Church planting is not the answer.
Well . . . that’s not quite accurate.
Let me explain.
Church planting doesn’t begin with the desire to plant a church, but with a desire to reach the unreached and to make disciples of people disconnected from the hope and wholeness that come through the good news of Jesus. Church planting born of missional imagination is not mere replication of a good thing in one town, but the extension of organic missional impulses into new communities. We are not franchising a method; we are fostering atmospheres for hope to break through in organic and transformative ways.
The Story of Bridgeway
Bridgeway Community Church was planted in Pekin, Illinois, in 2005 by Dale Schaeffer and others who had a passion to reach people who are disconnected from Jesus.
The leaders sought to stand at the edge of the missional abyss and find new ways to engage people who had not yet made Jesus Lord of their lives. Bridgeway was born for a missional impulse and a belief in the mandate of Jesus to concern ourselves about a world that seems unhinged from the kingdom of God. Bridgeway’s leadership recognized that this mission was too large for a single, regional church to create the kind of change necessary, so they decided to launch missional outposts in communities surrounding Tazewell County and beyond.
When I arrived at Bridgeway in 2014, I felt it was important that we keep this clear vision to be a church that would continue to lean forward into the unchartered terrain of missional engagement. For this to continue,we had to clarify our “why” (why make missional engagement the priority?) and clarify our “metrics” (the way we measured our effectiveness).
For us, the “why” was easy: This congregation cared deeply for those who knew nothing of the hope of Christ and for communities that existed in the carnage of brokenness. According to the Pew Research Group, the number of “Nones” in the United States (those who expressed no religious preference in census data) increased from 19 million to 54 million from 2007 to 2014. Without intentionally engaged communities of faith committed to bear witness to the kingdom of God, the number of “Nones” will continue to increase. We knew we had to do something. We trusted that sending out leaders, resources, and personnel would allow us to fully embrace the mission of God, but we had to change the scorecard or the standard by which we measured our success.
Changing the Scorecard
Nothing will change until the scorecard changes. We pursue what we feel is valued and affirmed, even if it no longer promotes the same results it once did. We are reluctant to push to the edge of missional faithfulness when our livelihoods depend on our maintaining the status quo.
In cultural Christianity, the metrics of “nickels and noses”—financial and attendance success—drove the conversation. Church growth became the telos, the aim, of most pastors’ pursuit. Our validation came from those who looked at our statistics. The driving questions were, “How much have we grown since the previous year in worship attendance and membership?” “How much have we raised in all-purpose giving, and are our budgets paid in full?” Additional questions included, “How large was our facility?” and “How many staff members do we employ?”
At the heart of these questions was the assumption that success and effectiveness were measured by how many gathered at a specific geographic location. These metrics were often celebrated as “success” without our realizing how constraining these metrics became to our missional imagination.
Then the world changed around us. No longer were the assumptions of cultural Christianity valid. Now, our once well-attended programs were failing. Worship attendance declined. The once sought-after, sage advice of church growth gurus no longer produced the same results. No longer was the church at the center of a community’s social identity.
Our grand narrative was replaced by fragmented narratives of the self, niche groups, and identity politics. Plateau became the new measurement of success: “Did you hold your ground?” Although the world around us changed, our cultural Christianity had bound us to metrics that constrained our missional imagination.
So, What are We To Do?
At Bridgeway Community, we had to develop a set of metrics that would point to our effectiveness in mission. In establishing three core metrics, we moved the dial from being stuck on “nickels and noses,” from “collecting and gathering” to engaging, empowering, deploying, scattering, and sending.
Our three Core Metrics are as follows:
1. Gospel Saturation: We regularly ask, “Who has said ‘yes’ to a new story in Jesus Christ?” Do we adequately provide the means through which people enter the transformative journey of discipleship, plunge into the holy waters of baptism, and bear witness in their lives, relationships, and aspirations to the transforming power of the kingdom of God?
2. Local Community Transformation: We believe if a church is going to exist in the community, it should improve the community, that qualitative and quantitative change will happen within that community, neighborhood, town, or city.
3. Micro and Macro Multiplication: We develop disciples to multiply other disciples, leaders, missional creativity, ministries, campuses, and churches. This is an intentional process where pastors move from the center of attention to being the ones who equip others for their good work.
These are the stories we tell. These are the “successes” that we celebrate. You will seldom hear us mention our size, how many people attended on Easter Sunday, or how large our budget is. Instead, we allow these metrics to become our new scorecard and the catalyst for stories to be told to fuel greater missional imagination. We’ve discovered that in changing the scorecard and clarifying the “why,” church planting and extended outreach is the natural outcome.
In living out the new scorecard, Bridgeway Community Church has recently reduced its congregational size by nearly 10 percent and decreased its annual budget by $30,000. And we counted that a victory? Why?
In June of 2018, we deployed our first church plant resident to plant Arrow Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Christian and Heather Sapp will pioneer a movement in conjunction with the North Carolina District to plant more churches in and throughout North Carolina. In addition, we commissioned our second church plant resident, Seth and Tai Major, to plant Reachway Church in Peoria, Illinois, in an underserved area where they’ve partnered with local community organizations to bring transformation to the area. We will be deploying a church plant resident couple, Kevin and Laura Grose to Switzerland and will coach another young planter family that will partner with the Wisconsin District to plant in Madison, Wisconsin. What looks like loss to the old scorecard is a celebration for Bridgeway Community Church.
Ministry in the 21st Century requires us to tell different stories, imagine different outcomes, deploy the potential of a greater number of missional agents, and yes, plant churches!