Multiplying Short Life-cycle Churches

Some time ago, I spoke with a hurting former church planter. The church he led died a couple of years ago. He was feeling bad about the death of the church he loved. Where he saw failure, I saw a church with a shortened lifespan. The church was a success while it lasted. Planting churches requires flexible thinking–sometimes we get something different than we expect.

Military Churches Are Prone to Short Life-cycles

Exploring the conversation further, he revealed that the focus of the church had been military families from Pearl Harbor and another base in Hawaii. This healthy church collapsed when a normal rotation of families pulled most of the people out of the state. The rotation was unusual in that it took so many people from a single church—these people were from various branches of service.

This was an unusual, and unavoidable, coincidence. However, it demoralized this pastor. He has a career outside of the church so his family came through intact, but he was defeated. After discussing the good that happened during the four years the church existed, he came to see victory amidst the ashes. When I asked if he would plant again, he brightened up and said, “I’ll consider it.”

We ended up talking about life-cycles of churches. Just like the church at Antioch, or the churches in Revelation, most churches have an expiration date. For some it is hundreds of years from their founding. Others have a shorter shelf life, but that doesn’t make them a failure. The good they do will last through eternity.

One of our early church plants in Okinawa has experienced birth, death and re-birth several times. The pastor, John Bacigalupo, a Marine who retired at age 42, simply stuck out the troop rotations which shrunk the church he pastors (this thing happens more often in Okinawa than Hawaii). Hope Chapel Okinawa has grown to 150 people then shrunk to near zero on several occasions over its three-decade history. They’ve also planted a half-dozen churches in Okinawa, The Philippines and the U.S. mainland—all planted by servicemen retiring on those rotations.

We would do well to re-think our ideas of success. Longevity counts for something, but not for everything.

A Gang Centered Church Plant

My friend “Rac” Racoma sometimes laments that the church he planted only existed for around eight years. He’s mistaken about that for two reasons: A. He planted three churches, not one. B. The kids he worked with are going on in the Lord.

Rac and his wife, Veronica, visited relatives in a tough neighborhood on Oahu when she noticed how well he hit it off with a few young gang members. She encouraged him to plant a church among them. A small-business owner, Rac often toyed with the idea of planting a church. He had pastoral experience leading home-groups in our congregation and he had sat through a few courses at a local Bible college. He soon launched “Hope Chapel Kalihi” in a carport. The initial members were also members of a local gang.

Most of those kids accepted Christ. Some married their girlfriends. High school dropouts got diplomas via a GED test (and a decent job for their effort). Many moved to the mainland where homes cost less and jobs pay more. Others moved on to join “adult” churches.

Rac started over with another gang. These kids had seen what happened with the first group and wanted some of it for themselves. While the church continued to operate, this was actually a second congregation. The group maxed out at around 80 people.

The third church plant was an extension of the second after that congregation grew up and moved away. This time the members were “straight kids.” When that group eventually moved on the church(es) came to an end. Rac and Veronica were somewhat distraught, but he commented that he would no longer need to haul his five-decade old body around a basketball court with 17-year-olds. Unlike the military pastor, the Racomas are sure of the long-term good that came of their short-term efforts. They understand the life-cycle of a church varies according to the needs of the community rather than the needs of the pastor. By the way, this morning Rac emailed from Kenya to describe his success, over the weekend, at training wannabe church planters there. He taught from his experience along with scripture. Hope Chapel Kalihi came to an end, but its ripples continue to widen…

Observations

It is worth noting that when Hope Chapel Kalihi was a gang-related church they met physical violence. On four occasions, rival gangs attacked them. This involved broken windshields, lots of blood and one hospitalization. Neighbors demanded that the church move (or quit meeting) because of the violence. Even the “straight church” got assaulted. The upside of this is that one bout resulted in some of the attackers coming to Jesus after a community peacemaking endeavor.

The military church on Oahu was a mid-sized congregation whose termination demoralized the pastor. The one in Okinawa grows and shrinks while the pastor simply perseveres. The gang church was really three separate micro-churches. It’s pastors accepted the end of their journey. Each example displays a short life-cycle that is foreign to standard church-growth thinking. However, each church was/is a valid expression of the body of Christ. Each sowed seed that will grow into eternity.

The three pastors came into church planting via a local church with vision to multiply, and each had a career apart from the church. Not even “bi-vocational” in the normal sense of the word, two of these men planted and served the church while earning a living in their chosen secular career. My point being that pastors who do not depend on a church for income can reach pockets of society overlooked by “vocational pastors.”

If you’ve read this far, you probably have thoughts of planting a church or multiplying yours. I urge you to consider raising leaders who possess these qualifications: A. They have been discipled into ministry. B. They are veterans in pastoral ministry within your congregation, or some other. C. They have a career that will allow them to plant a church free from worries about money. If we think outside the lines of professional ministry and a middle-class audience we can reach into communities often overlooked by church as we know it. Besides, some short life-cycle churches grow into more than you expected…

So, What Do You Think? 

Please use the comment box below to share your experience with others, or agree/disagree with what I wrote…