Monthly Archives: September 2013

Church Planting: Radically Re-inventing the Church

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Recently I’ve been reading the book Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.  One of the things that they discuss quite a bit is Church Planting, and there was one section that I thought was so good I wanted to re-post it here.

Church planting is an opportunity to re-invent church along radical biblical lines.  Much of the New Testament demonstrates that this was so even within the first generation of the church.  It was the experience of planting churches among the Gentiles that led to the crucial gathering in Jerusalem (Acts 15).  It forced the church to recognize the radical implications of the death and resurrection of the Messiah for their own understanding of salvation and the people of God.

 

I know of a church planted by a large evangelical congregation that brought certain assumptions into the endeavor.  They created a staff team with a minister, assistant minister, student worker, pastoral workers, and an administrator.  They bought a church building and a home for the minister.  As a result they had an annual budget of around two hundred and fifty thousand pounds excluding start-up costs.  They are doing great work, growing and exploring new areas of ministry.  But if every church shares those assumptions, then most are not going to plant.  Such an approach is clearly beyond the reach of most congregations.  If past experience and tradition define what it means to be church, that will constrain church planting.  Or church plants may run the risk of being clones – copies of sending churches.  Unless we recognize this danger, church planting may in fact reduce missionary activity as smaller churches struggle to ape the programs of larger churches.

 

Often the main limitation to church planting is a failure of imagination.  People cannot imagine how church planting might be done or how church might be done differently.  People do not want to let go of the “success” their church has become.  This may be because some do not want the risk, effort, and discomfort that church planting involves.  But often it has more to do with their view of church.  We have a notion of what a “successful” church is, and this involves a certain level of staff, programs, and activity.  Church planting feels like it will involve letting this go, moving from success to lack of success.

 

We must not be driven by sociology or accommodate to our culture.  But we need to take into account the new missionary situation in which we find ourselves.  In the UK, broadly speaking, 10 percent of the population attend church regularly on a normal Sunday; 10 percent are fringe members, attending once every couple of months; 40 percent are “dechurched,” having lost contact with church within their lifetime; and 40 percent have never attended church apart from the occasional rite of passage.  This new missionary context requires new approaches.  Church planting cannot involve the uncritical replication of existing models.  Church planting should be at the forefront of new ecclesiological thinking…Through mission the church can break free from external conformity to culture and internal conformity to tradition to rediscover the vitality of the gospel.  Church planting is crucial to the health of the wider church.  Good church planting forces us to re-ask questions about the gospel and church, to re-invent churches that are both gospel-centered without religious tradition and relevant without worldly conformity.

 

There need be no second-generation churches if the church is constantly reconfiguring itself through church planting.  Second-generation “Christians” are those without their own living experience of the gospel.  Second-generation churches are those who have lost their gospel cutting edge.  It may be that a fiftieth church anniversary is not an occasion to celebrate the faithfulness of God but to lament the stagnation of his people.  Far from weakening a sending church, church planting is a vital opportunity to refocus the life of the church on the gospel.  The identity of the sending church should radically change.  It cannot continue as the same church or repeat the same program.  It must look again for new leaders to emerge.  It must ask all over again how it will reach its neighborhood with the gospel.

(Chester & Timmis, pgs. 94-96)

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First Day @ The Mighty Fortress

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This past Monday was my first day of class at Concordia Seminary.  The past two months of test prep and paperwork have been building to this:  the start of the academic year.  Like orientation, it was a cross-cultural experience for me.  While my lectures were pretty straightforward, it was chapel service that was the biggest surprise.

After the opening music played everyone stood up, grabbed a book out of the back of the pew in front of them and began opening the pages.  Before I knew it the whole congregation was reading and chanting in response to the words of the chaplain.  They stood or sat on cue.  Prayed and sang on cue.  The whole time I was lost, flipping through pages wondering how everyone knew where to look and stealing glances over the shoulder of the person in front of me to find the page numbers.

That’s right, they were using the Lutheran Service Book.  I am ashamed to admit that this was the first time I had ever used one in a service.  I’ve seen these volumes sitting on the shelves of pastors and worship leaders and occasionally heard reverent references to the letters LSB, but I’ve never worshipped using one.  My home church has always projected the liturgy up on a screen as a way of helping newcomers follow along and to facilitate more audible congregational singing.  So using LSB was a surprise and a little disorienting.  I was so busy turning pages and trying to keep up that I really couldn’t focus on what was being said or the meaning behind it.  I’ll be honest, I walked out of chapel feeling frustrated and a bit ashamed.

Now that a few days have passed I’ve had some time to reflect on that experience a bit and here is what I’ve come away with.  On the one hand, I’m glad I had that experience.  After all, I am at a Lutheran school to learn about the rich history and heritage of our denomination as well as its theological underpinnings.  I’m proud to say that by day two of chapel I figured out LSB and could follow along with the rest.

