Nickels and Noses: The Problem with Church Planting

I have joined six church plants, and been a part of a seventh, in two of which I was a church-planting pastor.

A bit of advice a church planting pastor, who had been to church planting boot camp in the Southern Baptist denomination, and who modeled his church after Saddleback, gave me: “Church planting is about Nickels and Noses. If you don’t have the finances or you don’t have the numbers, then you can’t start a church.”Nickels

The last church plant I joined was a church for urban single 20 somethings (I was 20 years too old for that demographic, but they welcomed me anyway.) The goals of the church were to be hip (tables and candles instead of pews), encourage questions and discussion, to do something practical about the way food production is destroying the environment, and to approach relationships gently. The church was evangelical, modeled after Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan, though from an emerging church point of view, not confessing the basics of evangelicalism, but subscribing to much of what N. T. Wright and Frederick Buechner have written.

The church was pastored by aan ex- Young Life leader. (Young Life, the largest parachurch ministry in the United States, gives annual seminars on fund raising to its volunteer boards all over the world. In fact the boards serve only as fund raisers, nothing else. They are not boards.) He and his wife had decided to leave Young Life and study at a progressive evangelical seminary (which had a female professor who had published extensively on Biblical Equality for women). The musically gifted pastor and his wife, a professional, were from a state that is a cultural mixture of New England and Bible belt. They decided to plant their church in the part of New England that is least Christian, and definitely not evangelical.

The church was an inviting place and quickly developed a tight knit feeling with 20 to 30 urban young people attending. The new church left the question of gayness undecided. The young pastor was an avid writer of fiction, and he organized a writers’ and artists’ retreat where about 12 people met one long weekend per year. The retreat was a place to write, but also a place to bond with one another. Christians and non-Christians were invited. Discussions arose spontaneously. We read our material to each other around a campfire at night.

Fast forward to three years later: 20 somethings don’t give money, so the Nickels weren’t working. The church expanded to families and ditched the tables, candles and discussions. The pastor appointed a small board that was not elected by the church, now close to 80 people. The pastor sold his house and built a new house 20 minutes out of town, with two toddlers in tow. He became exhausted, as 80% of pastors do. Was he exhausted because he realized his dream (and the evangelical promise) of converting the lost was never going to happen?

I asked the pastor how many people in this church were born and raised in this portion of non-Christian New England. He said maybe two (out of 80). The attenders were almost all people who moved here from the Bible belt for jobs or colleges in the area, and most of them had previously attended other evangelical churches in the area. So the church plant’s goal of planting a church for the least churched people in this nation, and to grapple with our culture, was not realized. There were two new believers in five years, both of whom were claimed in reports to contributors by the new church, and a college ministry, Campus Crusade. Church planting is mostly starting up a church for people who move in from the Bible belt, or starting a church that draws disaffected members from other congregations in the area. The people who give money to church plants are not aware of this, and church planters are not about to enlighten them.

The pastor found a best friend, another exhausted church planter from out west, now located three miles away. They came up with the idea of merging their two churches into one, thus half the work for each pastor. Only problem was that the research says church mergers (and denomination mergers) never work. And the second church wasn’t as hip. Yes, they had cool music and they wore skinny jeans and beards, but in almost all other ways it was the opposite of hip. Solidly Republican, the bi-vocational pastor worked for what hip New Englanders consider the enemy of American democracy: the NSA. The members of the two churches said they didn’t want to merge, but would merge if the pastors insisted. The exhausted pastors insisted.

The church took a year to merge. During that year the energy in our congregation plummeted. People grumbled and complained, but the pastor and board excitedly barreled forward with the merge. After the merge the new church set up Meet ‘n’ Greets in people’s homes. Some of the members from the other church belonged to the NRA or served in the military, which concerned those who heard Jesus calling us in a pacifist direction. Everyone, regardless of how long they had been members, was pressured to take a membership class (in which they were told that gayness was definitely wrong). I am a relational person and l found the church lonelier and lonelier. I floundered around trying to fit in, and serve, but I couldn’t function in the church: I couldn’t worship, couldn’t make friends at the Meet ‘n’ Greets, my volunteer service wasn’t wanted, the prayer group felt unsafe, and the sermons left me frustrated; there wasn’t a grappling with our culture that I had seen at the beginning of the church plant, instead there was a postmodern do-what-you-were-created-to-do theology that I found one-sided.

