Tag Archives: church ministry

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Confessions of a “reluctant” “inner city church planter”

There’s a bit of a conversation happening in the Australian Evangelical Blogosphere (so about the smallest pool in the world) about inner city church planting. They’ve got me mulling over next year and life at Creek Road South Bank – a new church, in Brisbane’s inner city, that I’ll be serving as the Campus Pastor (note, I think just about any name/title for a ministry position can sound a bit ego driven, the emphasis here hopefully will remain on the “serving” not on the “Campus Pastor”).

Here are some of the posts I’ve read…

The answer to the question “do we need more inner city church plants?” is clearly a yes.

It’s the answer to any question about “do we need more churches?” Churches are like broadcast towers that send the message of the Gospel around Australia – we need something like the National Broadband Plan to ensure good Gospel coverage around Australia. We also need more workers to work in these churches, and we definitely need more Christians. Australia isn’t meaningfully becoming less Christian, Australia has never been particularly “Christian” – church attendance was high when we started because people were forced to go to church. Australian laws might have assumed or reflected a Judeo-Christian moral framework – but that was the default, it didn’t mean they were written by people whose hearts were owned by Jesus, even if some of our early colonists were passionate Christians, others weren’t. We need more churches in Australia because Australia is full of lost people. And so are our inner city areas.

Which is why, for want of a better understanding of the nuance of what the church I’m part of is doing (hopefully this post will clear this up a little) – next year I’ll be an “inner city church planter.”

I’m finishing college soon. I’m thinking about what life in ministry, post-college, is going to look like for me, and what I thought it would look like before college. So just indulge me a little with this poorly structured stream of consciousness response to the posts above. It’s more about me than most posts you’ll read here, but indulge me a little.

Why I do what I didn’t want to do…

I feel like this whole South Bank thing is forcing me to think through a whole heap of competing thoughts and passions of mine in a way that hopefully ends up being consistent and a healthy compromise on my youthful idealistic zeal.

Before college I was pretty outspoken and cynical about church planting (or church planters) – and what I meant was inner-city church planting. I was cynical about the guys who wanted to plant churches without working with an established church, in a hip, non-denominational way (or even in the denomination but not of the denomination) – they’re the guys who were a little bit too sure of themselves, a little bit too sure of their central place in God’s plan. Or so I thought (and still think). I was especially cynical about people who wanted to plant megachurches.

This quote I shared from a guy assessing church planters a few years ago still resonates with me… It’s still a problem.

It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelistic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

One of the problems Josh Dinale identified with the current crop of church planters is:

“1) pastors wanting to be the next Mark Driscoll

the more I connect with young pastors (yeah I know I am still generally young, having said that, I have been in Christian minsitry for 10 years, I have been around the block a few times) I am seeing guys who look like Driscoll, speak like Driscoll, act like him, teach like him. I am sorry to tell you, but you are NOT him. you  are fearfully and wonderfully made, God has a plan for you, and you alone. I am pretty sure it is not to be like Driscoll but to be the best pastor God has created you to be. Be content with where you are, minister out of your gifts not someone elses.”

Mike Bird also identifies a similar trend.

“I’ve come across many young men who seem to think they have some kind of destiny to become the next Mark Driscoll or the next Tim Keller. They have a church planting strategy from the movie Field of Dreams. Remember the motto of that movie: If you build it, they will come. But the reality is a bit more complex as church planters are not just battling against a secular culture, but competing with existing churches in their area and even competing with existing church plants. In addition, many church planters are abandoning their denominations to plant these new independent churches, leading to a kind of righteous remnant mentality, cultivating a very low ecclesiology without historic bonds to the past, and looking down disparagingly on pastoral leaders who decide to keep working within their existing denominations.”

The whole “thinking you’re the new Driscoll” thing is nothing new (see this post from 2009 – five years ago) – Driscoll has an incredible ability to create fanboys out of the disenfranchised. But I haven’t spoken to many Driscoll fanboys lately, most people in that sort of camp seem to be man-crushing pretty hard on Matt Chandler. And most people of the generation slightly above me seem to be keen to shave their heads, read CS Lewis, and be Tim Keller.

