Church Planting: Systems Thinking

In the San Francisco Bay Area, leaders with whom I connect are working together to frame a more comprehensive and unified approach to starting new churches. For several years now, we have been fashioning aspects of a church planting system, but we are newly implementing it as a whole.  

The system exists to start as many healthy churches as possible among as many peoples as possible all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

It functions as an integrative system of six subsystems: A Research System, an Evangelization System, a Recruiting System, an Equipping System, a Resourcing System, and a Connections System. Four values permeate the whole: prayer, reproduction, evaluation and celebration. 

 The values and the subsystems are applied a little differently for various kinds of new churches. For example, a church among an unreached refugee group would be evaluated, celebrated, and resourced according to different criteria than a church started in a new, middle-class, English speaking suburban community. The subsystems we have defined are:

A Research System seeks to observe, discover and help interpret new information regarding the peoples, social structures, relational networks, geographies, and spiritual climate of our region. It operates both in response to questions already being asked by church planting leaders, and by posing new questions and challenges as needed.

An Evangelization System engages in specific opportunities designed to widely sow the Gospel in ways that best result in disciple making. New followers are then gathered into communities that become churches. This involves sowing gospel seeds, harvesting in the present and reaping in the future. This subsystem addresses our own region specifically, while also acknowledging global opportunities.

A Recruiting System generally promotes church planting in our region. It identifies and raises up indigenous church planters and attracts, assesses, screens, and selects leaders from outside of our area.  It also enlists church planting team members, partner churches and volunteers to assist with various roles within the Church Planting Multiplication System.

An Equipping System mentors, trains and guides church planters and church planting teams in church planting skills. It also equips volunteers and others who carry out functions that support church planting through various subsystem activities.

A Resource System supports church planting and extends care to church planters by creating and making available various kinds of expertise, family services, financial support, and other assets or gifts. It is responsive to common church planting needs, and seeks to implement creative new initiatives that can help church planting thrive where we live and work.

A Connections System assists new church planters and new churches to become involved and integrated into healthy kingdom networks, including healthy relationships with nearby churches, local church associations, denominational missions agencies, and cooperative missions opportunities. It also helps existing churches to absorb fresh insights and helpful practices from new churches.

The Church Multiplication System is driven by strategists and others who catalyze church planting. It is meant to serve church planting and church planters. Are we missing anything?  Church planters, what do you need most?

  • A couple thoughts, Linda. First … thank you for sharing this – – it is uh-MAZE-ing! It represents a vision and a dream coming into fulfillment for many, many people …

    Much of what I see coming into blossom with this Church Planting Systems had one of many tiny seeds 15 years ago in 1997 when we were part of the church planting strategy team. There, the express goal then was something close “to ring the Bay Area with interconnected church planting churches, and also equip existing churches to become healthy as possible so they can contribute to this movement to whatever level is appropriate for their level of health.”

    Complex systems don’t simply appear overnight. With each of the six components you summarize, I can more than imagine the thousands of hours of different peoples’ experiences that contributed to hundreds of hours of reflection that gradually distilled into the few “espresso” sentences here. Thanks to all who did this hard action-reflection work involved to make this a reality, and to you for writing it for our benefit!

    More thoughts later …

  • Second … many do not yet have a systems approach to things, though that seems to be changing substantially with younger generations. It is naturally “on their radar” to see people and things and processes as interconnected, such that if something happens in one part of the system, everything/everyone else in the system is affected to a greater or lesser degree … but nothing/no one is immune from impact.

    So, one crucial implication about the ways things have typically gone in church planting is that some of those six pieces are missing. And whenever there are gaps, there typically are excesses. The over-focuses may seem like they make up for what’s missing, but actually each individual piece that is out of balance by being too small or too large can upset the balance of the whole even more.

    End result: Having a COMPREHENSIVE set of elements that are INTEGRATED works together for a COHERENT system. And in both my experience and my studies on this subject, only a comprehensive, integrated, coherent system has the possibility of sustainability.

    Which means for the Bay Area, this could create a “critical mass” environment to really see a movement toward church health and church planting flouurish as it could not quite do when either not all six elements are present, or they are split up among different people or organizations so much that there is no coherence. So, kudos on the cohesion!

    P.S. If all that sounded like gooble-dee-goo, let me suggest the book I’ll be using as a reference on systems. I think it’s the best overall introductory-level book you can work through: *Stepping in Wholes: Introduction Complex Systems* by Jim Ollhoff and Michael Walcheski. (And hurry over to Amazon, abebooks, or eBay … it’s out of print.)

