Why Common Sense Fails Us in Leading a Church or Church Plant

Why Common Sense Fails Us in Leading a Church or Church Plant

Someone is starting a church plant, but has no special training, experience or study in church planting. They’re planning to just gather a group for prayer and worship, and see what happens. Often that’s exactly what they’ve been told to do.

These are priests who have been trained in the Bible, theology, preaching, pastoral ministry –but not church planting. They are trusting their common sense to help them make decisions that will, hopefully, result in the development of a fully established new church in a particular community.

And for a few months or a year, this approach seems to be working. Folks are gathering, a worship service is happening, and maybe things are moving forward.

But then this plant hits a wall. It now has 30-50 people and suddenly all of the common sense, intuitive principles seem to be failing and faltering. Often the planter finally agrees to meet with his coach or leadership, and admit the need for help. Why is that so common?

I’ve seen this same pattern in more established churches. When the group is relatively small, and there aren’t a complex set of goals, then common sense and intuition serve well. But once some momentum happens, and the church grows and becomes more visible in the community, things hit a wall. People feel like they don’t know where to go for an answer. Meetings consist of various people advocating for multiple, contradictory points of view that they feel very strongly are “common sense” and “correct” or “the Anglican way to do this.”

Why is Common Sense Failing us?

This happens because everyone is convinced that if each of us thinks back to our own previous experiences of “what worked” and then derives principles, those commonsense principles will give us some helpful direction. But we forget two things.

First, the other leaders didn’t share our previous experiences, and so are drawing their own principles from their own experiences.

The problem is that common sense is not actually common when things get complex. Each leader has his or her own sense, which is not always held in common with the others. Our individual experiences are no longer common, and we end up arguing from limited perspectives.

Second, even the sum total of all of our experiences is not comprehensive enough for us to lead this growing church. We need a higher view which incorporates a wider wisdom.

Sociologist Duncan Watts explains this phenomenon in a helpful book called Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us.

He explains that in normal, everyday life situations, common sense intuition is absolutely necessary and effective. We rely on it to navigate our world. In small groups and non-complex groups, it is irreplaceable. However, as groups become more complex, common sense becomes less helpful, and eventually fails to help us. Instead, he says, careful study and discernment of larger patterns in a wider area are demanded. In complex groups, we need more than our own perspective and history to begin to develop a shared sense of what we need to do.

This is because we now have to learn to gain new input for our minds and hearts to use to make decisions. We can’t just draw from personal experience. We need to learn what is happening in other traditions and churches. We need to learn about trends. We need the benefit of good research. We need to coordinate with our diocese or coaches, or other leadership. We need a mountaintop type view. And we need to be open to the possibility that our personal commonsense view of things might be challenged by this new perspective.

We just can’t lead a church to grow past a handful of people without that wider viewpoint. Common sense fails us as we grow.

Involving All the Members of the Body of Christ, Including Statisticians

I think this is what St. Paul is referring to in I Corinthians 12.  We are “one body with many members.” People who study statistics for use by churches are part of the body. People who study trends and practices in the wider church and develop best practices are part of the body of Christ. Paul wanted us to think bigger than just our own personal experiences and common sense. He wanted us to develop something called wisdom, and without the gifts of these members, we aren’t able to find wisdom.

Wisdom is greater than common sense, and it is greater than any one person. In fact, wisdom is often counterintuitive. Wisdom comes from the humility of submitting my ideas and sense of direction to the wider Body of Christ.

This includes learning from others in today’s church on earth, but also the wisdom of the church that has gone before us. 

Putting this into Practice

Unless your planting core team is learning about church planting principles with you, your plant will probably not be able to grow into the thriving church that you envision. Unless your vestry is reading and learning about how other churches are growing and gaining creative insight from those stories, your established church will probably not be able to move forward. If everyone is simply remembering their own previous experiences and relying only on their own gut instinct, then more and more division will happen as the church grows.

And learning the history, practice and faith of the historic Church is also essential. What we learn won’t always be commonsensical to us. But it will have been a hard earned and time tested wisdom.  

Instead of suddenly gathering people who might want a church someday to plan a first worship service, spend time studying church planting principles together. Learn how the early church grew. Study periods of evangelism in history including overseas missions.  Find out the stories of strong church plants in your region. Ask questions. Get a coach. Read books together. Visit a few thriving churches.

Some Ideas

  • Worship. Learn from others how best to set the times of your worship services so that people are most likely to be able to attend. Send the Rector to a liturgical leadership and planning course. Require anyone involved in planning worship to read a book or complete a study of the history and practice of Christian worship.
  • New Members. Find out some of the best ways to help new folks consider membership, rather than assuming a commonsense approach. Do a survey of churches that have welcomed new members well and consider their approaches.
  • Teaching. Instead of teaching a class the way your favorite previous teacher taught it, learn how to teach the faith from many different experts who have dedicated their life to catechism. Learn methods, and not just content. Require all teachers to complete training on how to teach, not just what to teach.
  • Vestry. Instead of leading a vestry meeting the way its “always been run,” study good strategies for facilitating decision making in a strong, prayerful group that knows one another well. Experiment with different ways to facilitate relationships and decision making.
  • Music. Instead of planning music week by week without any new learning, send your musician to a conference on sacred music, or pay for a class.
  • Budget. Instead of budgeting your funds based on last year’s budget, ask your finance team to learn about best practices for budgets, and how strong, mission minded churches allocate their funds.
  • Fundraising. Hire a consultant or do a study. Find out how other churches in your diocese or local community are raising funds. Learn about new technology that helps people know what you’re doing and tracks donations.
  • Children’s Ministry. Consult with a well known leader of a thriving children’s ministry in another church. Gather the parents for information sessions that explain your new approach.
  • Cross Disciplinary Study. In those areas where the work of other non-profits would overlap with our work, learn from them. Learn from other organizations and groups when relevant. Study leadership, group dynamics, and safety issues. Just like the early Church Fathers carefully appropriated Greek philosophy, we can prayerfully appropriate wisdom from other areas of life.

Learning these things through site visits, reading, conferences, videos, coaches, or consultants is a great help to any church. And this is not just for the Rector or clergy. This is for all governing or ministry leaders. Everyone should be learning about how best to serve in their own ministry, and the church should foster and support that type of learning. Don’t ask them to simply rely on common sense, because it will let them down.

We continue to need prayer, discernment, and wisdom. But going beyond our own common sense will give us more tools, and a wider view with which to use them.

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