By Dave Smith
When I was a kid, my family went to Six Flags Over Georgia. This was bd: Before Disney World. For a kid growing up in the South, it didn’t get any better than Six Flags. We had been before, but this year was different. Six Flags was unveiling a new roller coaster, the Great American Scream Machine.
It was a classic wooden roller coaster. It disdained loops and fancy frills. Proudly, starkly, it stood against the sky with simplicity: steep climbs, stomach-churning drops, and a death-defying (for 1971) 75 mph.
All five of us decided to go for it. In the “This is going to be great!” corner were Dad, Leslie and me; in the “Why in the world are we doing this?” corner, Mom and Philip. We snaked back and forth in line for an hour. With each step, three grew more excited, two more reluctant.
And suddenly, we were strapped in, Dad and Leslie up front, me in the middle, and Mom and Philip behind me. Clackety-clack-clack. Is there any more stimulating sound to roller-coaster aficionados? We were headed up—way up. And then, whoosh, the bottom dropped out. Eyes blurred. Hearts pounded. We were down and back up in seconds.
At the top of the second hill, there was a brief pause. Dad and Leslie laughed and rejoiced with me. I looked back at my brother. He sat there white and speechless. My mom? She was gone. I mean vanished!
And then slowly, she reappeared, her 4-foot-11-inch, 98-pound frame rising from beneath the safety bar. Somehow Mom had managed to squeeze herself into an area reserved for feet. Her face was terror-stricken as she looked at my Dad and said, “Mike, that was awful.” Her voice trailed away as we took off again at mind-numbing speed.
Worth the Risk
That roller-coaster ride reminds me of church planting. No matter how excited or fearful we may be, the reality is that church planting is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys, like no other ministry I have ever experienced. But I can say this: It is worth the risk.
The theme of this year’s National New Church Conference was “Risk the Ride.” More than 1,000 people were challenged to find their place on the church-planting ride. Participants networked with church-planting leaders and learned nuts and bolts through workshops. But it was in the main sessions where together we tasted the adrenaline of church planting, the extreme sport of ministry.
Dave Nelson, planter of the K2 church in Salt Lake City, took us up and over the first hill. He described the adventure of leaving Kensington, Michigan, to plant a church in a stronghold of Mormonism. We heard video testimonies from some of the 100 people who left homes, jobs, and lives in Michigan to join his team.
Nelson reminded us of Jesus’ words, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). One hundred people died to themselves and God planted a church of 700 people in Salt Lake City. As Nelson emphasized, “Every great accomplishment was once impossible.”
Steve Andrews is the senior minister who sent Nelson and his team of 100. He challenged us to be like the Antioch church, to live openhandedly and send our best people. As we seek God’s will for our lives, he encouraged us to talk to people who love us, but love Jesus more.
Mark Driscoll, lead minister with Mars Hill Fellowship in Seattle, Washington, and founder of the Acts 29 Network, took us around the next curve. He preached from the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters we see the pain of church planting. The church is not always what God intends it to be. That is why we need chapter 4, a reminder of Jesus on the throne. As we send or go, we need to remember the exaltation of Jesus, we need to believe in a Jesus who is big enough to die for. The risen Christ has commissioned us for this work of church planting. He goes before us. He goes with us. He asks us, “Am I enough?”
John Burke, lead minister of the Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, led us through a peaceful stretch of track. He talked of the chaos of church planting because of the messiness of this generation. But he reminded us, “God is in the chaos. Diving into the messiness is an act of trust in God.” Burke encouraged us to create cultures of grace and authenticity in our churches.
The ride continued with insights from diverse conductors. Ed Stetzer unpacked the commissions of Jesus to show us that church planting is the fulfillment of the commands of Jesus. In John 20:21, we see that God is a sending God and we are the sent ones. In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus commands us to go to all peoples. We discover our message in Luke 24:46-49, repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. And we are encouraged in Acts 1:8 that our power comes from the Holy Spirit.
Neil Cole, founder of Church Multiplication Associates, affirmed that it is more fun to be light in the darkness than light in the light. He described two kinds of unbelievers: moths who fly to the light and cockroaches who scurry to the darkness. We are to plant the seed of the kingdom in the midst of imperfect people God loves, be they moth or cockroach.
One of the more surprising conductors was Al Weiss, president of Walt Disney World. Weiss is the son of a church planter. He shared his vision to saturate large cities with new churches. He reported that fewer than 19 percent of Americans attend church on any given Sunday. He is trying to engage Christian business leaders in helping to ignite a church-planting movement.
A Moment to Remember
It had been an exhilarating ride, a panoramic view of church planting. With heads spinning, we prepared to go home. But before we left our seats, we heard from Gene Appel, lead minister of the Willow Creek Church. Previously Appel was senior minister with Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, a church that planted two other churches in that city.
Appel spoke of the shifting winds God brings into our lives. He told of God’s winds that took him from Las Vegas to Chicago. When God brings these winds, he wants to do a new thing in our lives. But he cannot if we won’t cut the cords that tie us to our present place. If we refuse, we miss out on God’s best, the new winds of excitement, as well as challenge, that God longs to release into our lives.
Appel challenged those who felt God blowing them toward church planting to come forward and commit to it. Hundreds of people responded. Watching people fill the front and aisles was far more exciting than anything else we had yet experienced. Who knows what God will bring out of this moment?
One thing I know. These few days on the Great American Church Planting Conference were more exhilarating than any roller coaster I have ever ridden.
Dave Smith is professor of church planting at Ozark Christian College, Joplin Missouri.