by Lee Behar
Now that the Alliance has completed its ministry, how can we evaluate its effectiveness? By God’s grace there is good news to share and lessons to be learned.
In June 2006, the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting (Alliance or ASCP) formally closed its partnership after thirteen years of ministry and influence in post-communist Eurasia. At its height, the Alliance included seventy churches and mission agencies that believed in the saturation church planting (SCP) vision, namely, that at least one evangelical church should be within geographic and cultural reach of every person in this region. Some of the key agencies involved in the Alliance included the Bible League, United World Mission, Greater Europe Mission, World Team and Church Planters’ Training International. Notable churches were Perimeter Church, The Chapel (Akron), Highlands Community Church, First Baptist Modesto and the Minnesota Coalition for Eastern Europe. Now that the Alliance has completed its ministry, how can we evaluate its effectiveness? By God’s grace there is good news to share and lessons to be learned.
Overall we can say that the ASCP was not able to reach its ultimate vision, namely, saturation church planting movements in all twenty-seven formerly communist countries. However, in the six years the partnership tracked its results (1995-2000), Alliance partners were influential in the planting of more than 3,800 churches. Influential means that national church planters who actually planted the churches received training, research and encouragement generated by Alliance partners. These churches were planted primarily in Ukraine, Romania, Russia and Bulgaria. Later, the ASCP influenced the planting of more than three hundred churches in the five formerly communist Central Asian republics.
The ASCP was effective at accomplishing two secondary goals. First, through a commitment to the SCP vision, the partnership was able to coordinate the efforts of dozens of agencies and churches to reduce duplication and synergize resources. The best example of this coordination was the Alliance’s development of Omega Course. Omega is perhaps the most widely translated and used practical church planter training curriculum in the world (with portions in twenty-eight languages). Twenty missionaries from nine different agencies participated in its creation. Also, many missionaries formerly associated with the ASCP continue to work on multi-agency teams in the region. Cross-cultural workers from ten agencies still facilitate national church planting in Poland, for example.
Second, the ASCP successfully promoted and (in some cases) retooled missionaries toward a ministry of facilitation rather than direct church planting. One cross-cultural worker in Czech Republic began his missionary career assuming he would plant one or two churches. As a result of his association with the Alliance, he helped influence the planting of a dozen churches, and more are in the works.
LESSONS FROM THE LIFECYLCE OF ASCP
So what, if anything, could have been done differently? What lessons can we learn from the lifecycle of this particular missions partnership? There are at least four.
1. True partnership requires more than shared vision. While more than seventy agencies and churches were at one time part of the ASCP’s roster of partners, at no time were there more than fifteen partners making regular, significant contributions to its efforts. Perhaps this was the classic “80/20 rule” in play, or perhaps it was simply that the Alliance, at its formal level, was not a true partnership. True partnership means that participants share more than just vision and values. It means they share methods, strategies, plans and resources. It means they are voluntarily and mutually accountable for results. In fact, the formal ASCP was really more of a conglomeration of smaller partnerships. It was these smaller, more focused, efforts that were effective. The lesson? Calling a group of organizations (even ones that have assented to a vision) a partnership does not make it so. Practical cooperation, shared resources and mutual accountability are the stuff of effective partnership.
2. Multiplied training does not equal multiplied churches. More than any other ministry activity, the Alliance became known for (even synonymous with) the training of national church planters. ASCP partners sponsored church planter training seminars from Estonia to Albania, from Prague to Novosibirsk (in 1999 alone, 2,899 nationals participated in training). No Alliance team was more prolific in training than the one headquartered in Moscow. This team of capable, committed missionaries worked tirelessly for years (in cooperation with Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries), training church planters in dozens of seminars and locations around the country. In the end, however, the team realized (with incredible Christ-like humility) that the result of their training was not a movement of multiplying churches. Instead, in their zeal to train trainers, they multiplied training seminars with no appreciable gain in churches planted.
To what can we attribute this disappointing result? Two reasons come to mind: First, church planter trainees were not usually “assessed” as to their calling, gifting, ministry experience and suitability for church planting. Instead, a “come one, come all” approach was used in order that the saturation church planting vision could be disseminated more broadly. The conventional wisdom at the time was that exposure to SCP principles would, through church planter training, benefit the kingdom whether or not the trainees would actually be church planters themselves. Second, the ASCP was not effective at creating mentoring systems so that large numbers of trainees could effectively receive ongoing encouragement, skill development and accountability. As a result, training multiplied, but application (in the form of churches planted) did not.
3. Disciple-making is the critical behavior. In 2003, research in one Central European country revealed an interesting statistic. It seems that while the number of churches in the country had increased, the number of church attendees had actually declined. To what can we attribute this phenomenon? Detailed analysis would be needed to pinpoint the exact cause(s); however, it is possible that the net increase in churches (church planting) was not a net increase for the kingdom (“conversion growth”). Rather, existing believers were simply moving from established churches to church plants. Newly-minted churches were not, in fact, leading people to Christ in sufficient numbers to overcome attrition. Spiritual movement of any kind is not possible outside of an environment of disciple-making. Church planting is no exception. In order for churches to be multiplied, leaders must be multiplied. Multiplying leaders requires multiplying disciples, and multiplying disciples can only come through fruitful evangelism. We who believe that saturation church planting is the best way to fulfill the Great Commission must always remember that it is only a vehicle that fulfills the task if disciples are being made and multiplied. We must never take this truth for granted.
4. It is absolutely crucial to focus on short-term wins. There is no more wonderful vision than the fulfillment of Christ’s Great Commission. It is this vision that has motivated millions of believers throughout the centuries to give their all for Christ. Unfortunately, we fallen creatures (especially westerners) have short attention spans, and we find it difficult to persevere over time without the encouragement of success. Accordingly, because SCP is a long-term vision, it is difficult to keep momentum going toward the goal without measurable, “celebrate-able” milestones along the way. Unfortunately, the Alliance was not very good at helping its partners set notable milestones in the process toward SCP. In fact, most ASCP-related teams could not clearly articulate what saturation church planting would look like in their countries. Because it did not do a good job of defining the task in measurable ways, the partnership had a difficult time recognizing meaningful accomplishments in the process. Teams did celebrate the completion of church planter training cycles or the publication of national research projects, for example; however, because those events did not lead to a movement of church planting, many workers associated with the Alliance became disillusioned. Better defining short-term wins and relating them to achievement of the ultimate vision would have helped combat this “vision fatigue.”
SATURATION CHURCH PLANTING IN THE FUTURE
So can we say the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting added value to the church planting enterprise in post-communist Eurasia? The answer, I believe, is yes. Although the Alliance never proved itself as a partnership adept at implementation, it did much in the way of envisioning and equipping. By God’s grace, its influence continues today through Omega Course and through the lives of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of missionaries and national church leaders that it touched.
In May 2005, when the ASCP board of directors decided it was time for the formal partnership to dissolve, they did so not because they believed the task was complete. On the contrary, because so much evangelism, discipleship and church planting remains to be done in post-communist Eurasia, the board believed that new, more nimble expressions of partnership were needed to help accomplish the vision. In April 2006, a group of missionaries formerly associated with the Alliance met in Budapest to chart a potential path forward. Dawn Ministries now has a small but growing team in place in Eastern Europe. Saturation Church Planting International, the Bible League and Bible Mission International continue to work in the region with SCP goals. Each of these organizations, and many more, will go forward, having been impacted by the ASCP. Hopefully, the lessons mentioned above will go with them as well.
Lee Behar is former executive director of the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting. He currently helps coordinate global strategy for the Maclellan Foundation in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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