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3 Years Church Planting in Dublin & 5 Principles Of Ministry

13 October 2017

Ha-Penny Bridge Dublin

We’re coming to our 3rd birthday as a church and seeing as my last blog post was a year ago for our 2nd birthday, it feels appropriate to do another now. At the very least it helps me collate my thoughts as we look forward. Let me share 5 thoughts I have learned over the last 3 years of church planting.

(1) A long-term posture of investment

Like any capital city with multiple universities, tech companies, a growing economy and free movement within the EU, Dublin is FULL of new people. People are continually flooding into Dublin for studies or jobs or to be with their partner in a country that recognises their visa… or for whatever other reason. Just this year the intake at Jacob and Annabelle’s school is far more international than any other previous years. When you walk around Dublin City Centre you hear all kinds of accents and languages. This is exciting and provides a great opportunity for the gospel.

However, I see two challenges with this:

  1. Loneliness – Integrating new people into Irish society and communities can be challenging. Many people can find it hard to make friends in Dublin and can feel lonely and isolated. It has been said that “The Irish are the friendliest people on earth but the hardest to get to know.” That is a caricature, but any caricature has some level of truth.
  2. Consumerism  – It’s easy for people to come and take from Dublin (education, jobs, money, experience etc) and then leave when they have what they want. This will limit Dublin’s flourishing and will never enable us to care for the most needy in the city.

So for a church plant to survive and thrive we need to give new residents a vision of what they can give to the city, not just take from the city. And those of us who have been here longer than 5 years and are settled into communities and friendship groups need to do all we can to help people settle.  If we’re to become all that God wants us to be in the city, we need people to stick around and commit, to buy houses and have families (as Jeremiah 29:4-8 encourages the Jewish exiles in Babylon to do). We need those who will buy into the vision and make life-decisions for the sake of the mission.

Churches thrive (and therefore cities thrive)Dublin with cranes as people commit and invest, both internally in the friendships and externally in the city. We need a long-term posture of investment if we’re going make a difference. So, as I have often said, so I say again to those who are part of CCC… stick around and make career choices that are about committing to Dublin. As you do you will make a much bigger impact to the kingdom of God.

(2) A Provocative Church

We have found that whilst people in Dublin, as everywhere, are looking for meaning and purpose, often they have little space for God. Additionally, as is well documented, many have been burnt by church and have no desire to get to know God even if he does exist. There is hurt or anger or disillusionment. What does this mean for church? It means that no matter how sexy/cool/impressive our ‘events’ might become… people are not just going to turn up in their droves. Gone are the days when Christianity was a dominant part of the culture, everyone attended church and people wanted to know how to get right with God and live for God. That was the last 50-100 years, but it’s not today. So we need to rethink church. Instead of expecting the people to come to us, we need to go to them. This was always the vision of the New Testament, that the church would spread out and take the message into the marketplace, into homes and into the social arenas. Our methods of ministry must change, even if the gospel message and the importance of the corporate gathering remain.

Don’t mishear me, once someone decides to dip their toe in and see, I hope they experience something wonderful, transcendent and compelling… but how do we tempt people to dip their toe in the water and take a peek in the first place? We must become a provocative church, a church that provokes questions and draws people in through the quality of our lives. Blaise Pascal famously said:

Make religion attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Earlier this year we held two seminars to equip people in this provocative and question-asking approach. I think there is much work to be done here in equipping the church to help seekers and sceptics explore faith and connect in. I still think our focus on the pub will help with this as that it is a non-threatening neutral environment to start conversations and relationships.

(3) Clarity on vision & values

We are by no means a large church, nor do we want to become one. But over the last three years we have grown, and with numerical growth come opportunities and pitfalls. The opportunities centre on investing in people, creating community, the creative energy that comes from new people/ideas and the potential for more ministries/City Groups to develop. However, the pitfalls of numerical growth are often greater… and they can lead you away from your vision and values. Here are some that I have pondered:

  • Pride – We can easily find our identity in numbers. We can think we’re doing well because we’re growing bigger. Remember… Jesus wasn’t a big fan of the crowds!Samuel Beckett Bridge with birds
  • Assimilation – Jesus was about forming spiritual families and missional communities, not people who turned up to ‘consume’ the latest thing. As we grow bigger, we can forget that Jesus wanted to ensure that people became part of the community and not just the crowd. As you grow, it is easier to miss people and it’s easier for the church to feel cliquey.
  • Life transformation – Numbers are great if the numbers represent people who are being impacted and changed. Otherwise, they’re just numbers.
  • Outreach – It is quite possible at this point that the church has grown sufficiently to allow most of your relational needs to be met with Christian church friends. This is tragic if it happens. We turn into a closed-minded group and we lose the purpose of what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s important we prioritise neighbours, families and friends who are not part of church.
  • Purity of vision and values – the danger of a growing church is that the question changes from “How can we reach out?” to “How can we keep everyone happy?” We must not become a church that is all about ensuring we fit people’s needs or are becoming trendy… or whatever else.

