An important question for every leader – particularly church planters and pastors – is “Is this the way things are or the way things must be?” Asked another way, “Is this a matter of circumstance or conviction?” The answer to this question will guide everything about your organization, from language to leadership. So, answering the question well is crucial, and not as easy as it seems.
Matters of Circumstance are things that are the reality now, but not necessarily the reality in 20 years. They change with our surroundings, resources and seasons. Circumstantial realities reflect the way things are, not the way they must be.
Convictional values are held tightly over time and rooted in something eternal. They do not change because they cannot change. Convictional Values reflect the way things must be regardless of the way things are.
Getting Labels Right
Getting things in the right category is crucial to our language and our leadership. Let’s start with our language. If we use convictional language about circumstantial things, we will pay the price. If we treat “the way things are” as if they are “the way things must be,” we paint ourselves into a corner that we will find hard to escape.
Here are some categories where we can stumble into using convictional language for circumstantial things.
- Size – When we plant our church, it’s normally a small, intimate group of people. Everyone knows everyone. Then, while we are growing, we can maintain that sense of family and togetherness for a while. Sometimes, people will come to our church because it’s “small.” We can talk about small or some of the benefits of being small as if they are the conviction rather than the circumstance. But, what happens when we get larger than 100 and you don’t know everyone anymore?
- Building – When we plant our churches, we don’t usually start meeting in a building. For many of us, we are in a “set up/tear down” circumstance, not operating from a “we must be mobile” conviction. Out of a desire to lead with strength, we use convictional language (The Church is not a building) about a circumstantial issue. But, what happens when we need to raise money for a building from people who have learned that they don’t need one?
- Salaries – Sometimes guys who plant are bi-vocational – meaning they work an additional job while they are planting. I’m not opposed to this at all. I’m simply saying let’s make sure our language is clear. If this is a circumstance of the money you have been able to raise or the giving of your people, don’t sell it as a conviction you have. Asked another way, if someone donated $1m to you today, would you still be bi-vocational? What happens when you have the money to pay full-time staff?
This will eventually affect our leadership. At some point, our circumstances are going to change. We will not always be a small church. We will not always be a mobile church. We will not always have bi-vocational staff. But, if you have painted yourself into a convictional corner on circumstantial things, your leadership will pay the price.
Now, it may be that you have determined that these are convictions. That’s fine. If they are convictions, then use convictional language. Just make sure that you know the difference before you start. Because once you start using convictional language, it will create culture. Convictional Language creates culture. And once culture is created, it’s hard to walk that back.
So, what if these are circumstances? How can you help people grow through these categories as your circumstances change?
- Size – What people experience at your church has less to do with size and more to do with culture. A hospitable church can have the value of community expressed in the circumstance of being either small or large. If you talk about the conviction of the church being a family or even a family of families, that convictional language can grow with and shape the culture of your church.
- Building – If you talk about the reality that the church is not a building, that’s fine. Just make sure that they understand that the church is not a room you unpack from a mobile trailer either. The Church is a family and every family needs a home. So the church is not a building, but it’s nice to have a place to gather and sometimes a family needs to go from an apartment to a home. This kind of language can grow with you.
- Salaries – Again, if you want to be bi-vocational, great! I’m bi-vocational. But, if you want to be freed to pursue ministry through the local church with your full-time attention, then talk about bi-vocation as a circumstance and be honest about what is needed to fully fund your staff.
The Heart of the Matter
There are other areas where we use convictional language for circumstantial matters. We need to guard against this not just because it paints us into a corner with our language or because it affects our leadership. We need to guard against this confusion because it betrays something about our hearts.
I think that we (church planters and pastors) use convictional language about circumstantial things because we don’t want to face the reality that we aren’t where we want to be. We don’t want to have to deal with the insecurity in our hearts about it. So, rather than say, “Yes, we want to grow, but right now we are small,” we talk down what we secretly want to be by using convictional language about small churches being better than big churches, buildings not being important and bi-vocational staff being somehow more biblical than full-time paid guys.
In other words, in order to mask our frustration and insecurity, we use convictional words to get people to approve of us in our present circumstances.
Dealing with our hearts and the ministry idolatry in them is crucial … particularly for a church planter.
The gospel of Jesus really is the answer to this issue for our language and our leadership. Dealing with our hearts and the ministry idolatry in them is crucial … particularly for a church planter.
Being able to fully say with Paul, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Nothing more. Nothing less. This is critical.
My identity is not found in how much (or how little) money I’ve raised, how big (or small) my church is, where we meet or whether I have a full-time job or not. My identity doesn’t have to be found in those things because my identity can be rooted squarely in Jesus and what He has done for me.
So, I can be humble about my circumstances and I can be confident about my convictions. I can know the difference between what is and what must be … because “what is” doesn’t define me. The grace of God does.
The gospel helps us be humble about our circumstances and confident about our convictions…
As a leader, learning the difference between circumstance and conviction is crucial. The language we use will create the culture we get. So, we need to make sure that we use convictional language about convictional things and not circumstantial things. The gospel helps us be humble about our circumstances and confident about our convictions. It also gives us the wisdom to know the difference.
Brian Lowe has a degree in Biblical Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary. He planted Exodus Church—now grown to 2 congregations—after 16 years with student ministry. Brian’s heart is to be involved in Jesus’ mission through developing church planters. Brian serves as the Network Director for Acts 29 US Southeast. Brian is blessed with a wonderful wife, Cheryl, and four children.