Patience! The missing ingredient of  Your Church Growth Strategy.

I’m half way through Alan Kreider’s book, ‘The Patient Ferment of The Early Church’. Its a different read for me.

Kreider’s argument is that the early church did very little evangelism. Christians didn’t invite their unsaved neighbours to church. There was no such thing as the ‘seeker sensitive’ service, or a ‘purpose driven’ church.  Christianity grew through what he calls a ‘patient ferment’ process, that focused on forming habits that led to a distinctive Christian lifestyle. It was a long slow process that sometimes took years to produce disciples. Outsiders were not openly welcomed, and if you wanted to become a Christian, then you had to go through several steps before you were welcomed into the church. The overriding focus was on teaching and forming new habits, new practices, new lifestyles that were consistent with the life that Jesus taught. The emphasis as not on what you knew, or what you said, but what you DID! It was all about unlearning old behaviours, and forming new ones. It wasn’t easy, Christians didn’t really advertise themselves, yet the church grew!

That’s only half the book. To be fair, Kreider writes from a distinctive Anabaptist/Mennonite position, so there’s that emphasis on nonviolence and social justice. It can be a little bit of an eye-opener for anyone brought up on a diet of Hybels, Warren and other church growth models. This seems to be advocating for almost the exact opposite. And yet I think the book might just be helpful on 2 fronts:

The first is the very idea of patience. Formation takes time. Re-formation takes even more time. It seems to me that too often our strategies focus on getting quick results – too quick perhaps. So when things don’t turn out the results we hope for, we give up. Perhaps we’re just a little too used to a fast-food world with instant-coffee outcomes, and I don’t really like either. I have a mate of mine with a meat smoker, he once told me that when it comes to a good smoked meat, ‘low and slow is best’. Maybe that’s the sort of approach we need to take with church and people, low and slow. Speed is what secular society does well, but when it comes to producing disciples (which is actually what Jesus asks us to produce), speed doesn’t always work well. Discipleship takes time, it requires teaching someone to re-orient their life towards a different way, different attitudes, different practices, different lifestyles. Its asking people to live in a counter-cultural way, that’s a bigger ask than perhaps we realise, and it takes time.

The second front has to do with lifestyle. According to Kreider, the early church focused on building disciples who LIVED differently. They turned the other cheek, gave generously, showed compassion, treated people fairly, and deliberately set out to help the poor and disadvantaged. All without really talking about Jesus. They showed that Jesus was real by what they did. It was attractional, rather than deliberately missional. But in a world where people were surrounded by all kinds of world views, Christians stood out with their distinctive (counter cultural) way of living. They treated people differently, they behaved differently – and they got noticed.

Kreider likens this to a fermenting process. Fermentation takes time, but the results are usually worth the wait, and if its done right, you remember how good the drink was. Perhaps that’s part of our problem right there, we’re not willing to wait. We prefer the soda-stream approach where we pop people through a process, and zap! Instant fizz. But nobody raves about a fizzy drink, nobody remembers how good it was.

I’m only half way through the book, and there have been times when I’ve sort of wanted to put it down and go on to something else. Kreider tends to repeat himself a little more than I would like. But I’ve set myself the challenge this year to read more widely than I usually do, if only to broaden my own awareness of the scope of ideas that are out there. Kreider seems to be articulating something that runs counter to ‘traditional’ models of doing church. Certainly different to what I grew up with. But I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Kreider might be on to something.

We seem to be living in a world where Christians, for one reason or another, are being squeezed out of the public space of ideas, voices sidelined in any number of debates. The early church faced hard times as well, sometimes far worse than anything we would know here in Australia. Yet the church grew, Christians increased in number. Maybe the lesson for us is that perhaps we need less talking, and more doing. It may be a time for our actions to speak, instead of our words. Less telling people who we follow and more showing them who we follow. And to do that, perhaps churches need to focus more on forming the people we have, forming habits, actions and lives that show the secular world that this Jesus is the real deal.

That’s my takeaway so far!

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About andy63

Auditorium/Facilities Manager at Kennedy Baptist College. Family man, Dockers Supporter, NFL and NBA tragic who loves the Red Bull Air Race and a good meal. A Christian who is grateful for grace and forgiveness and the fact that Jesus is alive.

4 Responses to “Patience! The missing ingredient of  Your Church Growth Strategy.”

  1. I found it a profound and provocative book. And I think its useful for the current scene. I wonder though, that we’re really being squeezed out of public conversation. Rowan Williams, John Milbank, Taylor, Habermas, Butler and others have recently written that is more likely to be types of Christianity that are sqeezed out, which in turn raises the question of legitimacy as a voice.

    • Yeah, I think the church as a whole is being squeezed, probably as a result of ‘certain types’ of Christianity misusing their role/status in society. But I do think its happening. Nevertheless, I think Kreider does chart a useful way forward for the future, an emphasis on lifestyle and deeds rather than just talk.

    • I also used the word ‘squeezed’ rather than ‘persecuted’ because I think ‘persecution’ is to strong a word to describe the state of Christianity in Australia. We’re under some pressure, but there’s no way we’re being persecuted, not yet anyway.

      • Yes, I have friends who have lived through Somalia, Sudan, China, Russia, Iraq, Syria, who fall apart laughing when the Americans start saying they’re persecuted, and so do I. I like squeezed, I thought it was a good fit.

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