Could The Question This African Pastor Asked Me Hold The Answer For Dying Churches In Europe?

I’m writing from Kenya, having already been here a week as part of the Viral church planting conference hosted by NewThing apostolic leader Bishop Oscar Muriu of Nairobi Chapel. Sometimes because ‘a fish doesn’t know it’s wet’ you have to step out of your own context for God to help you see it better and that just happened here for me.

After some of the most challenging yet encouraging talks I ever heard, the three days concluded movingly with a stage filled with the church planters Nairobi Chapel are now sending out this year– all held a blazing torch as they were introduced and we heard their story, they were then anointed with oil, prayed over passionately and commissioned. It was an unforgettable moment.

The rigorous leadership training process outlined to bring these men and women to that stage would be the envy of any church or movement – now they’ll be released to plant churches. Most will be in their own nation where 93% of the nation are poor by world standards. There they will plant all kind of churches – in inner cities (slums or suburbs) or rural environments. Nairobi Chapel have planted 180 churches in recent years and are well on target to plant 300 by 2020. And because they ‘plant pregnant’ using multiplication strategies not addition – they are also confident in God that they will meet their other ‘faith goal’ of planting 10,000 new churches by 2030!

This includes their ‘Gateway City’ strategy, already begun, to send out leaders and teams to plant in the capitals of many other nations. I met a team here who are even now planting in London – having been helped get established by my dear friend and Launch advocate Bishop Ric Thorpe.(I’m delighted they will be joining us in Manchester at Launch Church Multiplication Catalyst in November and I hope you’ll consider doing the same).

So what is propelling these guys on to carry the torch across Africa? What is bringing some to Europe? And what is holding us back so that if often looks as though the flame’s about to die?

I had a revelation about that!

As part of my input to leaders I referenced Mike Breen’s Triangle model as a great assessment tool. You may know it? UP, IN, OUT.

It’s a good discipleship tool personally but the way I use it is to draw the triangle and ask leaders to plot their own. Draw some axis inside it and scale them 1 to 10, what score would you get for each dimension?

Ideally we want to grow an equilateral triangle.

By way of example I told the leaders that some churches are UP, UP, and AWAY! They are in the glory cloud of prophetic wonderment, where eagles fly, on a mountain high – and love lifts us up where we belong…

But they’re nowhere near touching earth.

Other churches are OUT OUT. Not as described by the comedian Mickey Flanagan hopefully. I mean they are doing great work, social action, being kind, helping people. But they may as well be an NGO now, because nobody – least of all them – connects the light they shine with their Father in heaven so they can give him the glory.

And other churches are IN, IN – to themselves. They really love each other, but they’re not so sure about you. You might spoil it. Because we’re here for fellowship, community, for teaching, for going deep, deep and deeper – right into the Greek. And we really just want to care for each other and for someone to make sure our kids are looked after and we want a Pastor who’ll just care about us too. But we don’t care about you.

I asked them to map their own triangle and discuss it. We went into some other things and I told a few jokes and they laughed because Africans are polite and the seminar was done. But at the end I was approached by what I can only describe as a small delegation. These three pastors had been appointed to politely represent other people there who all needed help to understand something. The question:

“We can see how a church can be UP, UP. And we can see how a church can be OUT, OUT. We have those kind of churches. But how is it possible, for a church, to be IN, IN?’  

And as we talked together, a divine penny dropped for me.

This is a huge difference maker.

You see in places like Kenya – and I’ve seen it when I’ve travelled in other African nations, in India and Eastern Europe, in Haiti and so on, if a church is IN, IN – it’s dead. In poor countries, it wouldn’t last a week. That’s why those leaders had no conception, no framework, no category for such a thing as an IN, IN church. How can that be a church?

I wanted to bring them to all to the UK. Not just so they’ll plant full flame churches, but so they’d see what I meant that they had no category for, that has become the norm in the harvest field God has put me. Because such churches are everywhere. And here, they can always somehow seem to last another week. For years, decades, centuries!

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but when I teach this to leaders in what the Guardian now calls ‘Non-Christian Europe’– and get ready across the pond – we alwaysend up talking abouthow to get more IN, then how to get the IN, out.

Many leaders are desperate for answers on how to get people out of the consumeristic religious self-focus that is causing freefall decline, especially but not exclusively in denominations. Ironically the only answer given in many circles is to attract more consumers by making the product better for them.

Or at least better than the ‘competitors’ in the so called ‘dead churches.’

We talk about dead churches, but actually they are not dead. That’s the problem, When I was in the police I got fooled like that, so you learn to check. It looks dead alright. But it’s not dead yet. Maybe ‘It’s only mostly dead’as Miracle Max would say.

So nobody has the heart to put the thing out of its misery and give it a decent send off. A mostly dead ‘church’ like that in Europe can be sitting on legacy money to keep it going. It probably has a building – or lots of them- for a dwindling few to meet IN, IN, in.

It’s the church of Sardis – to which the Spirit says, “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die!” Or it’s Laodicean – robed in the trappings of former ecclesial splendour while solemnly intoning, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ Not realising it is wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked!

Jesus warns and then removes lampstands from such churches. We must realise that while he has promised nothing will prevail against his church, that holds no guarantee for any of ours.

The dying flame has been protected too long by gnarled up fearful hands, shielded from the world outside – the very thing to blow the embers back to a flame! My prayer and conviction today is that it is not too late.

We are in a time of change and a season of grace. But the only hope for the IN, IN church to come alive is for God’s people to bravely carry the flame OUT of the building.