Often, it feels like our approach to church support is close to Humphrey Appleby’s view of subsidies for the arts.
We are able to find support for those church plants with which we have a vested interest. Or, if not a direct interest, it is those with which we have sympathy. When it is ‘our’ project – perhaps an A-to-B church plant – we feel a level of investment that means we simply can’t let the plant go to the wall. Often, however, it feels as though we are happy to treat church plants a little like a ‘sink or swim’ scenario. We’ll effectively allow them to get on with whatever they’re doing and, if they fail, so be it. If they turn out to be successful, we will heap praise upon it and send our admiration for the work that was done.
The problem is that new plants and churches in deprived communities need the help early on. They are most in need of help before they are self-sustaining. For some churches in deprived communities, the chances of sustainability are close to zero. The people they are reaching are not in any position to significantly financially support the church and many cannot stay long-term. If we wait until they sink or swim, most will sink and those that swim ultimately don’t require our help thereafter.
The problem is that we are largely taken up with our building extensions and our own projects. I’m not saying those things are always wrong. If you’ve grown exponentially through conversions, you’ve got to find room for your new members somewhere and we can all rejoice at the increase of the kingdom for his glory. But, at the risk of sounding like a negative Nelly, I largely don’t see it. I see huge building projects and vast amounts of money being spent on making life more comfortable for Christian families and accommodating an awful lot of transfer growth. Few seem to pour these resources into works that are seeing vast amounts of gospel fruit and breaking new ground for the kingdom.
Without blowing our own trumpet, our church is more efficient and fruitful than many several times our size. Over the last three years, we have baptised around 15 people, predominantly from Muslim backgrounds, with a larger number having come to faith before moving on. All this with just 25 members. To some, that may seem like small beans but I have scarcely been to a church in the UK who has seen a similar response and several who have been blown away by those numbers. I think it is very easy for us, in the midst of it, to become desensitized to all this but as a friend of mine said recently, ‘for what it’s worth, even with our limited resources, I suspect we punch well above our statistical weight in new disciples!’ I think that is about right.
What we need are churches who will consider genuine partnership before finding extra staff or increasing the size of their building. We need those who are willing to plant churches or support existing ones with their workers and finances for the good of the kingdom rather than continuing to do whatever serves their own interests. If we see the New Testament pattern as one in which those in richer areas supported the poorer (cf. Rom 15:26) and the sending of best staff to help in other areas (cf. Acts 13:1-3), it seems justified to ask churches with greater financial and human resources to support churches in deprived communities.
We don’t need more churches held up as success stories that we can hope to emulate. We need well-resourced churches to set aside any designs on empire-building and to turn their thoughts to supporting smaller churches seeing real fruit for the kingdom. We need to be more consciously about God’s glory rather than our own. We need to be prepared to send money and people to churches that will not be well-known and whose successes will not redound to our good PR. We need a real heart for the lost and a genuine will to support those places that are seeing real in-roads into unreached communities.
To put it starkly, does the Lord take more pleasure in the size of our membership or the fervency of our evangelistic outreach? Does he take more pleasure in dozens of believers flooding into our expanded buildings or several unbelievers trusting in Christ? Would the Lord prefer the stewardship of the resources he has granted to you serving the comfort of those who already trust him or being sent to those who are making in-roads into unreached communities and seeing genuine response to the gospel? The question we must ask is, what sort of work do we want to support and how do we want the Lord to look upon our ministry?