Part of my reluctance to embrace the inner city thing is that there’s a perception that to do this sort of ministry you have to be some sort of bleeding edge hipster. And while I score pretty well on the “Are you a Christian Hipster?” tests because I like specialty coffee and craft beer (and I have a decorative typewriter, and a beard), I don’t want to be that guy.

As soon as ministry becomes about the minister it starts being dead.

This is also my problem with Josh’s thoughtful corrective – I may have been fearfully and wonderfully made – but more importantly I’m being amazingly remade into the image of Jesus – and it’s him people should be thinking about when they go to church. Not me. Or any pastor. If we talk about something a pastor brings to the table, or the locale, and it’s something other than Jesus, we’re talking about the wrong thing. I’m not naive, I think there are good pragmatic reasons that I’m not a bad fit in the inner city, but as soon as I start thinking about myself being a good fit, or being in any way necessary, or the inner city needing me to come in and save it – the narrative is wrong.

I don’t want to be an inner city church planter.

I don’t want to target the yuppies with a trendy and edgy ministry.

I do want to play my part in God’s program of reaching people, including the yuppies, including people in the inner city, and the regions, and the small towns. Sacrificially, doing ministry that resonates with people of whatever culture is around me – a bit like Jesus did when he entered Jewish culture as a Jewish man who spoke the language of the people around him, and told stories they could understand… using imagery they were familiar with… everywhere he could.

I might be a pseudo-hipster, but I have good reasons not to want to be an inner city church planter. I love regional Australia. I grew up in country town New South Wales (after a few years in Sydney), I worked in regional Queensland after uni. And regional Australia punches above its weight on the evangelical scene. In my experience. I think, and still think, that the human resources we suck into cities would, in the providence of God, also produce great results in regional areas. Regional areas and regional people need the Gospel.

Plus. I don’t buy into the tendency to spiritualise “the City”. Cities are significant because there’s a high concentration of people there, but the whole “heaven is a city, therefore city” thing just strikes me as ridiculous. This is a quote from a Christianity Today article about Tim Keller’s philosophy/theology of City ministry from a few years back…

““Surely God’s command to exiled Israelites applied to Christians in New York: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (Jer. 29:7). Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change. Paul did most of his missionary work in cities, and early Christianity flourished within them. Revelation portrays the final descent of the kingdom of God to earth as a city, although a garden city, with fruit trees and a life-giving river at its center. Keller suggests that, had Adam and Eve lived sinlessly and obeyed God’s directions, they would have made Eden into just such a city.”

I get the appeal of the vision of transforming a culture from the city out (ala Tim Keller), but having spent time in a parochial regional centre that wanted no bar of most of what came from a city, simply because it came from the city, I’m not sure how effective this nationwide campaign of transformation is going to be beyond the urban elite, and those who wish they were urban elite in regional cities – who never really gel with the culture of their town or regional city.

I do, however, think that cities are incredibly useful for producing dominant cultural narratives, that do filter out into the regions via the consumption of media and advertising. But if you’ve ever watched the ads on regional television, you’ll know that even the impact of these zeitgeisty narratives is limited, and watered down by being presented along with not so slick regionally produced media.

And I do think the Gospel is the best story there is going round, and it should be told more, and it should become part of conversations where different narratives compete – ala Peter Hitchens presence on Q&A last night. We need to get better at telling the Gospel story in the places where stories are told or presented professionally. And being crucified for it.

I like what Keller’s attempts to transform culture from the city, but I’m pessimistic about the impact of his method beyond the city. Though less pessimistic than Carl Trueman. I’m less Presbyterian than him too.

“And, to put it bluntly, Keller is the transformationists’ best shot today.   It does not matter how often we tell each other that our celebrity transformationists are making headway, such claims are only so much delusional hype.  A Broadway play and a couple of nice paintings do not help the man who cannot rent space to worship on the Lord’s Day.  Indeed, I wonder if any of these transformationists have ever asked themselves whether what we are seeing are not in fact transforming inroads into the culture but the modern equivalents of bread and circuses designed to gull the gullible — meaningless trivia, conceded by the wider culture, that make no real difference; where and when the stakes are higher and actually worth playing for, no quarter is, or will be, given.

