Growing up in the 80’s, I watched Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The movie is basically about the adventures of some kids who are accidentally shrunken down to the size of insects. So much of the culture around me says that bigger is better; size is the measure of success. I wondered if this was true for the church. After praying, I shrunk the church. This is the story of how and why.
Going Simple: A New Vision for Church
I grew up within mainline Baptist and Pentecostal churches. The churches I’ve been part of have done some awesome things in shaping me to be the follower of Jesus I am today. I’m so grateful for the things they do in my community and the way they are still building God’s kingdom.
In the myriad of positives, I also found struggles. The biggest struggle was that church seemed to lead me to being dependent on the pastor for spiritual growth. As a pastor myself, I know this isn’t what pastors want, but it can be a by-product when it’s the leader ‘doing’ the ministry and we receive it.
What if there was a way to help take followers of Jesus from being passive church attendees and lead them to active participants? As I prayed about it, I realised this wasn’t about programs, or even structure. This had more to do with people’s hearts and culture.
What if church went simple? Can you imagine how ministry might look when everyone gets to play? What would it look like if there were churches that were smaller, ‘back to basics,’ ‘bare-boned’ communities that reached out into our neighbourhoods to those who don’t easily fit into mainstream churches? What would be the impact of those devoted to God’s Word, worshiping, praying, celebrating and serving together, and see mission as a natural overflow in life? Can you imagine church life where everyone, adults and children, contribute in discipleship and making disciples who make disciples?
I had a conversation with one of my Bible college lecturers that left a lasting impression over a late night coffee at a kibbutz in Israel during a study tour. He offered some great advice after I shared how I was wrestling with my desire to create a culture that changed people from being attendees to becoming participants.
‘It is extremely difficult to change culture when it is already established and embedded. It is far easier to start something fresh.’
I was in a unique position where there were options. On one hand, I could look for ministry positions and try to effect change, or, on the other, I could church plant. As I prayed about it with my wife for nearly 9 months, it seemed clearer that God was leading us to plant a church.
The Baptist Association here in NSW are encouraging church planting and exploring different expressions of church. So it was a natural thing for us to partner with them.
Planting: Shrinking the Church
We planted Cornerstone Church in November 2013. Talk about under-prepared. You know how most church plants have their venue hired, worship team sorted, kids program and youth group done, small groups ready to go? Not us. We met in our lounge room. No worship team (or even musicians). No sermon. No real programs. We discussed our identity in Jesus from 1 Peter. We included the kids wherever we could. We tried to help them apply what we talked about to where they were at school.
It started to grow. At first it was 2 families – ours and another. Then another joined us. And another. And another.
The newcomers already followed Jesus, but this wasn’t transfer growth. These were followers of Jesus who had disengaged themselves from body of Christ for various reasons. We provided a place which said, ‘Welcome home. You belong here.’
I love extending this welcome. One of the mums at my kids’ school talks about the itch her father gets on his amputated foot. Of course the foot isn’t really there but the itch is real to him. When followers of Jesus cut themselves off from the body of Christ we feel their absence like an amputee feels phantom pain. What greater gift can we show people who struggle to know they belong than to simply love and accept them.
Developing the Mission
The conversation changed from who we were in Jesus to how the gospel shapes our everyday life as our community grew. This was on purpose. We wanted a culture where discipleship and the gospel were 2 sides of the same coin.
We de-mythologized evangelism. It’s not about a tract, or door-knocking. Or even getting your friends to come hear the pastor or evangelist at church.
Instead, we helped people see that life on mission was joining in what God was already doing. We challenged people to ask God to help them see where he was working in the lives of people that don’t know him; to see others the way Jesus does; and to dive headlong into friendships with no expectations.
Basically we shrunk the church and established everyday rhythms where people were able to learn and see how the gospel impacted normal life, and live this out in their own unique contexts.
Slowly the stories started to come in. One lady offered to pray for a co-worker experiencing family troubles. A few weeks later she shared that others in her workplace had started coming and asking her to pray for them.
The child who took a CD to school because she wanted to share her favourite song (one from church) with her class for news.
I chose to get my haircut at an Iraqi barber because I want him to know as a foreigner that, as a follower of Jesus, I love and welcome him to our country. I trust the Holy Spirit we open a way to talk about Jesus as our friendship continues to grow.
I love when we get together and what we get up to in the community. I love it because we are try follow to Jesus as best we can. Sure, we’ve failed sometimes, but Jesus’ grace always picks us up.
That’s why I shrunk the church. In doing so, I’ve found smaller, simpler gatherings of Jesus’ followers are incubators for missional and discipleship growth. And I’ve watched people grow. In our 5 years, we’ve sent out a family to help co-ordinate a church plant in their neighbourhood. Another church plant is preparing to be sent. And a third is in the planning stage stage. That’s exciting.