Strategy - does that word and all that it means have any place in the church? I hear a lot about strategy in the evangelical world. Planting into strategic places, doing strategic ministry among strategic people and so on and so on. My big question is how much of this is unhelpful and worldly, how much is simply a cover for our desire for comfort and how much is genuinely driven by an awareness of a lost eternity for thousands now?
This post has been percolating away in my mind since we spent a gospel group pouring over, thinking through, understanding and wrestling with the implications of James 2. Then today as, on my morning off, I drove from Doncaster to Rotherham past community after community without a vibrant gospel teaching church I couldn't help but think about it again. At what point does strategy do more harm than good? Where are the churches doing strategic thinking about planting into these communities - Mexborough, Conisbrough, Warmsworth - as well as the student areas of Leeds and Sheffield? Where are the churches willing to fund such unsexy church plants that will grow slowly and need financial life support for a considerable time?
The Bible is not without strategy, in fact it sets out God's strategy. The great commission is our strategy - go make disciples of all nations. Acts 1v8 shapes it for us geographically - Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and then the ends of the earth. Revelation gives us a picture of what success looks like; a multitude no one can count from every possible ethnic and socio-economic background gathered together and united in praise of our God and Saviour.
Interestingly people often talk about Paul's strategy of going to a key town and setting up a church there from which the gospel will naturally be carried to the outlying towns and districts. Yet the world has changed, areas have changed. Can we just assume that happens now? Where are the studies that prove such? Can we really reach the surrounding areas from the cities in the UK? Where are the churches who are planting out of cities into the surrounding gospel poor towns and areas? [Excitingly Gospel Yorkshire is getting churches thinking about just that - why not visit the link on the side bar to hear more]. Why are churches in cities in the UK generally getting younger and growing whilst those in towns age and shrink? Why is nothing being done to reverse that?
Secondly no one seems to mention Paul's other strategy. "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." Paul takes the gospel to where others are not working, to communities that have no gospel witness. Imagine how different the church scene would look if that happened today, no multi-denominational church plants clustered in a student/young professional area already well served by churches but a vibrant gospel preaching church for every town, and every significant populace across every area of a city.
It seems to me that often when we talk of strategic ministry we are thinking in worldly terms, reaching the influential and affluential. I hear talk of deploying people where they can be most fully used. I hear of the significance of student ministry, or planting churches in student areas, for raising up future leaders for the church. And let me say I think there is some truth in some of those. But I also think there is a great big gospel hole in our thinking - it leaves great big parts of the UK unevangelised and are we really achieving our aim if they stay clustered in those student churches well into their twenties and thirties whilst their home churches shrivel and die?
Less than 1/3 of 18 year olds go to university, so how are we going to reach the other 2/3s? 45% of the UK population is working class and yet little strategic thinking has gone into reaching them and few churches are planted into those areas? Is it because we think in worldly strategic terms of influence and likeness rather than in gospel terms of lost souls to win and cross cultural and class churches united in the gospel?
I wonder if it's time to review the strategy we have often held to. Your strategy is only strategic if it achieves the thing it is designed to do otherwise it is just another failed attempt. I'd love to know what percentage of the leaders being trained up as students go on to serve in churches outside of student towns and cities? I'd love to hear of churches in the South who see the gospel needs of the North of England and think strategically about partnering with churches there to reach vast areas without gospel witness. I'd love to hear of more and more young men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for the gospel in hard places rather than serving in a church where there are 'people like them' or where they can 'fulfil their potential', or play a strategic role in training up and sending the next generation (If you're not willing to go why would they? People follow leaders not un-modelled ideas - Ezra and Nehemiah provide a helpful model).
There is another strategy I see at play in the Bible, costly self-sacrifice that dies to self for the gospel. That goes where there is most need not most ease. That sees a town or community with no gospel witness and cannot but weep over it and be moved at cost to self to want to take the gospel there, or to facilitate it going there.
As I drove back this morning I felt a burning desire to see churches planted in those places I drove through, in fact I'd love to be involved in planting those churches and see people come to know Jesus. They won't be strategic in worldly terms, they won't win a platform at a national conference, or a board seat on an organising committee, it will be low key, hard labouring, gospel grunt work. But in God's strategy there are those who have not heard the gospel who need to hear it and his strategy is for us to be moved by compassion for the lost and to go. How would that strategy transform our thinking, our planting, our training, our giving, and our going?