They say that in their first hours of life, baby ducks will form a special bond with the first moving object that they see, whether it’s their mother, an unsuspecting human, or the family dog. They will begin to follow it, imitate it, and consequently, their behavior will begin to take the same shape as the entity to which they have bonded. They call this process imprinting.
One of the factors that draws many of us into church planting is our sense that if we start a church from scratch, we have an opportunity for imprinting—to shape that new church’s culture, values, and ethos in such a way that it will be effective for the mission to which we feel called.
Perhaps, like me, you served in well-established churches, only to find yourself less capable of implementing wide-scale change than you expected (Why doesn’t everyone else see that my creative ideas on church are nothing short of genius??). Or maybe you served a church, which, in spite of its faithfulness, was out of step with the culture around it. You saw the faces of neighbors walking by each day who gave not so much as a thought that this church might offer something that would enrich their lives, and you longed to see the gospel contextualized to better fit the local population.
Whatever the reason, if you are a church planter, there is a good chance that your call was motivated in part by a holy discontent—a deep soul ache that there needed to be a church that would reach a particular neighborhood, people, or subculture. This holy longing quietly developed in the depths of your heart, influencing your dreams about what a church is and isn’t, what it could be and what it shouldn’t be. Certain scriptures took on special importance, key relationships shaped your thinking, formative experiences led to profound “aha” moments, until slowly—almost imperceptibly—certain values became a non-negotiable part of the template for this new church because these values had become a non-negotiable part of who you are.
Consequently, when this church was born, it did not pop into the world ex nihilo, but was birthed after a long gestation period in your heart and soul. God had used his Word, relationships, and experiences to form in you a burden for a people for whom he was burdened, that his will might be done in and through your church as his will is done in heaven.
You were, in a sense, imprinted by him, in order that you might imprint these values onto a congregation who would come to share this burden as well.
So how do we lean into this work? If God shapes us in such a way that we will be fit for the mission to which he calls us, and if part of the work of a church planter is imprinting themselves on the newborn congregation they will lead, how might we do this well? Three questions stand out, all of which are easy to grasp but that require careful intention if we are to do them well.
1. Am I modeling in my own life what I want the church to be?
I don’t think Paul was being cocky when he wrote, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). No, I think he was just articulating a reality that every leader recognizes at some level: you get what you are. For better and for worse, people watch us, and by doing so, learn what they should value. If I say that something is important but don’t live like it is, my example will win out over my words. The reverse is true as well. If I am living something consistently, people will begin to pick up on that even before I verbalize it.
I see this in our church. After 13 years of pastoring Life Covenant, it is not a coincidence that the church’s strengths and weaknesses mirror my own. As planters looking to imprint certain values on our new churches, we do well to ask ourselves, how well am I living out those things I most want our church to be about?
2. Do I teach from the Scriptures why these values are important?
I started college the proud owner of an early model Hyundai Excel, which I drove for a decade until it finally gave up and died. It was a reliable car that got the job done, but it wasn’t fast—especially when stuffed full of additional college students. In fact, with each new passenger you could hear the engine strain to keep up with the load, and feel a corresponding reduction in the car’s speed. The car was adequate for the task and actually served me quite well, but its fatal flaw was that it lacked power.
Similarly, any articulation of what we want the church to be will have a certain amount of potential to shape a congregation. But when we not only articulate a value, but anchor it in the Word of God—demonstrating how this value reflects God’s heart, or showing a biblical picture of what it looks like in practice, or teasing out of the text ways in which we might grow in this value’s practice—we infuse the message with something it wouldn’t have otherwise: power.
As church planters we need to ask ourselves, am I not merely articulating what I want this church to be, but speaking of these values from the Scriptures?
3. Am I publicly praising these values when I see the church live them out?
I once heard Erwin McManus say that churches are very attuned to what a pastor blesses. When we tell a story, deeming something as praiseworthy, people sit up and take notice. What’s more, when we call out real-life examples of our values in action, it moves that value from conceptual to actual. “Ah, I see how this works,” is the often unconscious reaction. What we praise gives our churches a concrete picture of what we want them to do.
And, of course, behind this desire to imprint the churches we birth is a deeper desire—that we might do so as men and women deeply imprinted by the One whose example we follow.
Tim Morey is the founding pastor of Life Covenant Church, a messy, missional, church-planting church in Torrance, California; an assistant adjunct professor of church planting at Fuller Seminary; and the author of Embodying our Faith: Becoming a Living, Sharing, Practicing Church (IVP).