How to move into a church plant without killing it

four key questions for the "instant parent" of an orphaned "church plant."

Douglas Tilstra is associate professor of religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

Steve and Karen adopted a five-year-old boy from Russia. They spent months preparing for the adoption. Even though they were veteran parents, the prospect of adoption presented dozens of new challenges.

They watched and watched again video clips of their new son, Anton, long before he ever came to live in their home. There were mountains of paperwork and miles of red tape to work through. Other concerns included finances, dynamics of family integration, and bedroom configuration.

At last, Steve and Karen flew to Moscow, visited Anton's orphanage, met him for the first time, and brought him to their California home. But the work had just begun. Perhaps adopting a child relieves the mother from the physical "labor" that comes with giving birth, but the labor of the delivery room is certainly replaced with hard work the moment adoption occurs.

Unlike a newborn entering their family, Anton came with certain habits and expectations fairly firmly set. He spoke Russian, and responded to life from a preset genetic code (largely unknown to the new parents). He also had some medical needs requiring several surgeries and rehabilitation. Steve and Karen quickly realized this was parenting in a totally new dimension.

Who was this little boy? How could they bond to him and encourage him to bond to them? How were they going to handle the extensive medical work? And what about the more subtle yet significant issues of character and personality? How could they as parents honor the little person Anton was, yet neutralize potentially destructive factors that had already shaped his young life? How could they facilitate relationships with grandparents, other children at church and school, and even big sister? I

t was parenting all right, but in a totally new dimension!

The model of adoption offers some insights for the church planter who "adopts" an "orphaned church" in its infancy rather than giving birth to it. That is, for the pastor who is called to take over a congregation that has recently been planted or brought into being by someone else. Four key questions capsulate these insights for the "instant parent" of a new church plant. Careful and honest answers to these four questions can lay groundwork for a more successful adoption.

The questions are: (1) What is my history as a new parent? (2) What is this child's history? (3) How has this child learned to relate to others? and (4) Is everybody willing to allow the process of growing up?

1. What is my history as a new parent?

Vision. One of the first questions Steve and Karen needed to ask themselves was, Why are we doing this? Parents (biological and adoptive) usually have some vision for the children they bring into the world. They dream of what they can become; their goals for their future and desires for the direction of their lives.

Most churches are planted with vision. The church founder and planting team typically share such a vision, even if it is not formalized on paper. The problem is, a new leader com ing to the church may have little idea what that original vision is. The potential "instant parent" of a new church does well to ask, Why am I doing this? What are my dreams for this church? Why do I believe God allowed this church to come into being at this time, in this place, with these people? What can it become? How can God use me to help it achieve those dreams?

Expectations. Vision is closely related to expectations. Both project a desired future. Both can motivate to excellence. Both can inspire a team with focus, unity, and cooperation. But there are differences. Vision is usually broader; expectations are more specific and measurable. Vision is more idealistic; expectations more pragmatic. A parent's vision for a child may be for the child to enjoy excel lent health and to pursue any sport she desires. The parental expectation may be more far-reaching and specific: for the child to win a gold medal as an Olympic gymnast by age twelve. Such an expectation drives the life of parent and child differently from the vision of excellent health and fitness.

Expectations are not necessarily bad. But they do need to be identified and evaluated. Church planters adopting a new congregation can benefit from some introspection. Am I projecting unrealistic expectations onto this new little church? Am I eager to create a church in my own image? Am I trying to meet some personal need by what this church will become? Am I using this church to "make a statement"?

It is a good idea for the "instant parent" of a newly planted church to evaluate his or her own vision and expectations and then learn as much as possible about the vision and expectations of the congregation.

Experience. It isn't essential, but it can help to be a parent before adopting your first child. "Instant parents" may be surprised to learn that their child does not sleep an eight-hour night or dismayed that their baby did not come equipped with teeth. In the same way, a person who has never planted a church my be dismayed that this new group looks like a church, talks like a church, even acts like a church much of the time, but. . . surprise! This new group really has not learned to function as a church yet. Some church functions (such as the building being open and ready to use each week) that one may take for granted in an established church often take major energy to accomplish in a newly planted one. All the members of the body may be present, but it's an infant's body. Not every thing is "hooked up" yet. The body must mature and learn to accomplish adult functions.

If a person has planted a church before, such surprises are less surprising. Like children, no two churches are alike, but they do pass through predictable patterns and stages. If a person has never planted a church it may be wise to talk with church planters or read about church plants to discover some of these patterns.

I adopted a new church when it was about four months old. It was separated by 1,000 miles, a cultural barrier, and totally different planting vision and history from the church I had planted several years before. But the intriguing thing was the familiar phrases I heard coming from people's mouths. It was almost as if people in my adopted church were quoting folk from my own planted church. They were passing through similar stages of new church life. I remembered what came next, and sure enough, it usually did.

My past experience allowed me to be a bit calmer, a bit less reactive. It was a little easier to distinguish harmful trends from minor distractions.

2. What is the child's history?

Circumstances surrounding the conception, birth, and infancy. Parents adopting a child often ask about birth parents. Are they addicted to alcohol or drugs? What is their general health? What sort of people are they? What kind of families did they come from? Why did they give this child up for adoption? Was this child loved or resented in the womb? As an infant was the child nurtured and loved or given only minimal care?

