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Church planters must resist the temptation of assuming that growing churches provide generalizable models for growth elsewhere, and that the absence of apparent success in the present is a sign that God is not working.
First part of this article: “How can we measure the effectiveness of church planting?”
Second part of this article: “Church planting and the missio Dei”
In the light of missio Dei, should we even be trying to measure effectiveness at all? As Dunn puts it, if mission is defined as “finding out where the Holy Spirit is at work and joining in,” then “discernment is the first act of mission.” An evaluation of church planting effectiveness can be part of that discernment. The problem is with the measures we tend to use and more specifically how we measure success.
Roxburgh has cautioned about what he calls the “ecclesiocentric obsession,” where the success of our church (or church plant) becomes our focus rather than God’s mission. Clearly, as I have suggested above, this can even be a problem for missional church thinkers, unless we redefine what successful church planting looks like.
One author who has also observed this same problem and suggested a way forward is Bryan Stone. His thought-provoking work, Evangelism after Christendom, calls for a re-conceptualizing of evangelism as a constitutive Christian practice, aside from its apparent results or product, and hints at a fundamentally different set of effectiveness measures. In the introduction he asks,
Is evangelism a productive activity, governed by the aims of reaching, conversion, or initiation, and thus the making of converts? If so, the skilled evangelist might employ whatever creative means will “work” to achieve that end. The practice of evangelism is then evaluated by an instrumental logic whereby the means and the end of the practice are external to one another. If, however the logic of evangelism is not primarily the logic of production but instead the logic of bearing witness, we find ourselves talking about evangelism differently. Now the “end” of evangelism is internal to its practice (as a quality of character and performance) rather than externalized in its “product.” Martyrs rather than the pastors of megachurches might now become our evangelistic exemplars, and the “excellence” of evangelistic practice will be measurable not by numbers but rather by obedience to a crucified God.
In the conclusion he hints at how effectiveness might be measured differently. “The ‘success’ of evangelism is to be found in directions quite other than the marks of success that characterize the prevailing consensus among evangelistic practitioners today. Cruciformity rather than triumph, growth and expansion will be among the primary marks of evangelism practiced well, and the virtuous evangelist will be identified not so much by her expertise as by her discipleship. The church’s evangelistic effectiveness will have to be measured by the clarity, consistency and inhabitability of its testimony rather than its toleration by a world where value is measured in terms of utility.”
While Stone’s work is essentially about evangelism, his argument holds true for church planting as well. As our research has shown, church planters in Europe continue to measure their effectiveness principally by numbers and in terms of utility.
Of course, we know all too well that quantitative growth in the short-term is no guarantee of long-term vitality; the parable of the sower tells us that (Luke 8:1–15). However, neither is the lack of immediate visible results an indication of an ineffective ministry. The “success” of today’s church planters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is due in large part to the faithful work of previous generations of evangelists and church planters, many of whom saw little fruit from their labors. Church planters must resist the temptation of assuming that growing churches provide generalizable models for growth elsewhere, and that the absence of apparent success in the present is a sign that God is not working. As I have argued throughout this chapter, we must not try to reduce the missio Dei to universal principles of church growth. While we reflect on effectiveness, we must never forget that God’s ways escape our comprehension. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
Following Stone’s lead, I would like to suggest four church planting effectiveness measures that might help us to discern what God is doing, but without falling into the quantitative trap. Space will only allow me to suggest possible ways forward. My starting point is the definition of the church that is found in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed: “I believe . . . in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
While these have traditionally been considered as marks or static attributes of the church, Van Engen (building on the thinking of Jürgen Moltmann) has suggested that they have a dynamic quality that orients outward to the world in mission.
Maybe it is time we begin to see the four words of Nicea not as adjectives which modify a thing we know as the Church, but as adverbs which describe the missionary action of the Church’s essential life in the world.
Not only does this give us a new way of conceiving the missionary nature of the church, but it suggests how we might measure the effectiveness of the church’s activity in each of these four dimensions.
In the research set out in Part One, we found that quality was an important measure for some church planters. This is hardly surprising since much of the New Testament is about relationality; i.e. the quality of our relationships with Christ, with each other, and with those around us. One could make a good case that it is the principal theme of the Epistles, but what is clear is that there is a particular emphasis on unity, on being one—one in Christ, but also one with each other. Any measure of church planting effectiveness must make a point of measuring relationality.
Michael Schluter has argued convincingly that our modern globalized world has had a devastating impact on the quality of relationships.
The Relationships Foundation, which he founded, has developed tools for measuring relationality, or what Schluter calls “relational proximity.” These tools may have an application to church planting.
What is clear is that relational health is one of the principal measures that we should be using to measure our effectiveness as church planters.
The church is holy because it has been set apart by God for his purposes—not for any empirical holiness of its own. God has invited us to be his people, and to participate in the life of the Trinity as we worship him in word, deed, and mission. So rather than suggesting that church planters can measure holiness per se, I think a missio Dei perspective would encourage us to focus on measuring fidelity. That is, how faithfully is our church plant reflecting the God we love and serve? The church is holy only as far as it reflects God’s holiness as the body of Christ. Therefore, it seems right to question to what extent a given church plant is doing that.
