours of my life into a social media strategy to grow my influence. Certainly bigger isn’t bad and influence should be stewarded, but every truth can be subtly morphed into a powerful lie that leads to death, and christian celebrity culture has mass produced some deadly lies. We’ve undergone such deep spiritual formation in an age of mega and celebrity that, for a leader, turning away from a life driven by these inner cravings isn’t a one time event but a long term intentional process baptized in God’s grace.
4- Missional community is best lived on the margins and under the radar.
I remember ten years ago sitting in a church planting workshop and the leader talked about pursuing the most influential person in the community (If high school ministry, pursue the quarterback. If small town ministry, pursue the mayor. If city ministry, pursue big money folks). Sounds really strategic, but cannot find it in the life of Jesus or the early church. Honestly after 10 years of watching loads of grassroots church planting unfold, the microchurches that pursue the “least of these” bear the most fruit, and I can see a whole lot of that in the life of Jesus and the early church. I’m not saying every leader needs to go work with the materially poor, I’m saying every people group to whom you are called has a margin, and you should start there. Every neighborhood has a shut in, every lunch room has a “weird” table, every work place has the isolated, even homeless communities generate power dynamics within them that result in central figures and forgotten ones. Who does the community not want, who has been told they don’t belong? Go want them, go cultivate belonging.
5- At the same time that missional networks are becoming mainstream, they are harder than ever to cultivate in a time devoid of social trust.
There is no perfect church. Every church, every way of being the church, has flaws. I think the potential downsides of microchurch networks are mitigated in a cultural moment of high social trust, and amplified in a moment of low social trust. Because of a global pandemic, openness to microchurches in the broader Christian conversation has never been higher, which happens to coincide with a cultural moment when social trust has never been lower (read here, or here, or try out the googles). In an age of high social trust, people generally approach each other with the disposition “I will believe the best about you until proven otherwise”, which means very little embodied connection is needed to maintain a healthy relationship. But in an age of low social trust, people generally approach each other with the converse “I will believe the worst about you until proven otherwise” (and the shelf life of that proof is shorter than the milk in your fridge), which means a lot of embodied connection is needed to maintain a healthy relationship. Microchurch leader networks thrive when mutual affection and common unity can be maintained with minimal maintenance, so that leaders can focus on their people and their mission. Lots more to say about this, but to keep it short, I think microchurch networks have a ceiling of healthiness before needing to multiply the network itself, and that ceiling is affected by social trust.
6- Microchurch Networks are a powerful pathway to multiethnic community, and antiracist justice work
Gather every tribe, tongue, and nation around a dope worship service and you’re in trouble. EVERYTHING about a worship gathering is culturally informed and culturally sensitive. Gather every tribe, tongue, and nation around a specific missional purpose in the city and you’re slightly better off, but who does that purpose exclude? (see #2). Gather every tribe, tongue, and nation around a common hunger to know their calling from Jesus (whatever it is) and a common commitment to persevering the sacrificial life of missional leadership, and suddenly you can host a whole lot of different people at the same table, who would otherwise have very little reason to convene. There’s still a lot more work to do to help those people trust one another, love one another, tear down walls of hostility, and be an “us”, but a network of calling and empowerment can put them all at the same table.
Today, because of the intersection of multiethnicity and empowerment, we have multiple microchurches directly engaged in each of the evils of homelessness, hunger, human trafficking, access to health care, foster care & adoption, education inequality, sex industry, incarceration, poverty, addiction recovery, gang violence, unemployment, immigration & displacement, and more. Every single one of those evils contains its own racial disparity, as the historically embedded and destructive narrative of racial difference seeps its way into every domain. Counterintuitively, this mosaic of antiracist work with a vision of Kingdom transformation is only possible if we champion calling & empowerment itself, not any single just cause, and make room for the missionary community to sharpen, challenge, and learn from one another.
7- Network Leaders must become proficient NOW in cultural competency, differentiation, and emotionally healthy spirituality
See #6 and #7. The type of leadership required to direct a network is fundamentally different than the type of leadership required to lead a prevailing model church community. The collective of core leaders entrusted to steward, serve, and lead a network of microchurches must immediately develop cross cultural competencies, an understanding of relational systems theory and differentiation, and cultivate practices of emotionally healthy spirituality if there is any hope to last more than 5 years.
8- Microchurch networks are ready built for the covocational & financially innovative future of the church.
The church is in the beginning stages of what will be a complete operating system update on our theology of work, faith-work economics, vocation and calling, and the economic model assumptions of the church itself. These are great updates, although they have not emerged from a vacuum of curiosity, but by the blunt force failure of inherited economic models (we’ve been pushing the “remind me tomorrow” button in the top corner for about two decades). The future of church planting and church leadership is bivocational and covocational (a more recent term, check out Brad Brisco’s work on this or try out the googles). Over 90% of our microchurch leaders are bivocational or covocational, nearly 20 of our microchurches have adopted social enterprise and business startup strategies as core to their mission, and our movement budget is only 40% funded by the common purse of the local fellowship. We still have loads of adaptive challenges with our own financial model, but I’ve noticed how the network has allowed us so much room to constantly experiment, and is pre built with a shorter onramp to some of these otherwise daunting changes.
9- Any infrastructure has an entropy away from risk and toward manageable comfort, which kills movement. Change is the only Constant
Even organizations known momentarily as innovative will eventually develop their own status quo. Every new wineskin eventually becomes an old wineskin. There are so many reasons this happens it would require a book to explore. Bottom line, Jesus is always on the move just beyond human control and predictability, and as soon as things become a bit more controlled, manageable, and predictable, we might feel temporarily pacified by the allure of false comfort, but we’re missing something he’s up to. Our ecclesiology should be constantly under investigation and innovation cycle, based on what Jesus is up to (christology) and how he is inviting us to join him (missiology), not the other way around.
10- Our best ideas, strategies, and models are meaningless without Jesus.
The longer I do this, the older I get, the more meaningless everything seems without Jesus. I can get very “Ecclesiastes” about it, there’s nothing new under the sun, everything has a season, things come and go, it’s all meaningless. But Jesus is always new, he’s above the sun, his is every season, he is meaning, and he gives things meaning. This whole article is flaming putrid garbage if it doesn’t lead to something with him, about him, for him, filled with him, led by him. And at the end of the day, what makes me cry isn’t innovative ideas, or cool new church forms, or viral multiplication. What makes my eyes well up, and puts the knot in my throat, is when a family invites a homeless woman to stay in their guest room for a time, or when a disciple gives his neighbor with PTSD a ride to the V.A. for counseling every week, or when a house church hosts a public baptism in the front yard using a truck bed full of water, or when a woman pops up a tent and a table in the front yard every day at 3:00 to offer free tutoring, or when a couple says yes at 4 in the morning to becoming up an orphan for respite care, or when a leader gathers their microchurch to pray for the person who stole their car, or give a free dinner to the person who destroyed their property, practicing the narrow way of enemy love and radical forgiveness. Who cares if you call it a microchurch. Who cares if it’s innovative. Who cares if it’s a network. Who cares if it has good branding or a killer website. Whatever looks like, smells like, sounds like, tastes like Jesus, let’s just be and do more of it, and help others be and do more of it, by his grace and for his renown.