Fast forward to two years later: Only 20 of the 80 people from our congregation remained in the new merged church, exactly what the research literature on mergers predicted. The last straw for me was that the writers’ retreat changed. Previously we had brought our spirituality to the retreat spontaneously and relationally. But suddenly the pastor decided we needed to schedule structured meeting times for Christian-faith-meets-art discussion times and prayer times that were voluntary (not required). One of my atheist friends opted out of the retreat immediately. Another secular Jewish friend considered dropping out.

campfire[Side Note: I have found that people who score highly on the Feeling/Relational portion of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are highly allergic to phoniness, whereas those who score high on the Thinking/Logic end of the scale don’t agree with me about the phony relationship aspect of assigned relationships in church. In Bill Hybel’s Bible study workbook on evangelism he says that my personality type is strong on relationship evangelism, but weak when it comes to the uncomfortable part of talking about people’s need to convert to Jesus. My argument to those who score higher on the Thinking/Logic end of the scale (this means you, Bill) is that if relationships are not your strong point, then maybe you should rely on someone who is more relational to let you know when phoniness is interfering with real relationships.]

To be fair, a new church plant is an intimate small group for the first year, so those who join are those who love small groups. But the pastor is pressured to grow the church (Noses) in order to support the pastor after the mission money stops (Nickels) in five years. Church Planting Boot Camp Research indicates that none of the original members will be with the church in three years. The original members wanted a small group, not a medium sized traditional church.

Nickels and Noses: is it Christian? When Jesus was starting his community, was he concerned with Nickels and Noses? I do not believe Jesus or his disciples did any fund raising activities at all (though the apostle Paul did).

Meet ‘n’ Greets: are they Christian? That’s like asking, “Is McDonald’s a place where you get nutrition?” Morgan Spurlock demonstrated you can survive on fast food, but the levels of fat, additives, sugar and calories will kill you in the long run. And mass food production was what our church was trying to change. But somehow it was good to do Meet ‘n’ Greets: phony get togethers that were not spontaneous relational activities, hoping that real relationships would develop from the forced GMO Meet ‘n’ Greets. If left to ourselves we would not have formed relationships naturally.

So to call these Nickels-and-Noses-church-plants real churches is a scam or at least a little bit deceitful. These “churches” are not formed the way Jesus formed his community, but somehow we look the other way, hoping that eventually with enough contrived programs we will eventually have the same relationships that Jesus’ disciples had. We are mystified as to how Jesus started his community with no contrived Meet ‘n’ Greets.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Dishonesty, Evangelical Church, Evangelism, History, Manipulation, Psychology, Salvation, Uncategorized, Women's roles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Nickels and Noses: The Problem with Church Planting

  1. garycummings says:

    INTERESTING ARTICLE about how churches start and fail. Most of my life, I have been involved in small church settings or house church. I have served 4 churches as a full time minister ( 2 at the same time). Since that full time experience, I went back to medicine and became an RN. I have been “Bi-vocational since 1983. Small churches and house churches. As an RN, I had a decent salary, so never worried about money. I have attempted to start a new church in Virginia starting in 1994 till 2001. It never took off, just a handful of visitors. After taking a year off from church of any kind, we prayed and went back to what we thought was a Christian Church. It turned out to be a fundamentalist Mennonite Church, whose pastors spoke in tongues and could not understand why my wife, who has been blind since birth, was not healed. They did not like the fact that I could read New Testament Greek, and did not bow down and worship the King James Bible. Needless to say, our sojourn was short. After that we tried to go back to the Mennonite Church, and the first thing the pastor said was that liberals and pacifists were not welcome in his church. He set the tone for the church. I mentioned that historically Mennonites were a peace church. He replied that he was not interested in that, and that my wife and I were not welcome. I found out later that he came from Calvary Chapel and got hired due to his “excellent Biblical preaching”. Since then we, we have been to church after church, just looking for a pace to just be for a while. We have been going to a United Methodist Church for almost a year. It is the least harmful church we have found around here. Most of the evangelical churches rant about fetuses and what a Socialist Obama is. I am pro-life, and I did vote for Pres. Obama twice. Oh well.

    • BH says:

      I hope when you left that Mennonite church you shook the dust off your feet. I am sure that’s what Prophet Jesus would have done. Of all the things to have the nerve to do. And you are right—-most Mennonite churches were historically pacifistic.