Jesus’s goal was to form faithful disciples rather than the gathering of a crowd. At the start of John chapter six, Jesus had over 5000 people following him. By the end of the chapter, there were just a few faithful disciples left. Faithfulness is the prime measure of a servant’s effectiveness; “. . . well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:23). I think this is in part what Stone meant when he talked about cruciformity, the radical faithfulness to God’s will that is even willing to die if that is what will bring life. If we were to measure church planting effectiveness in this way, would it not liberate us from the tyranny of the quantitative trap?
Of all the words in the creed, the word “catholic” is the most problematic due to its associations. Moreover, as Volf puts it, “The theological content given to the concept of catholicity obviously depends on the intended referent of the [Greek word] holos (‘whole’) contained in the term ‘catholicity.’” Catholics and Protestants alike have tended to emphasize the extensive aspects of catholicity, where notions of geographical expansion and continuity through time are at the fore. Yet there is another aspect to the meaning of catholicity: the intensive or qualitative sense in which catholicity is seen primarily as fullness, and only secondarily as universality. This eschatological aspect of catholicity anticipates the time when his entire people, and all creation, will come into full unity under Christ, such that God will be “all in all” (Eph 1:10, 1 Cor. 15:28).
When a local church declares, “I believe in the . . . catholic . . . church,” it confesses that it exists in relationship to other local expressions of Christ’s body and in anticipation of the complete wholeness we will experience as the eschatological people of God. As Volf has stated, “a local church can be catholic only by way of a connection with an ecclesiological whole transcending it.”
Jesus prayed “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). If our unity with other Christians is such a fundamental part of the impact we have on the world, should not catholicity be a measure of our missional effectiveness? As Beckett has put it, “the church cannot be faithful to a local/global missional mandate unless it is actively living out and pursuing its catholicity.”
Church planting in Europe almost always occurs in the context of other Christian churches. Our agency, our capacity, and authority to plant is a collective one that is not only dependent on our call from God or the authority of our sending church, but also the collective agency of the churches around us. My case study on a collaborative church planting platform in Spain illustrates precisely what catholicity means for church planting. I suggest that another essential measure of church planting effectiveness must be the degree to which we are collaborating with other churches as we seek to join in with God’s Spirit in establishing new outposts of the Kingdom.
Apostolicity is a complex and contested concept. Yet perhaps all the debates about apostolic succession and right doctrine have distracted us from the essential and foundational aspect of apostolicity: that the apostolicity of the church is ultimately grounded in the missio Dei, God’s mission to the world.
The church is sent into the world to participate in the mission of the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. As God contextualized himself in the incarnation, so must the church be contextualized if it is to fully participate in this missional movement. A church must attend to its local context if it is to be effective. As Davies suggests, effectiveness in mission cannot be a matter “of simple pragmatism: the quickest and cheapest way of doing mission. For mission to be effective it must be both holistic and contextual.”
Hence, apostolicity is intrinsically linked to contextuality; the degree to which a church is effectively communicating the gospel message in ways that are understood and appropriated by the local people. Contextual church planting does not establish congregations that exist in isolation from culture. Rather, it seeks to plant churches among the people. In many ways the whole corpus of missional church literature wrestles with this precise issue—how can the church communicate the gospel within our dramatically changed Western context?
Sadly, as we saw in Part One, very few European church planters actually engage their local community in evaluating their effectiveness. Church planters must develop contextual effectiveness measures if they are to fulfill their apostolic mandate of communicating the good news of Jesus Christ.
This chapter began as a piece of research on church planting effectiveness, or more precisely, the degree to which church planters measure their effectiveness. Its principal finding was that many church planters are “effectively ignorant” of the real impact of their ministries. When they do measure their effectiveness, they rely more often than not on crude quantitative measures of “success.”
A review of church planting and missional church literature found a worrying tendency to reductionism. This sits uneasily with an understanding of mission as missio Dei.
Although the last section only scratches the surface in developing alternative effectiveness measures, it does so, however, as a conscious attempt to break free of our reflex to measure “success” by numbers. By reframing the four marks of the church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) as dimensions of dynamic engagement (relationality, fidelity, catholicity, and contextuality), we can begin to refocus on our church planting practice rather than the product. For as all church planters know, we may plant but it is God, and only God, that makes it grow (1 Cor 3:6–8).
Jim Memory is church planter and lecturer.
Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.
 Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit, 72.
 Roxburgh, Missional, 48.
 Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 18.
 Ibid., 315.
 Van Engen, God’s Missionary People, 68.
 Schluter, The R Factor.
 Volf, After our Likeness, 264.
 Ibid., 272.
 Beckett, “Evangelical Catholicity”, 134.
 Davies, Faith Seeking Effectiveness, 182.