Surely it is time to become realistic.  It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies.  It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.”

I think the example we get from the New Testament church, especially from Paul, is that it’s incredibly unlikely that we’re going to change a city by producing cultural artefacts – the Roman Empire was eventually transformed by the sheer weight of Christian converts, but I think we produce Christian converts by borrowing or subverting cultural artefacts to tell the story of the Gospel. The early church grabbed hold of a bunch of terminology associated with the announcing and promoting of a new king, they used terminology and titles for Jesus that were identical to the terminology and titles used of Roman emperors, but they promoted a king who was crucified, which was a cultural anathema, and was never going to result in immediate wholesale change.

Paul’s Areopagus speech, probably the best strategic attempt at cultural change we see in the New Testament, ends in what many would suggest is a failure to transform… most people laugh at him, and only some are transformed… and yet his speech, which presents the Gospel in a culturally informed way, is recorded in one of the longest lasting transformative texts in the world.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Paul goes to the heart of the city, the best place to tell the story of the Gospel, and he tells it in a culturally engaged way. But it doesn’t instantly transform the whole city (Jonah might be a better story about a city being transformed).

Which is why I’m excited that Creek Road South Bank is telling this story, hopefully excellently, at the Queensland Theatre Company’s Billie Brown Theatre, every Sunday. And it’s why I’m excited that our band is aiming for musical excellence, and Creek Road Media is aiming to produce culturally engaging video that tells this story in excellent ways. And I hope this does result in transforming the lives of enough individuals so that the fabric of our city starts to change. Person by person.

I also get that inner city ministry is incredibly hard. Because of the Inner City Pressure (cf this Flight of the Conchords song).

It’s hard because people who live in places that tell incredible narratives that provide apparent satisfaction to deep desires are often pretty convinced that they already live in heaven, while simultaneously feeling profoundly dissatisfied because they are surrounded by lots more people who both are broken, and reveal one’s own brokenness through interpersonal interactions.

But ministry is hard everywhere. Because it involves gathering a bunch of people who naturally think about what’s best for their sinful selves – even while God is uniting them behind the cause of the gospel by his Spirit. Let’s not fall into the trap of hyper-spiritualising inner city ministry.

Inner city ministry – and by extension, inner city church planting, is important because there are people in the inner city.

And, in a city like Brisbane, it’s strategic because there is public transport to the inner city from just about every corner of the city – and evangelical churches in Brisbane are not well represented in the statistical breakdown of religious belief in our city. So if people from parts of the city where there’s no evangelical presence can get to a place where there is, because they’ve been invited there by people who work in the City, then that’s a good thing. The notion of place or a patch for churches is just culturally out of touch. We don’t live, work, and play in the same suburb. Our relationships are likely to stretch not just across suburbs, but across cities, states, and countries. Building a strategy for church planting based on geographic saturation is a bit old school. People travel. We’re better of putting churches in strategic hubs – in Brisbane this might mean places where there are major shopping centres, that people are already in the habit of travelling to…

Image: Relationship networks visualised using Facebook friendships and flight routes, Credit: Robot Monkey

South Bank is also exciting for me because we’ve got a burgeoning ministry to refugees in Brisbane, and many of them live around where this church plant is happening. We’re reaching the world from Brisbane. I’m not sure Iranians on bridging visas are going to be all that enthused about a pastor with a fixie, and a well manicured ironic moustache.

… to do what I do want to do (or rather, what God wants us to do)

Paradoxically, part of the reason I’m excited about being an “inner city church planter” is that I didn’t ever want to be an “inner city church planter.” The bigger reason I’m excited is that I’m not going out on my own as some gung-ho, got all the answers, inner-urban hipster type who is cutting all ties with pre-existing structures. I’m part of a team, that is part of a church, that is part of a denomination, that also has a bigger agenda in terms of church planting. That’s a great way for ministry to not be about me.

