Three Marks of a Mature Church?

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Last week I had the privilege of being at the Exponential Conference. Exponential is 5,000 people gathered to learn about and exchange ideas  about starting and strengthening churches. On Wednesday afternoon part of the RCA and CRC church multiplication teams met with the head of church planting of a denomination with 1200 congregations that is planting a new church every 6 days (the CRC with 1100 congregations plants a new church about 22 days). 
 
In this conversation we turned our attention to the fact that not only do they plant a new church every 6 days, but 85% of these churches make it to maturity. In the church planting world this is a high success rate. When we asked when they considered a church to have become “mature”, the measure was quite simple: The church after three years is 1) Self-sustaining 2) Self-governing and 3) Self-propagating. Putting it another way: The church is financially viable, it has its own leadership body and it is reproducing new believers and is planning to be part of planting a new church. 
 
A few days later I reflected on this in light of the 2013 Yearbook. The Yearbook is an interesting coming together of statistics about our denomination that gives a general snapshot of the CRC. I say “general” because it is clear that accuracy is not its strong point. Not that those who put the Yearbook together fail in accuracy, but that the stats they receive don’t always add up. The one big one I noticed this year was the final numbers. In 2012 we had about 252,000 members. In 2013 we have about 248,000 members. This decline comes when on page 127 we find a net growth of 1279 members. Something didn’t quite work.
 
But in spite of such things the Yearbook still gives us a general sense of where we are. Part of that sense is that some 600 churches had no growth from evangelism last year. While I did not check, I also assume the vast majority of churches did not participate in beginning a new church last year. Toss into the mix that the majority of our churches are in slow decline and I find myself drawn back to those three parts of what marks a church plant as being “mature”. We have many churches that are self-sustaining and self-governing, but they are not self-propagating. If a church is self-sustaining and self-governing, but it is not self-propagating is this a problem? If we say a church plant has only matured when all three of these are true, should we seek a lesser level of maturity for existing churches? If we want a church to be have all three of these marks what do we do with 600 plus churches that display only 2 of the 3?
 
So what do you think? Are all three marks of maturity for a church plant necessary for already existing churches?
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Larry,I'm interested-is the denomination that you refer to using one model, or a variety of different models?  Is it a top down or bottom up process?

Contributor

Hi Jeff,

The denomination mainly uses what has come to be known as "the attractional model". You may know that this model designs programs etc. to attract people to the new church.

The structure of the denomination is such that it is more like an open system. Denomiational and regional faith goals are set, but those goals are met regionally, not with a top down mandate to plant so many churches. What can happen is that a faith stretching goal is set in collaboration with the regions that pushes all to go to a place that have not been before. The main work of the church planting team at the denominational level is to assess and train church planters.

Larry,

Sorry, just a few other questions.  What are the funding streams that are used in the planting process?  Is it from the denomination or is it primarily from the local churches/networks?  Do they have any sort of training for the churches or networks that enter into the process as parents?  Thanks.

Contributor

Hi Jeff,

You raise an interesting question that our Church Planting Team is taking quite of bit of time to learn about.

Funding streams in this particular denomination are based more regionally and locally, the money given at the denominational level is minimal, but it is at the denominational level that assessment, coaching and training is offered. In another recent interaction we had with another denominaiton planting at about the same pace more money came from the denominational level along with assessment, training and coaching.

What we are discovering is that

1. Funding has become, in almost all cases, a partnership between the planter, local, regional, and denominational entities.

2. Assessment (or at least the assessment process pathway/standards) is located out of the denominational office.

3. Coaching standards for new church planters are becoming increasingly common. These standards allow a broad range of people who can coach, but they have to meet the standards set by the denomination's church planting team.

4. There is an increasing desire to determine the level of risk that a planter has going in to a church plant. It is becoming possible to determine how difficult it will be for a given church planter to build a sustainable church in a given place.

 

Larry,

Thanks for this thread, it's very interesting, especially your last point.  If you are ever able to post links to any published studies/etc about it, that would be great.  

While on vacation, we often attend non-crc churches.  A few weeks ago, we attended a "community" church where the pastor was attending a conference during the week, and they had a pancake breakfast on Saturday, which we attended.  It was organized completely by men, although a few women attended to partake of the bounty.  While discussing with them the service for the next day, the men were not absolutely certain that the preacher would be there the next day on the Sunday.  But one of them said, "we think he will be there, but if he isn't, I will lead the service myself".  This was a small church, denomination not identified, probably less than 80 attended on sunday morning, with about 16 at the bible study just previous.  As it turned out, the preacher did make it, I believe a six hour trip from the conference location, and they invited us to join the choir that morning.  We were quite reluctant, not having practiced with the choir, and not knowing one of the songs at all, but eventually they persuaded us.  

