I had an experience much earlier in my life that reminds me, metaphorically speaking, of church planting.
My experience took place in the late 70’s at Kentucky State Prison. I was there to visit one of the chaplains at the prison who was supported financially by the church I served. KSP was a foreboding institution – dark stone made up its façade and, once inside, it felt primitive and scary.
Entry to the institution involved presenting yourself at the entry desk, showing I.D., an occasional pat-down, and then approval to enter the prison. A few steps away was a one-person sally port. Once inside the little chamber, the entry door slammed shut and the exit door opened. The next passage was a screen door which ushered you on to the hill and the general prison population.
The experience was jarring. Nothing stood between me and the prisoners milling around in the courtyard, surrounded by high walls and guards on towers with guns. A short distance across the courtyard was the chapel – my destination.
In this metaphor, the prison is life in general. It is where people live with all their limitations and struggles. Outside the prison is where many Christians prefer to live. It is the church campus. It is the place where they feel the most insulated from the messiness of life inside the prison.
Church planting is the act of leaving the sunny, neat world outside and intentionally going inside the prison. Entry is gained by presenting oneself at the entry desk, which could be little league baseball, a local business, a coffee shop, or any of a number of other places where the “inmates” gather. The pat-down occurs in human interaction and the demonstration of warmth and cooperation.
Passage through the sally port and the screen door occur over coffee, volunteering for service, and preferring the company of those “inside” rather than those outside the prison. Passage occurs as you drop religious jargon and gesture in preference for the lingua franca of the prisoners.
An individual who elects to enter the prison is eventually accorded great trust and respect. Why? Because entrance is an act of love. It requires uncommon commitment and perseverance to go inside the prison where you are not safe, life is rude and uncertain, and life can’t be controlled. Going inside requires courage and faith.
I have seen this metaphor enacted repeated by a friend of mine. He has not always been my friend. At one time he was aloof and uncommunicative, but now he shares his life, his stories, and even the latest movie he rented. He is an atheist, but that is no barrier inside the prison. Only those living outside are insulated and isolated from conversation with a wide variety of people.
I can’t imagine “being” anywhere else but inside the prison. In many ways it seems like the most authentic of experiences. There is no pretense inside because everyone knows who and what they are. Not only that, prisoners, weary of the struggle, are often the most open to possible solutions to their dilemma whatever that may be.
The church planter is not needed outside although it is perceived to be the safest place to be. Free of risk, predictable, and controlled, outside can actually be more dangerous than inside. I would counsel new pastors to consider the joys of investing their training, passion, and knowledge of Jesus inside where it is desperately needed and sought.
Look for the sally port.