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The Shrewd Ethics of Starting a New Church

We have been fortunate to partner in starting various churches over the past couple of years within the Cyclical LA church planting network. From house churches to churches with full-time vocational pastors, we have experienced a breadth of ecclesial expressions in our city. While many of the frameworks that our churches prioritize are different, we have noted 12 commonalities as expressed by our 12 core covenant values:

  • Generativity: generating new churches out of our existing churches

  • Autonomous Leadership: prioritizing decentralized leadership that makes Spirit-led decisions for its own context

  • Incarnational Disciple Making: following the incarnation of Christ by making disciples through mutually enriching relationships with our neighbors

  • Shrewd Risk Taking: matching the shrewdness of those around us by leveraging unique opportunities

  • Connectionalism: accountability and support within a larger tribe

  • Sustainability: moving toward sustainability in mission, administration, and the personal lives of our leaders

  • Legality: knowing and following local and national legal code

  • Communication: communicating our stories with excellence across various platforms

  • Ongoing Learning: ongoing learning of our leaders

  • Integrative Development: holistic development of our leaders

  • Accountability: leaders having a consistent network for personal accountability

  • Work-Life Balance: our leaders leading out of a healthy work-life balance

For the purpose of this brief article, we would like to highlight one of these 12 core covenant values: Shrewd Risk Taking.

The description of this value is “matching the shrewdness of those around us by leveraging unique opportunities.” This description is rooted in Luke 16, the parable of the shrewd manager. This parable is often a difficult read for Christians as the line between ethics and shrewdness gets blurred. In many preconceived notions of what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus, the line between ethics and shrewdness is not to be approached. However, in this stunning text, Jesus encourages such activity. The highlight of Jesus’ teaching comes in verse 8:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

The church starters with whom we work get this. They don’t even blink. It is amazing. They get that we are to match the shrewdness of those around us by leveraging unique opportunities for two reasons. First, they intuitively get Jesus’ priority on shrewdness as a missiological and ecclesiological necessity for today. The Greek word that Luke uses here for shrewdness is φρονίμως—which means “pertaining to understanding resulting from insight and wisdom.” When Christendom was still a reality, shrewdness was not seen as a priority because there was little need for it. The church was often catered to in culture, so “insight and wisdom” was not necessary. In our post-Christendom setting, that bent is no longer present. Christian faith is not assumed, and cultural support of the birth of a new church is not present. Thus shrewdness becomes more of a priority. We have seen our new churches make various moves to embody what Jesus is alluding to here.

One example was a church that started a foundation bearing the same name as the church. The foundation has come in handy on multiple levels, the most important being when it was time for the church to rent a full-time space. The church is in Los Angeles and renting a building not previously zoned for church, on a full time basis, is next to impossible. So the foundation rented the space, and allowed nonprofits to use the space as they needed. The church was one of those nonprofits. (There were various others as well, which allowed the church to build relationships in the neighborhood.) In reciprocity for the foundation’s generosity, the church gave the foundation $2,000 per month. It was a shrewd move, with both wisdom and insight for a post-Christian culture.

The second reason that Cyclical LA members naturally prioritize matching the shrewdness of those around us by leveraging unique opportunities is that there is a practical need to leverage unique opportunities! In our context, it is no longer the case that new churches are given $500,000 or more to start a plant. Resources are tight. So, just as many do in Los Angeles every day, we encourage our church starters to scratch and claw for resources in the name of the kingdom of God. The result? Divine surprises around every corner—from unexpected generosity from unexpected people who don’t identify as Christian, to business opportunities for new churches to supplement budgets, to bivocational jobs for pastors that pay unexpectedly high salaries to support livelihoods in an expensive city. The shrewd manager would be proud of us!

Unlike the 1990s, there is no equation for a church starter to fulfill. Different leaders and different contexts demand different sets of Spirit-led courageous moves. In our experience, without exception, shrewdness has been essential to those courageous moves and we expect that it will be essential in your context as well.

Nick WarnesNick Warnes (@nickwarnes) is married to Whitney and they live in Los Angeles, California. He enjoys the opportunity of being both a local pastor at Northland Village Church and a regional leader as director of Cyclical LA.

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