The Emotional Brain, Romantic Idealism, and Church-Planting
If you've ever watched The Bachelor, then you begin to have an inkling of how messed up our decision-making is. I'm increasingly convinced that most people would make very poor choices if given an unlimited set of options with no restrictions on what they could choose. This is part of the reason, in my humble opinion, why so many church planters fail miserably. That’s what I want to briefly explore in this article. Let me start with the example of dating. If you were allowed to select a mate from 1,000 difference choices and were told that you could have your pick, what criteria would guide you? You might rationally know that beauty isn't everything. With such a blank-slate opportunity to pick whichever partner they want, folks would choose someone they find physically appealing. Rationality goes out the window and the emotional brain kicks in. We want what our emotions tell us we want.
A physically appealing partner sounds nice, but is that truly the best factor in selecting a mate? Aren't there other, non-tangible aspects that produce a healthy, mature relationship that have nothing to do with looks? Of course! But the emotional brain produces a kind of romantic idealism that hones in on the wrong criteria. Unlimited choice gives our emotional brain too much leeway. It overrides the system and drowns out any and all logic.
Church planters too often choose where to plant based upon this same, emotional-brain, romantic idealism. It causes them to a choose a mate based on the wrong metrics. Think about it. Most church planters raise their own support and go where they feel "called" to go. They must obviously convince supporters of the merits of their proposed work. But the reasons for the location may have nothing to do with careful logic since the reasoning often comes ex post facto on the heels of an emotional decision.
Confession coming. I've been a church planter. I get how it works. We lived in post-communist Prague for the better part of a decade. While receptivity was initially great, the wells dried up quickly. But as for living in a beautiful, world-class city, it's hard to beat a place like Prague.
It's much easier to be sold and to sell others on living and working in a beautiful, exciting city than on starting a church in an unattractive location. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there's a reason why certain people—and certain places—get more attention than others. Passing the eye test may be subjective, yet the wow factor is undeniable.
Living on the West Coast as I now do, I've encountered a fair number of church planters both from my own tradition and others. When given the chance to choose their own location for a church plant, they often seem more attracted to San Francisco or Los Angeles than to Fresno, Madera or Stockton. Do we really have to ask why? All are cities in California, yet the first two just have the "it" factor. It's more fun to be in San Fran than in Stockton. LA has way more cache than Fresno. It's no secret as to why. Yet the difficulty of planting a church in the exciting locations is far more difficult than in the unexciting, inland cities.
The emotional brain steers many church planters in the wrong direction. Since church planters often pick their own target location, they tend to pick based on a romanticized idealism of the location. Being a church planter in Boston, Chicago, or Miami sounds far superior to small towns, suburbs, or ugly urban areas, and that is quite often what it boils down to. Rationality goes out the window and the emotional brain kicks in. People want what their emotions tell them they want.
Church planters need to step back and breathe deeply. They need to seriously ask themselves and their close advisers not just what sounds appealing but what locations give them the best chance for success. The answer might be surprisingly boring. If the priority is the growth of God’s Kingdom, however, then this kind of redirection should be welcome.
A dozen or so years ago, we were considering church planting at the invitation of a church-planting coach and colleague. He talked about all the great cities that needed church planters. I replied that I'd done church planting in one of the world's greatest cities and I knew how perilous that could be. Instead, I suggested that I'd consider planting a church in Nashville, an area where I grew up. He laughed at me, "There are already too many churches in Nashville. Why don't you go to one of these other amazing cities that need good churches?"
Underlying his rejection was romantic idealism. My emotional brain was supposed to be attracted to great cities for church planting. But I'd been down that path. To his credit, he has since apologized many times over. Why? Because within a couple years, a fellow named Dave Clayton started Ethos Church in Nashville. That new church has since blossomed into the largest Church of Christ in Nashville, with several thousand members in less than a decade.
Now to be clear, Dave Clayton was in a unique position to capitalize on a particular niche. But the success of his church demonstrates an important principle. A thriving church plant isn't about the romantic ideal of an attractive locale. It's about planting a church where you have support, connections and possibilities that launch you on a path toward success.
So step away from the emotional brain and the romantic idealism when planting a church. Slow down and listen to seasoned advice. Choose with logic rather than emotion. The most tempting selection can often be the most disastrous. Just remember The Bachelor.