It’s those last two that scare me the most when I think long term about the church. We could easily continue to just grow the church through new Christians to the city or de-churched people connecting in… and that’s great, but not sufficient. We’re not living up to our calling and purpose; Jesus wants us to be his missionaries here in Dublin. So how can we also grow through people coming to Christ? How can we help spiritual seekers connect to Christ and His Church? How can we nurture a similar ambition to Paul who said in Romans 15:20:

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.

When we started the church, we always wanted it to be a church (a) that’s relevant to the sceptical Dub, and (b) that would work for the common good of the city. We talked about it being ‘a church not for ourselves’ and I hope and pray that it remains that way. To do so, we’ll have to resist that internal inertia which is part of why we have a strategy to become a church planting church.

(4) Organic leadership structures

Many people have negative feelings toward the words ‘authority’ and ‘structure,’ yet for any organisation to thrive it needs leaders, it will need to give authority to certain people so decisions can be made and structures will need to be put in place to ensure everyone and all the activities are co-ordinated towards a common aim. And the New Testament talks plainly about leadership structures and the importance of those that govern.

Trellis supporting a vine

But the model of leadership in the New Testament is always patterned after Christ the servant-leader and, as I explain elsewhere, all structures within churches are to be like a trellis that supports the vine. The trellis is not the important thing. The vine is the life and focus, but the trellis helps it develop.

What we often forget is typically many of the most ‘influential’ people in church life are not part of the official leadership structures, but use their gifts, time and passions to invest in others, organise events and come up with creative new ideas. So whatever structures we put in place to support and oversee the church, they exist to help the creative and passionate individuals get on and do what they do. The structures are really to ensure these people get released and that THE WHOLE CHURCH is using their gifts. So the leadership structures must be organic, in that they need to be flexible but also they’re there to serve the life that God is growing.

What does this mean in practice? It means instead of trying to fit someone into a particular role/need we have in church we must look at (a) the gifts of the person and (b) the passions of the person, and channel those two things in such as way that brings life to the vine.

But let me ask another question that relates to all this and our future… when do you stop becoming a church plant and just become a ‘church’? One of the markers of this transition is that you have appointed leaders (in the New Testament these are called Elders/Pastors/Overseers, the terms are used synonymously – see 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5 & Acts 20).

So as we mature as a church we need to appoint elders and develop more of a leadership structure. At the moment it’s Leanne and myself who meet weekly. Then there is the staff team, which meets weekly, and finally there is a leaders’ gathering that meets quarterly.* Leanne and I also meet with Caroline and Justin and Daniel Czulno (a friend and financial advisor outside the church) twice a year to look at whether our finances match our vision and values, and to think over strategic decisions.

I don’t imagine that our leadership structures will look much different from this, although I suspect a group of elders being appointed and meeting monthly/quarterly may be a natural next step. Whatever we do we (a) want to keep everyone involved and encourage more to join, (b) keep it life-giving, fun and organic and (c) allow flexibility and space to involve people with different timetables, roles and gifts.**

(5) Joyful hard work

When I think back on the last 5 years (2 years settling in and 3 years church planting) I can truly say I have had a blast. It’s been so much fun. I have been so energised. I have learned loads. I have changed (for the good I hope?). It’s been stimulating and fast paced. But it’s also been hard work. It’s had lots of ups and downs. There are disappointments – events that didn’t take off, pastoral challenges I didn’t expect, people who left that I thought would become key leaders. Leanne and I have had moments where we’re pulling our hair out (each others’ sometimes!) and tensions have run high. There have been times when I have been exhausted. But throughout it all I have known an energy, a joy, a zeal and a grace for the work. The Apostle Paul once put it like this (2 Corinthians 4:7-9):

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 

And he goes on to talk about the life of Christ coming through his life and ministry. It was Christ sustaining and enabling him. And that is what I have experienced and so whilst it’s been hard work, it’s been joyful hard work. If you go into church planting thinking it will be easy, you’ll be crushed under the hard work. If you go into church planting prepared for the hard work but without the joy and resources of Christ, you’ll also be crushed under the hard work. It’s joy that sustains us in our work! I pray God will give us all lots of joy as we think about investing long term in the City and into the lives of others!

If you have got this far… thanks for reading! Do pray for us as we try to apply these 5 principles and ask God to enable us to become a church-planting-church.

*Leanne & I gather together all the Staff Team, Interns, Apprentices, City Group Leaders, Ministry Leaders & Sunday Leaders four times a year

**Additionally, part of this maturing process is to appoint an Advisory Team for support, accountability and advice.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. MVJ permalink
    2 December 2017 6:35 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I just wanted to say I truly appreciate your ‘5 principles’ email. Your understanding of the age and area as well as your growing vision of Christ’s church is inspiring. It’s not easy to do what you are doing, and your words have all the more value because of this.

    Keep up the good work!

    Blessings, Michael

    >

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