A small church, but in my opinion, very mature.   A church is mature when it continues regardless of circumstances, and regardless of who is there to lead or preach.   And it is mature when the spirit of worship and welcome especially for strangers, is obvious. 

Another church we attended a week later was Assembley of God, in a different town.  We discovered it was pentecostal, and we were somewhat uncomfortable, but it was our vacation, a time when God opens up new discoveries to us.  In his sermon, the preacher highlighted the strengths of this church, in being welcoming, and in being discipling (entering and applying the word to life, and leading others to christian living).  He suggested that a weakness was evangelism, by asking how often the members had asked someone to come to church with them?   Perhaps a self-centered church can never be mature, no matter how old it is, or how financially secure. 

We ought to ask ourselves also how these three aspects of maturity (self-sustaining, governing and propagating) relate to the "marks of the true church" as we know them , which are identified as the pure preaching of the word, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of discipline. 

As a practical matter, I would suggest that a church would be mature if it is evangelistic either through growing in numbers or through planting another church, or both.  Possibly a church is not mature merely because it is old.   And possibly a previously mature church could regress to immaturity.   Food for thought. 

Contributor

Hi John,

I wondered if someoene was going to catch the "three marks" connection. Thanks for participating in the conversation. 

Community Builder

Hi Larry ,

Let's define self sustaining. The most conservative version of a self sustaining church plant is that it submits 100% of their denominational and classical ministry shares. That is one bit of information that the year book does not supply. Also the membership is not made up of transplanted CRC members. Another piece of information the yearbook is not very good at supplying. 

My record keeping of the CRC yearbooks show that the CRC  has created about 100 new congregations in the last 15 years.  If you average the total members over the total number of churches and compare that to 15 years ago the numbers are very disappointing . The CRC has a declining membership supporting more churches with a growing overhead at its headquarters level. If an average church costs about $200,000 per year to maintain, the CRC's overall denominational costs have increased by 20 million in 15 years with little or no growth in number of members.

We are very good at self governing, in fact so good that churches on average keep more funds in their own congregation as the percentage of Ministry shares over the whole denomination (I believe, because I have no proof) are declining marginally. Of course doing ministry locally is not a bad thing but the strengths of what the CRCNA can can do together is very significant and in my view is currently under significant stress.

Not sure what self propagating means. 

Interesting discussion in light of the overall issues in the CRCNA .

 

 

Participant

Of course, everything hinges on how you define "maturity."  In my thinking, the self-propagating criterion is at least, if not more, important in determining "maturity" than the self-sustaining and self-governing criteria.  Self-propagation needs to be at the forefront from the very beginning, the other two can take more time.  In other words, self-propagation is more a DNA thing whereas self-sustainability and self-governance are more developmental issues.

Community Builder

 

self-prop·a·gate  [prop-uh-geyt]  Show IPA verb, prop·a·gat·ed, prop·a·gat·ing.verb (used with object)1.to cause (an organism) to multiply by any process of natural reproduction from the parent stock.2.to reproduce (itself, its kind, etc.), as an organism does.3.to transmit (hereditary features or elements) to, or through, offspring.4.to spread (a report, doctrine, practice, etc.) from person to person; disseminate.5.to cause to increase in number or amount. I'm still confused how to apply the above definition to Joel Hogans comment. However the tools to do at least part of the above are people skills and resources (time money etc.). I am a bit nervous about the use of this term. 

 

I stumbled onto this while thinking about our own (non-CRC) church plant in an urban, poor, minority section of a more rural city (Carrollton, GA). The family that moved here with us bailed a year into the plant after realizing that the were not cut out for this which left us wondering whether we stay, how long do we give it, etc. we decided progress toward the three marks you identify would be our measuring stick. 

This work is slow and hard. The people we're trying to reach generally don't know the Bible and have a totally cultural view of what a church is. We live with them, have them in our home, teach them English or life skills, provide free biblical counseling, and of course urge them to be reconciled to God thru Christ. 

Churches in these kinds of neighborhoods may never be mature in these three areas. Financially, they will never raise 200k per year. We are only able to do it because I have a great job and we fund everything while taking to salary. We've said we just want to see the percentage of money from other sources increase. 

Regarding self governing, we have said we just want to see someone not in our family leading something - anything - that serves our church family or community. 

For self reproducing, we just want to see those that are legitimately redeemed acknowledging that Charles Spurgeon was right when he said every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.