Summary: 5 things healthy churches throughout history have had that caused them to end up thriving are a planter, a circle, a worthy mission, a pre-existing network and a public relations strategy.
In the first couple posts of this series, we’ve established a couple characteristics that mark healthy churches…
Now you might be thinking to yourself…“well then how does a healthy church get started? How does it function? What holds it together? From where does it learn how to be successful? How does it spread to others?”
Basically, the gist of those questions is…how does it start, survive and thrive?
I believe the answer to those questions lies in 5 consistent things. Although I’ve changed their names a touch to be more “biblical,” these same 5 things can be found in all types of decentralized organizations that have thrived throughout history.
A healthy church planter
This answers the question how does a healthy church get started?
Most Christians would likely answer this with biblical language like “someone plants it.” The apostle Paul, who absolutely loved metaphors, was the first one to describe it this way. But the part most Christians miss about this metaphor is what happens after a seed is planted. If given the right environment, God causes it to grow. Just like a group of Christians, the DNA of what that seed can become is already inside of it. It’s part of its nature.
The planter can provide an environment, but has no control over growth actually occurring. In fact, Paul didn’t even “water” the church in Corinth. Apollos did. But check out what he says about this in I Corinthians 3:7…
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
A church planter is a catalyst who gathers people together and creates a relational environment where the Holy Spirit takes control of the growth of the “plant.”
The book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations explains what a catalyst is perfectly…
In chemistry, a catalyst is any element or compound that initiates a reaction without fusing into that reaction.
A church catalyst (planter) doesn’t become part of the plant. They put the seed (the Holy Spirit) into fertile ground (a group of Christians) and water it (nurture the environment).
Then, perhaps the most important part of all…they fade into the background. This is the only way ownership and responsibility gets transferred to the church.
If the catalyst is unwilling to fade into the background, they simply cause the group to become more centralized, thereby defeating the purpose of his work in the first place.
This answers the question how does a healthy church function?
The 30,000 foot view New Testament answer…
It functions by mutual edification through Kingdom principles within circular relationships.
Only in circles are people equals. Only in circles does everyone carry the same sense of ownership on their shoulders. Only in circles does everyone carry the same level of responsibility to contribute through their gifts and abilities for the good of the whole. Only in circles can edification be mutual.
But how can there be order and not chaos if no one’s in charge, you might ask? Brafman and Beckstrom enlighten us on this in the Starfish book…
Because circles don’t have hierarchy and structure, it’s hard to maintain rules within them; no one really has the power to enforce them. But circles aren’t lawless. Instead of rules, they depend on norms (aka principles). The norms, in fact, become the backbone of the circle. Because they realize that if they don’t enforce the norms no one will, members enforce the norms with one another (like the Bible teaches!). In doing so, members begin to own and embrace the norms as their own. As a result of this self-enforcement, norms can be even more powerful than rules. Rules are someone else’s idea of what you should do. If you break a rule, just don’t get caught and you’ll be okay. But with norms, it’s about what you as a member have signed up for, and what you’ve created.
Circles are places of complete freedom. You either embrace the norms of the circle and be a part of it, or you don’t and self-select out of it.
Listen to how the apostle Paul described the church as a circle…
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (I Corinthians 12:7-11)
By the way, Someone IS in charge. The One who is within every member of the circle.
A worthy mission
This answers the question what holds a healthy church together?
It’s not a personality. It’s not a style. It’s not a set of rules. Churches built on those tend to either fall apart or perpetually recycle people as they come and go. This is because none of those will keep people together when the going gets tough. And none of those will motivate a circle to make the sacrifices necessary to advance a worthy mission. A mission maybe, but not a worthy mission.
Healthy churches grow in quality, expand in quantity and advance a mission because what they are committed to is worthy of their sacrifices.
And a church certainly has a worthy mission – to establish and expand the Kingdom of God on earth.
Unfortunately in our day and age, we’ve seen the majority of churches lose sight of this. If you attend them for just a short period of time, you quickly realize their existence, decisions and activities don’t hold this mission at the front and center of everything they do. This is part of the reason people are leaving churches by the droves and not coming back – even believers. It’s not because they don’t believe anymore. It’s because they don’t have a shared mission worthy of sticking around to hold on to through the conflicts that inevitably arise.
You know if a worthy mission is the glue holding a church together by how they deal with conflict. (see the Nobody’s Normal series for more on this.)
If a worthy mission isn’t the glue that’s holding a church together, it will move out of a circle toward centralization. This will happen because the majority of the members just won’t want to be invested enough to carry out the mission. So the burden will fall on a few, who then have more responsibility, who then need to be paid to fulfill that responsibility, and the centralized system is now in full effect.
Do you see now why it’s so important that a worthy mission is front and center, and clearly articulated on a regular basis?
A pre-existing network
This answers the question how does it learn to be successful?
Being and staying a decentralized network is not easy; especially when people aren’t used to running most of their lives by its principles. You’re asking people to operate in a completely opposite way from how the rest of their lives have been run. Therefore, starting from scratch and succeeding long-term is improbable (while we know that with God all things are possible).
But the one thing that improves your chances of surviving and thriving 100-fold is tapping into an already established network to draw upon. They’ve been there and done that. They’ve likely seen and had to deal with the problems and challenges you’ll soon face. They’re able to give you an outside unbiased perspective that just can’t be seen from the inside.
A public relations strategy
This answers the question how does it spread to others?
If the worthy mission of a church is to be a part of establishing and expanding Kingdom communities throughout the world, they will only be successful if they get the Word out. When the early church started, do you remember how they grew in numbers? Read through the book of Acts and you find 3 main ways…
- They developed a good reputation within the community, which naturally led to conversations about Christ.
- They went to the synagogues where religion was being discussed because it was a ripe audience.
- They went to other cities to find people to gather into circle churches.
In fact, when you read about Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts, it’s plain to see that he was always thinking about how he could amplify the message he was preaching.
Because churches are living organisms, they need to move and change to stay healthy. If a church doesn’t have people with the zeal to relentlessly make connections and share the gospel, it’s very likely it will grow stale and weak.
This doesn’t mean everyone has to be an evangelist. Not everyone in the early church had that special gift. It simply means that as a church, you intentionally execute ways in which to spread the church’s presence in your community and the gospel to those ripe to hear it.
These 5 things provide a solid practical foundation upon which to survive and thrive. Remove any of them and I believe the church experience will leave a lot to be desired. If a church has all of them, they are set up to do some major damage for the Kingdom.
The rest of the posts in the A Decentralized Network series are here.