One of the primary sources of frustration for church leaders, boards, and especially young leaders, is the inability to recognize who, and where, they really are. I believe church planters and church leaders experience growth, pain, and opportunities through different phases. While it is not an exact model, I often think the nation of Israel’s return from exile and development as a nation as described in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther mirrors the stages of growth that a church plant goes through. I am using these as teaching metaphors, and not as precise categories, in a theological construct.
We have already seen in our blog on the Ezra phase that a primary concern for any church must be Word of God centered gospel proclamation. Let me emphasize this as primary again, because without clear gospel proclamation and faithful Bible teaching, a church needs to be especially careful with what it is actually building. However, as new people come to a saving knowledge of Christ and Jesus builds the church, eventually the difficult process of internal building will take place, which we talked about in our blog on the Nehemiah phase. This is a hard season of system building, leadership development, discipleship clarity, and often staff alignment. I honestly don’t know any pastor who has accepted a call to ministry to organize systems in a church, but without navigating this well, a church will never fulfill its call to make disciples and steward its opportunities as wisely and effectively as it should.
As church leaders seek to navigate the Nehemiah phase well though, there is a great danger. A church might start to feel that it has arrived, or grow content with or protective of what God has done. They may stop changing and stop risking, and when that happens, very slowly, they stop walking in faithfulness. This often leads to stagnation.
This is why the Esther phase is so important. The Esther phase is when God has raised you to a place of impact and opportunity where he will often ask us to trust him anew. This is what happens to Esther. She has been moved to a place of prominence and influence, and yet God is asking her to leverage that opportunity not for her glory, but for his. I love how the book of Esther records Mordecai’s conversation and God’s truth.
Esther 4:12-14 (ESV)
12 And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. 13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Take a look at how clear this is. Mordecai says that if Esther keeps silent there is no future for her, and then he affirms “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place.” Here is the truth: God is going to build his church, and God is going to bring about his purposes. In the Esther phase a church has to remember this is about God’s Kingdom, and not their own little tower of Babel.
Here is a question established churches need to wrestle with: What is the current opportunity that God has raised up for us, for the sake of the gospel?
The answer can fall anywhere on a very wide spectrum:
In the Esther phase there are two words that come into mind: Culture and Opportunity.
#1 Culture – The church has to continually ask where is the culture that God has placed us in? How do we serve this culture well for the sake of the gospel? Where do we need to be distinct from the culture, and where do we need to be a servant of the culture?
The difficult matter in dealing with culture is in facing the problematic reality that world culture changes. Some churches have gifted enough Bible teachers so that they can resist culture, however, eventually that teacher or leader will die, and then change will be inflicted upon them. I believe a church has to hold firmly the truths that transcend culture, and then lovingly serve the culture where God has placed them. Each leadership team needs to lovingly clarify where they serve, and where they remain distinct. To ignore the culture will most likely result in an increasing ineffectiveness for the sake of the gospel.
Note: Some churches argue they are completely distinct from the culture and everything they do is culturally transcendent. Sadly, these churches don’t realize they spend far more time talking about culture than most other churches do, and honestly they run the risk of producing reactionary disciples who become more loyal to their own perceived “biblical church model” than to the Great Commission.
# 2 Opportunity – This is the second word that comes to mind in the Esther phase, and it sounds exciting, but only until you realize that the back end of opportunity is risk.
Courageous and faithful leaders need to realize Jesus builds the church, and he calls them forward to continue to walk wisely in faith. When a church refuses to risk and walk forward into God given opportunity it reveals that either a lead pastor is scared to potentially lose some idols (comfort, security, affluence), or a church board has become more concerned with their kingdom than God’s Kingdom.
A great question for any church planter to wrestle with is: “What idols might appear in my heart if God grew this church that may paralyze me from embracing the culture and opportunity where he placed me?”
It is important to realize that as churches mature they will find themselves navigating the Nehemiah phase or the Esther phase constantly. Often these churches may be stronger in one phase than another, so while some churches excel in Nehemiah work (excellent internal organization), others may be stronger in Esther work (ministering to culture and embracing opportunity). A wise leadership team and board will try to strengthen both as acts of worship and stewardship. Personally I find this graph to be somewhat helpful:
Defining the graph:
Church in Struggle – This church may be growing and have a gifted gospel communicator. However, when the hood of the car is lifted and you take a peek inside you may find a church full of ministry silos, frustrated staff, confused boards, and confusion on how and where to serve its culture.
Church playing Catch-up – This church may have a strong staff, good systems, and be highly organized, but sadly feels a bit out of touch with a post-Christian culture. They may always feel slightly out of step with engagement and opportunity.
Church for the Moment – This church may have momentum and cultural engagement, however, without building any healthy systems, staff, disciples, and leaders, the church may not be able to minister to anyone in the future.
Questions for leadership teams:
Where are we?
Where are we vulnerable?
What idols might we need to repent of?
Ryan Baitzel is a disciple of Jesus, husband and father of four. He serves as the lead pastor of Emergence Church in Totowa NJ, which was launched in May of 2006. Emergence is committed to planting churches in North Jersey, and currently is training two church planters to plant gospel centered, missional, multiplying churches.