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Measuring the Success of a Church Plant (Part 1)

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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This week, we interview Michael Gatlin to find out how success should be measured in church planting. 

VCP:    As you’ve travelled around, as you’ve talked, as you’ve dreamed, talk a little bit about the different kinds of churches we need to have, particularly in this “both/and” world. Can you dream out a little bit about some different models, some creative things you’ve seen about the kinds of churches we need to plant?

Michael Gatlin:    Again, I’m not a theologian, I’m more of a practitioner. So for me it’s like, I just want the whole thing. I know there are great definitions out there of what makes a church and what doesn’t.

In one sense, I like the way entire countries are being impacted by small house church movements. But then, another way I tend to see it is that it can lead to churches that stay 14 people forever and are never growing or leading anybody to Jesus. There can be a temptation for these smaller-expression churches to have pride about being “better” than megachurches.

VCP:    What about the middle ground? Churches of different sizes, churches that meet in different kinds of buildings, churches that have different kinds of music…

MG:    Yes, getting rid of the stylistic differences and the size differences, I want to look at fruit and how are people being lead into relationship with Jesus from the beginning. We call that evangelism – but then how are they growing in their relationship with Jesus? Is it affecting every area of these people’s lives? How are disciples being made? How are leaders being reproduced? And how is that addressing the real needs of the real communities that they’re living in?

If a church is doing that, who cares how big or small it is? If you’re doing those things, I can’t imagine the church is not going to be growing in some way, shape or form.

VCP:    So, what are different ways that church planters can measure how they’re doing? Because in some ways that question leads us into the talk about how creative we can be. If we know what the fruit is, then the question is, “How can we get the fruit?”

MG:    When we talk about measuring success, I love looking in the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, at all the different ways that the early church and its leaders were measuring. They were measuring success by their worship together. They were measuring success by devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They were measuring by all those discipleship types of things, and how people were engaged in those things, but they were also counting the numbers. “3,000 people came to Jesus that day.” “By this point their numbers increased to 5,000.” “It spread throughout that whole area,” etc. I like trying to measure and celebrate similar things.

So there are different periods. One of the things we’ve celebrated was the number of people engaged in community and small groups. Other times it seemed like that aspect wasn’t growing very much, but we had a lot of new people coming to Jesus. Or there are times groups were going out into different areas and serving and loving people and praying for them. People have even been healed.

So we celebrate all the different things God is doing in us as a community. Surf the wave that is there. Enjoy what God’s doing.

VCP:    How legitimate is it for a church to specialize? What I mean is, say a church is really great at justice and changing kids’ lives in the inner city. Or another one is leading tons of people to Jesus on the front end of things. Is it legitimate for a church to have a specific niche?

MG:    In my mind, it seems unhealthy for the long-term. Like saying, “Hey, I’ve got three cylinders in my eight-cylinder engine that are running really well, and so I’m just gonna focus on those three cylinders and that’s it. Now, the other five that aren’t running that well, you know, I’m just not that kind of car.”

I think it’s good to keep feeding what God really is doing, but for me personally as a pastor I’ve always put some attention towards the cylinders that aren’t firing to try to figure it out. How do we be a church that fires on all cylinders? As much as it depends on us, how do we become good at a bunch of those things?

And so I want to celebrate what is happening. At the same time, I want to take a look at the things that we’re not doing as well and make sure that we’re not the problem in that.

And when I’ve done that, I’ve always found out I am the problem.

VCP:    Here’s what I know: A lot of young people who are church planters want to be very creative. They don’t want to just recreate what they’ve seen in the past, and I want to figure out how to capitalize on that passion without them being led down the road into some useless model that isn’t going to get them anywhere. How do we hook up to that creativity? How can they plant really healthy churches, not just house churches or something?

MG:    Two things: When I was younger and just getting started in this, I wanted that creativity, and I wanted to do something that was  really out there and cutting edge and cool. And one of the things that I discovered along the way is, a big portion of that was pride. It wasn’t Jesus.

The church is not mine. It’s not mine by any stretch of the imagination. It belongs to him, and he gets to call the shots, and I’m the servant. So over the years I felt Him really personally confront me on the pride that I could actually do something that God hadn’t done through any other human in the past 2,000 years.

So I think part of it is that there’s a bunch of pride there in our youthfulness of wanting to be original. Knowing that, it’s really good to be creative and ask, “How does God want this gospel of the Kingdom to intersect with this culture that I’m living in, in a very, very powerful way?”

That allows young people to be creative without pride – because when it comes down to it, Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun.

VCP:    So how do we capture and use youthful desire for creativity and originality? It is an impulse from God, ultimately. It just gets twisted into evil.

MG:    It gets twisted from pride, but yeah, I believe that the desire to create comes from our creator. That desire to like be original is part of the way that he created something out of nothing. But we must always realize that the ability to make something out of nothing is his and his alone, and so we make ourselves available to him to do what he’s calling us to do each day.

So I think that drive to be original takes us down a wrong path, but the drive to be a servant can take us down a pretty healthy path. Picture yourself less as the artist trying to create the new original church and more as the paintbrush in the hand of the Master.

And he might do something really different. He might come up with a whole new thing that hasn’t been thought of before, you know, but it’s his deal. And then, to me, if we’ll put ourselves in his hand as the pot or as the paintbrush, then the creativity is flowing in a really healthy place.

For me, those moments of inspired creativity come as I was actually talking with somebody face-to-face, not as I was dreaming and coming up with all these original ideas about where to put the candles in the auditorium [laughter] or whether or not to have an auditorium. Instead the inspired moments of creativity come when I was face-to-face with somebody in need, in pain, and I’m asking God, “Oh God, oh God, oh God, how can I help them take this step into your kingdom?”

That’s when the most original or creative things really come. It’s dangerous if most of my creativity comes from a feeling of, “I don’t want to be like that so I’m going to reshape this.” But when I’m face-to-face helping meet people’s needs, and I’m praying and seeking God, then it becomes actually a really powerful and helpful creativeness.

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