  • Third … and, ooooh, this is perhaps the tough one to write about … the “what’s missing” and “what’s needed” response. I’m convinced the six segments/elements in the system are right on. What’s left out are the kinds of working tools needed that go with a systems-approach to church planting and to ministry. What served well in the past likely will not in the future, because many of the tools were developed based on an analytic/Enlightenment paradigm, not a paradoxical/systems paradigm.

    What does that mean? Here’s an analogy. I used to use Macintosh as my main computer platform, but switch to PC because that is what most of my freelance clients used. One of the casualties of this switch-over process was Page Maker. I had different levels on each machine – – version 4.0 on Mac and version 6.5 on PC. I moved my Mac files to the PC, but when I attempted to open the v4.0 Mac PageMaker files with v6.5 PC software, I received the unfortunate news: You cannot upgrade version AND switch platforms simultaneously.

    SYSTEMS thinking (which keeps elements distinct but connected within a larger whole) is a very VERY different platform from SYSTEMATIC thinking (which divides elements from one another and collects similar micro-elements into categories). We can’t expect to merely “tweak” the same old assessment tools and definitions and call it good. It. Will. Crash. The. System.

    Sorry to say, but this likely means that the Ridley system for church planter assessments must be redone from the research stage on up. It was based on specific assumptions from a the pre-postmodern paradigm shift world, and so is not valid in the post-paradigm shift world. That doesn’t mean some of the conclusions and assessment elements won’t be similar, just that they have to be expressed for what “success” in church planting means in a non-linear world.

    However, glad to say that there are some tools already available, in the wings, or on the horizon. Such as The Transformational Index, which is a system for social entrepreneurship (including church planting) and organizational planning, implementation, evaluation, and revision. (See overview at Some of the APEST assessments and teamwork models seem helpful (Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, FORGE Network, etc.). And who knows what will emerge in the next few years that people behind the scenes have been working on for years …

    This is research and development is crucial to all six elements, because we live in a mixed-paradigm world and we need to identify what works for strategies, infrastructures, ministry methods, and collaboration methods IN BOTH PARADIGMS. And where there are gaps, they need to be filled, and where there are excesses, they need to be filed.

  • A final thought … This year marks my 40th anniversary since starting as a non-profit volunteer. I began in 1972 as a junior in high school, before this was required or even common. I worked as a research gatherer on local politics for public TV, as an administrative assistant and adviser for a teens employment service, and as a helper for senior citizen activities. I had other volunteer roles during college and thereafter, and have participated in almost every aspect of local church ministry you can imagine. So I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on organizational systems in general, and also over 15 years with pioneering church plants and ministries in specific.

    In my experiences, it seems that the most productive efforts for new ministry start-ups occurred when people who are *intuitive* catalysts worked in covenant with those gifted for *intentional* catalyzing. Put another way, those with spiritual gifts as strategists and catalysts alone do not create a SUSTAINABLE movement, while those with spiritual gifts as project managers alone do not create a sustainable MOVEMENT. Together, the synergy does something that neither gifting can carry out by itself. Keeping these two approaches in paradox may mean things go more slowly, but how often do things that go fast stay sustainable?

    This is similar to the concepts found in the APEST model. However – – and not meaning to sound harsh, but this may come across that way as you can’t hear my tone of voice or see my body language here – – but from what I’ve experienced, this also means that everyone involved needs to become a practitioner who embodies a systems approach. I doubt it will do to have theoreticians who envision they can strategize something into existence and then everyone else needs to help carry it out. For those of us who are more theoretically inclined, we maybe need to consider doing one or more practitioner internships first so our creativity is not bounded by just virtual ideas from books and instead is based in IRL experiences.

    So … Linda, I’m so thankful you’re at trainings this week. Not only because you are a lifelong learner who shares what you’re discovering, but because you have more of a systems approach as a practitioner-strategist-theologian than anyone I know. Thanks for your immense contributions through the years in my life, and the lives of so many others. We are blessed that you are among us …

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  • thanks for all these good thoughts, Brad. I value your input and know you have spent much time thinking in systems. I want to point out that my denomination’s team of directors of mission and church planting strategists have been fleshing this out together, with each participant championing various aspects of the system. We continue to seek local and global advocates- both lay and clergy, to fill various needs.

    • Thanks for that update, Linda. I truly am glad to hear that there is a combination of both hammering out the big picture together and also working on specialist areas. I don’t know very many other ways to get system coherence otherwise. Seems that a major part of the emerging integrative/systems paradigm is that it requires being interdisciplinary. And from my observations of working within academia and training programs off and on since the 1970s, so often the big picture is more of a collage of the specialist bits and those analytic bits just don’t always fit. But, from the results of the macro-picture that you’ve shared, it looks like the process will help ensure the micro-pictures fit together much better. It’s exciting to hear how this is coming together, and will look forward to the first release of it!

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