Why Church-Planters Must Aim for Icebergs

Why Church-Planters Must Aim for Icebergs

One of the assumptions we can bring to church-planting is to think starting a new church primarily means starting a new church service or public meeting. In other words, it’s all about the event.

For me, digesting Tim Chester & Steve Timmis’ book Everyday Church was a wake-up call to the reality that in our current cultural landscape, new events/services/meetings in and of themselves just won’t make significant gospel inroads into lives and communities.

As they say,

A 2007 Tearfund report found that almost 70% of the UK population have no intention of attending a church service at any point in the future. That means new styles of worship will not reach them. Fresh expressions of church will not reach them. Alpha and Christianity Explored courses will not reach them… The vast majority of un-churched and de-churched people would not turn to the church, even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies. It is not a question of ‘improving the product’ of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events. (p. 15).

Later on they cite the film Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a farmer in out-of-the-way Iowa. Kinsella has a dream in which he thinks he’s been told to build a baseball diamond on his struggling farm, in the hope that people will come to watch baseball and pay for the privilege. As the refrain in the film goes, ‘If you build it, people will come.’ But as Chester & Timmis compellingly argue, that’s not the case with church events in our cultural moment. We can’t just ‘build events’, expecting people to turn up.

As we’ve explored planting a new church community, one of the challenges for all of us has been trying to resist this temptation to think only about the new meeting. What will it be like? What time will we meet? Which venue will we use? What will the format be? And so the ‘event’ questions go on…

And this is where the Iceberg is our trusty friend. (For church-planters that is. Less of a friend if you’re the Captain of the Titanic.)

Because the classic stat about icebergs is that approximately 7/8ths of an iceberg is below the waterline. (And if you want to dig deep into the Archimedes Principle, immersing yourself in theories of mass, volume and buoyancy, you can do that elsewhere!)

The point is that what may seem like a fairly minor block of ice casually floating on the surface is in reality a pretty staggering and colossal mass that we underestimate at our peril.

And that’s why icebergs are a helpful illustration for church-planting. There’s far more to it than the public meeting, and if we forget that then – to stretch the metaphor – what we’ve created will most likely never stay afloat.

And I find that an encouragement in our current situation – because at present on our church-planting journey, there’s no weekly public gathering. So from a ‘surface-level’ things seem quite insignificant. But we’re trying to build something that is about what’s under the surface far more than what’s above the surface.

As we’ve journeyed through the last year twenty months or so, here are three aspects of this ‘under-the-surface’ vision that I’m realising are critical for an effective church-plant:

  1. Growing a team, both spiritually & relationally: If we’re not a team of people who are committed to the gospel vision and committed to each other, then we’re never going to be able to implement the New Testament’s picture of a Christian community. So spending time together, digging into the Bible together, having fun together is all part of growing that team. You can’t fast-track that, because that’s just not how relationships work.
  2. Being connected into the wider community: Again, if we’re merely focused on starting a public meeting – and perhaps doing so as soon as possible – then we run the risk of running an event that is disconnected with the community in which it happens. That might satisfy the wishes of some Christians, but it is likely to be a closed shop. Similarly, maybe this is the challenge for ‘mother-church/daughter-church’ models of church-planting. It’s brilliant to begin with an ‘operational outfit’, but to what extent is it actually embedded into the wider community? So how much time are we investing in understanding and being members of the community in which we find ourselves?
  3. Informally sharing the gospel as we share our lives: In a sense this should flow out of number 2, but there’s always a danger that it doesn’t. Particularly so if we’ve basically decided in our minds that our only job is to get people to the church service. That essentially betrays an expectation that the church event is the sole way people will be exposed to Jesus and that we have no personal part to play. Ok, yes, I think our church meetings should be excellent evangelistic arenas for people to hear more about Jesus and see the difference he makes to a bunch of ordinary people (in other words, we need to consider the unchurched and dechurched person as we plan our public meetings). But the chances are that few people will ever consider attending them if they’ve not seen or heard something in our own everyday lives that gives them reason to think this is more than simply another religious club. And if we’re not enmeshed in relationships, then that’s going to be near on impossible.

So there we go. Considering church-planting? Make sure you aim for an Iceberg.

What do you think?

What have I missed off my list of critical ‘under-the-surface’ aspects of church planting?

Do you resonate with the iceberg illustration?