Adopted parents of new churches can learn from similar questions. Who conceived this church? Why? How long was the "gestation period" for this church? How was the church planting team formed? What training did they receive? What process did they follow for setting a vision? Was that vision ever put in writing? Has it ever gone beyond paper and been internalized in members' lives? What role did the conference administration play in the project? What role did local churches, other church leaders, or a paid pastor play in the planting project? Who "owns" this project? Why did the founding pastor leave?

As I listened to the stories of area pastors, members, conference administrators, and the founding pastor of my adopted church, I began formulating a picture of this "child" I had adopted. I could understand its predictable life stages from previous experience, but I could only grasp its unique needs by hearing the story of its early life.

Genetic code. The "genetic code" refers to the unique personality the church builds in its formative stage and passes on as a heritage to all future generations. It is amazing how quickly such a "genetic code" is built and how long it lasts!

Ideally, the genetic code is carefully articulated in a vision statement and implemented through equally well-planned strategies and goals. More often, the genetic code, even if there is a written vision and strategy document, develops informally as the church just "lives its life."

The genetic code includes such things as how leaders are selected, how differences are resolved, attitudes toward "outsiders," a heart for the lost, how decisions are made, worship style, relationship to the corporate church and denominational administration, expectations for the pastor, participation of the members, and dozens of other things.

As an adoptive parent, a pastor needs to know what genetic code is already in place and what genetic code still might be developing.

Forces that have shaped the child's life so far. Steve and Karen discovered that other forces had shaped Anton's early life. Life in an orphanage had been very different from life in their home. The transition from orphanage to family home required lots of time and patience, skill and understanding.

The church planter does well to understand the forces that have so far shaped the new church. Does this church hold public evangelism in high esteem because it was birthed from such an event? Are most of these members "born and bred" Adventists who became "bored and tired" of their local church? Have there already been power struggles in the formation of this group? What support or hostility have local Adventist congregations acted out in the formation of this new group? What experiments have worked well here? Which have not?

These questions are merely suggestive. Other appropriate ones will become obvious once adoptive parents know what they are looking for.

3. How has this child learned to relate to others?

Bonding issues: Attitudes toward each other. Families interested in raising secure and well-adjusted children give significant energy to bonding issues. How emotionally close are the people in this family? How emotion ally available are they to each other? Can they feel each other's pain and pleasure? Can they support each other? Is it draining or energizing for them to interact? Do they like each other or just tolerate each other? Are they a team?

Many church plants fail for lack of bonding. Often the core group is made of a "collection of strangers." They may have met for the first time when the church planter called a meeting of interested people. They may also be largely task-oriented people who bond slowly to people under the best of circumstances. The absence of the founding pastor and the arrival of a new leader merely compounds the problem. What does one do to facilitate bonding?

First diagnose the situation. How many of these people knew each other before the church planting project? What are the current evidences of group life, team spirit, and cooperation? What does it feel like when the group is together? Supportive? Tense? Warm? Cool? Awkward? Affirming? Do people seem to like and enjoy each other? What formal organizational structures are in place? Are decisions made inside those structures or out side of them? Do small groups form a significant part of church life? What does the group do for fun?

After diagnosing, there will be room for both celebrating the bonding that is already happening and for gradually filling in where pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Attitude toward the lost. Churches are planted to reach lost people. If the newly planted church does not believe that something is wrong, the adoptive parent of the new church may need to help the group refocus their vision until they see the priority of reaching the lost. They need to catch the vision of "making a place for them" as opposed to "making a place for us."

Perhaps it is the new leader who needs to refocus his or her vision. If the new church has a heart for the lost and the new leader is indifferent, such a difference could kill the church.

Attitude toward leadership and authority. Some children relate easily to authority. Others resist it. Some authority is demeaning and demanding and some is selfless and serving. Do you know the leadership climate in the new church you will lead? Do you know how you exercise authority? Does your own theology and personal bias lean toward a view of church that downplays accountability or do you tend to demand rigid control? Have church leaders in the new church been supported or resisted? How is conference administration viewed? Is there an "Us versus Them" or a "We" mentality?

Such questions may help you evaluate the situation. If you discover serious conflict it may require a careful study of the biblical role of leadership, prayer for broken hearts, and repentance and help from specialists perceived as being neutral.

4. Is everybody willing to allow the growing-up process?

Neither parenting nor church planting is a quick and easy process. Unless parents and planters are willing to stick with the job for the long haul, the results will be disappointing. And the children and church members are part of that decision. Like adoptive homes, new church plants are no place for those who are quick to take offense or hand it out! People willing to allow the process of growth are people with a clear vision of the desired result and almost infinite patience in the bumbling processes that have to go on to get there.

Much of the discussion here has centered on asking probing questions to understand where to direct energies. Asking the right questions will not produce healthy churches. Producing careful solutions will not necessarily produce healthy churches. Only God produces healthy churches. We cooperate with Him.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Douglas Tilstra is associate professor of religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

February 2001

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