Think for a moment how many churches have been started as a result of a leader going from one place to another and developing a base of operations with people from the previous congregation. There is no way to gather all the actual statistics, but I have to think that the numbers are staggering. Sure, there indeed are congregations that are new plants or pioneer works completely unassociated from any other church. There are also new churches that build and grow exclusively upon fresh converts being added and discipled.
This, however, does not happen 100% of the time.
Many churches begin as an off-shoot or faction of another church. Call it a split. Call it a splinter. Call it whatever you want…it can be painful and sadly, it’s a part of life.
In my years of pastoral ministry I have watched (from the seat of the youth pastorate as well as the senior pastorate) a few well-meaning leaders go off and start their own works. Some were ready and others were not. Some of the leaders were disgruntled and others were simple bored. Regardless, people followed that leader (because leaders have influence) and a new church was birthed…by breach.
The Apostle Paul spoke to this in saying, “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.” In modern circles “building on someone else’s foundation” has been called “fishing in other people’s aquarium,” “sheep stealing,” “fleecing the flock,” and “frisking the Body down.” No matter what you call it, it’s a bummer way to grow the Kingdom. Bummer, but inevitable.
Now, I love church planting. It happens to be one of the best ways to see many people brought into relationship with Jesus. With intention, planning, and prayer a new church being planted can be a joy and a blessing. But when a new church is birthed out of frustration, separation, or dissension then the opposite can be true. It lacks joy and blessing.
How then should we respond? I want to communicate three “positions” we can and ought to take when a church is birthed by breach.
1. Open-handed: Always hold people loosely…with open hands. They are God’s people. Not ours. When folks tell me (or I hear it indirectly) that they are “transitioning” to another congregation, I make the difficult (but right) choice to bless and release. Note that: bless and release. Bless them in their journey and release them to fully participate, invest, serve, give and love in their new venture. When you hold people tightly then they will unquestionably wiggle and rip their way out of your grasp, but when you are open-handed with people they will sense your blessing and release. These were folks that probably were not long-term under your leadership anyway. Secondly, people are more likely to return to a congregation with this kind of open-handedness.
2. Warm-hearted: When a church is birthed by breach the natural reaction for a leader is to be frustrated and act out with distain and speak unkind comments. Fight these urges. You may also think it’s best to rally the troops, communicate the facts, set the record straight and defend your ministry by directly or indirectly demeaning the other. Abraham gives us a good model when he and Lot separated ways, in saying, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” There are some important lessons from Abraham in this passage. First, make the choice not to quarrel and, in doing so, you are modeling to your people (herdsmen) what warm-hearted Godliness looks like. Secondly, the land is big and there are many people that need Jesus. It’s important to work together to accomplish that goal.
3. Clear-headed: In a time when a church is being birthed by breach, it’s not the time to loose your cool. Be calm and clear-headed. Don’t knee-jerk with erratic preaching (ie: jabs from the pulpit), loose comments that could be inflammatory (emotionally and even legally), or congregational head counts. It’s understandable to want to know “who is for you and who is against you” but it violates being open-handed and warm-hearted. I’m mindful of 1 Chronicles 21 in which David insisted that a census be taken in Israel of all the fighting men. He wanted to know who was with him. Even though his advisors strongly discouraged him from doing such a thing, he went ahead with the head count. Scripture tells us that David “sinned greatly before the Lord” and that he had “done a very foolish thing.” Don’t lose your head. Instead be clear-headed which means talking openly with key leaders, staff, and elders. It may also mean cost-cutting, refocusing and renewed vision-casting.