While it looks like I’m an “inner city church planter” because each Sunday I’ll be at a new church in Brisbane’s inner city, that’s not what really excites me about next year. As exciting as it is. I went to college as a Presbyterian because being a Presbyterian is a great boat to fish from in Queensland to do Gospel ministry, because I’m theologically pretty Presbyterian, and because I like the attachment to a narrative that has history, that unfolds and is deliberately linked to things that have happened in the past, rather than being deliberately disconnected. I think it’s a little disingenuous to attempt to start a church with a clean slate. With no ties. With no baggage.

I’m excited about being part of the Creek Road team for a few reasons. Mostly because I’m excited about what I think is a reinvention of “team ministry.” I’m excited about team ministry at least in part because I’m an extrovert, but I’m theologically excited about team ministry in terms of what it looks like for a church to function well as the body of Christ, where each bit of the body uses different gifts in complementary and sacrificial ways, that benefit a variety of congregations who are either part of Creek Road, or part of our network. The approach we’re taking at Creek Road has the potential to be incredibly scalable – with some of the benefits of franchising a business in terms of quality control, pooling of resources, and some sort of “brand identity” (which, lets face it, is part of the appeal of denominations), but also the flexibility to do things differently in different places based on who is there – both in the pulpit, and in the congregation.

I think if people in ministry are just thinking about their immediate patch they’re thinking too small. If we’re only thinking about the city, but not the regions, if we’re only thinking about reaching Australia, but not reaching the world, then we’re omnifocused to our detriment, and the detriment of the church’s mission. It’s possible to focus on more than one thing at once. Despite what certain personality types will tell you. Jesus was pretty happy to leave this mission global (making disciples from every nation), while providing a starting place that was geographically bound (first in Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth). We not think global, and act local and global, simultaneously?

Physical presence is a big part of ministry, but the God we serve is transcendent and omnipresent. And prayer works. And prayer is ministry. And communication isn’t geographically contained anymore. Physical distance has collapsed into bits and bytes that can be fired through the skies. Why are we so keen to limit our footprint to our suburb? Using the incarnation of Jesus as a paradigm for local ministry is terrific and necessary, but we’ve also got to learn from the Apostles who used mediums that could be copied and spread, and fly through communication networks (like the Roman roads), whose relationships and span of care stretched across geographic boundaries.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I want to serve the church and its mission wherever I can, not just in South Bank.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I’m part of a team that is intentionally trying to create resources that will serve churches anywhere.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because, as part of the team at Creek Road, I’m contributing, with the rest of the team, to what happens every week in three different locations.

Mike Bird’s suggestion, in the face of this whole inner city church planting trend thing is:

“So I’m wondering, without disparaging church planting efforts, if we need to focus more on church rejuvenation over church planting in areas already well served with churches.”

I think this question presents a classic false dichotomy (on the back of a false premise – that there are areas well served with churches). And I don’t buy it. Why not do both? Why not focus equally on both?

Denominations are in a position to do that – so are bigger churches within denominations. Just about every objection to “inner city church planting” raised in those posts linked above is addressed by a model that sees big churches using their resources to serve and help smaller churches, be it starting them from scratch, or in partnership. And this is why I’m excited about the Creek Road model (you can read a bit of an explanation of this model here), and why I’ve signed up.

Big churches have an incredible opportunity to provide resources for small churches – in their own city, or beyond, that help in the rejuvenating process, they have the opportunity to start new churches that share the economies of scale and resources of the mothership. Whether or not regional churches take up the opportunity is entirely up to them, and there’s a gap between city culture and regional culture that needs to be carefully bridged. But Australia is full of people who don’t know Jesus. I’d really like more people to know Jesus. That’s why Robyn and I quit our jobs and left Townsville to go to theological college. It’s why I’m a candidate for ordination with the Presbyterian Church. It’s why despite myself I’ll be hanging out in a new church in Brisbane’s CBD next year with Creek Road.

We need more churches in the inner city because we need more churches everywhere. Brisbane will have a population of 3 million people in 2020. That’s heaps of people who need to know Jesus. That scales up the wider you cast the net – Queensland’s population is growing, Australia’s population is growing, the global population is growing. We need more churches. We need better resourced churches.