      I remember asking a pastor of a Baptist Church what the verse in the Bible “the rich hate the poor” and the “the rich set traps for the poor” really means in real world application. He became uncomfortable and did not like talking about those verses. We were at a social occassion hosted by a common friend. It really made me disgusted, and he brought the talking about the Bible up with another person anyway, I didn’t.

      • garycummings says:

        The Mennonite Church I mentioned , the pastor and the leader of the church council. said I should be shamed for voting for Pres. Obama and that they backed this former Calvary Church pastor. My wife and I got up and walked out of that house and never looked back. As far as war goes and the peace churches (so-called), in WW2 70 % of Quakers fought, 40% of Mennonites fought, and 20% of Brethren fought. For the Vietnam War, the stats were probably higher. When I was a pastor, only about one in ten even knew what a pacifist was. They persecuted pacifists as un-American. The modern Friends Church (Quakers) is pro-war, mostly because of their DIspensationalism and support of Israel. I was with Friends from 1978 to 1995, and even graduated from their seminary. As far as evangelicals go,m they are mostly right-ring fascists.

  2. SteveA says:

    We moved to the Memphis area six months ago. Have visited 8 churches so far and still lookin. I’ve been a loyal CofC’er all my life, led singing and occasionally taught Bible classes. When I was younger I thought maybe I’d grow out of my liberalness or the church would move my direction but neither occurred. Well at least most in the CofC now consider people of other churches to be Christians, that is a progress. For the past ten years I’ve enjoyed reading about the emergent churches and postmodern christianity. I’d like to go that direction but don’t know where to go to get that. Some churches have incorporated style elements from that but theologically they are still stuck in the 16th – 20th century.

  3. BH says:

    I tend to be extreme left politically speaking on economic issues. One piece of propaganda I have in my library is a book called “Their Target: Your Church” published around 1960ish. A preacher from each of the major denominations each wrote an article in this book about why Communism is wrong and how mean the evil commies are. Anyway, one preacher was talking about the people wanting to get the church to solve the problems of the day was not a good idea—-because if the attempted solution did not work out the church would look bad. Ha!

    You see, it’s better to do nothing and rant about all of these problems being caused by “sin” lest you make a mistake or maybe anger certain people with your solutions.

    • garycummings says:

      You can thank George Benson and Foy E. Wallace, Jr. for the COC stance against Communism. Benson, after WW2, developed an American Enterprise program. He was paid a million dollars a year by the Feds to do this. They were shown in the military, government circles, and the schools. It was rabid anti-communism. Wallace, before him, made sure pacifist preachers, teachers, and editors were fired. Put the two together and you got a lot of support for killing communists, because they were not considered people by both Wallace and Benson.

  4. BH says:

    When I was in college I heard a story about a church that disciplined a man who did not give a promotion to one of his employees he promised him for services rendered. They both went to the same church and other church members heard the employer make the promise. When the employee did what he said he would do the employer did not keep his word. The pastor of that church and his elders told him to do as he promised and he said he would just leave and did. He stirred up a bunch of mess for that church in town. Other people didn’t like the idea of a church standing up for that employee lest it set an example so the other churches of that town ostracized it.

    • garycummings says:

      I think those elders were right in holding the employer to his agreement. How employers do treat their employees is a matter of Christian concern,Too often the churches have been anti-union and would do anything for “business”. When a working person complains about their rights and suffering, the church has complained that the complainer is not being spiritual and is just being a whiner and had better repent. Did you ever see the movie Matewan? There was a young preacher who took the side of the miners.

  5. Paul said no, it ONE commandment- to love people.

    This is very similar to The Beatles- “All you need is love. Love is all you need. Love, Love, Love.” (In other words, the second commandment, the love of man, without the love of God. Love as me, myself and I define love to be, and continuously redefined by sinful men.)

    In essence, it is also the same principle as what Eve did in the Garden of Eden, forgetting about the Tree of Life, which is the first tree in the middle of the Garden, and instead referring to the second tree as “the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” [Genesis 3:3 & 2:9 2:17, 3:24]

    Kind of like the Pharisees with Jesus, who were pushing the false idea that we can consider ONE commandment in the Law, alone in isolation, to be “the greatest commandment in the Law.”

    …[500 word max per day]

  6. “there wasn’t a grappling with our culture” mean what exactly? That sinful culture was simply rejected out of hand? Oh the horror! How dare a church do that.

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