On the other hand, though, it reminded me of just how disorienting walking into church can be for those who have never been raised in a Christian home nor come from a churched background.  The sense of isolation and disorientation that I experienced is just what so many people outside of the church feel when they walk in our doors.  It was a powerful reminder that we cannot assume that everyone is like us.  Not everyone was raised in our traditions.  Not everyone comes from the same background.  And if we want to reach those outside the church, we must give careful attention to how we articulate and explain our faith.

This goes not just for our worship services, but extends into every area of life.  Too often we Christians use a kind of religious language that is foreign to others.  We don’t pause to ask ourselves, “Am I explaining the truth in a way that it can be heard?  Am I taking into account my hearers so that my language doesn’t become a barrier to the Gospel?”  Now, I’m not suggesting that we water down the truth of the Gospel nor that we dodge the difficult subjects.  I don’t think we would be faithful to our calling as witnesses if we did.  What I AM suggesting is that we should give careful thought to how we present our faith.

The apostle Paul was an excellent example of this.  It is fascinating to compare how he talked about Christ with Jewish and Gentile audiences.  For his Jewish listeners he would take them to the Scriptures and highlight how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that we find there.  For his Gentile listeners, however, he did not start with the Scriptures.  He started with philosophy, poetry, or natural revelation (see Acts 14:8-20 & Acts 17:16-34).  He was doing what missionaries call “contextualization”.  He started with where his audience was at spiritually and presented the Gospel from there.  This is why he says,

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

(1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV)

Paul understood that our religious traditions and ways of speaking can, at times, be a hindrance to the work of the Gospel if they prevent people from hearing it in a way that they can understand.  Chapel was a powerful reminder of this lesson.

So, while I look forward to future chapels so that I can learn more about our tradition, I also hope that Seminary will be a time of giving careful consideration to how we might reach the next generation for Christ.  This was what was promised in our orientation last week.  This is what I hope we will pursue over the next several years.  May we learn to be all things to all people so that by every means we may save some.  To God be the glory. Amen.

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The Church Hunt: “Where is Scripture Being Studied?”

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This post continues the series “The Church Hunt”, which began this past week with the question:  “Where can I find community?”  This series summarizes insights from Rich Lamb’s book Following Jesus in the “Real World” and is based on a handout created by my former InterVarsity supervisor, Chris Swiney.

When searching for a church it is important to find one in which you can enter into and build community with fellow Christians.  But this is not the only thing that we should look for when choosing a church.  The second question that we must ask is, “Where is Scripture being studied?”  Here is what we mean:

Some degree of happy fellowship may exist in a church without a true sense of common convictions and common commitments.  Community itself should be based on a corporate life with God, including both prayer and Scripture study.  If there is no place in the church where Scripture is being studied in a way that can be transformative, then either you want to start that (if you plan to commit there) or else move.  Sermons on Sunday morning may be a part of the corporate Scripture element of the church, but hopefully not the whole thing.  Are people willing to spend time to study the Bible?  Is the Bible authoritative in people’s lives?

Many churches would like to have Bible study in small groups, Sunday school classes, or at other times.  Church leaders are not usually resistant to the idea of Scripture study but often have little idea about how to make it practical and accessible.  Often, the limiting factors are time and desire – people don’t value it enough to set aside the time.  You don’t need to think of yourself as the solution to the problem, but you can recognize that you may be part of the process.  If you desire to introduce your church to transformative Scripture study, then start small and invite people who will be willing to give the time it takes to do it right.  Over time this will win a hearing among others as people share about the experience they have.

Ultimately, if there is no hope for common Scripture study in the church you are considering, then what shapes that church is simply the opinion of its members.  If the church is not listening to God through his Word as a body, it would be better to keep looking for a church that is.

More than anything I think that this commitment to allow Scripture to guide the church is paramount.  Too many churches are led by the visions, plans, desires, or agendas of their pastors and leaders.  But churches that truly advance the Gospel and see lasting life change are those which draw their values, mission, and vision from God’s Word itself.  While community is great, community bound together by the Gospel is life-giving.  Anything less is simply a social club.

So what about your church?  Where are there places to study Scripture together with other believers?  How is Scripture taught and in what ways are people equipped to study God’s Word?

Let’s Do The Time Warp…

WARNING:  The following post is rated “Snarky” and may be inappropriate for people without a sense of humor.

I’m at orientation for Concordia Seminary and have realized while being here that I have entered a kind of time warp.  You see, they require different kinds of attire for various events during orientation and I’m realizing just how much of a language/learning gap I have.

When they say “church attire” I think this…

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But what they mean is this…

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Likewise, when they say “professional dress” I think this…

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But what they mean is this…

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Go figure…

*For the record I am wearing a suit and tie as I write this while the other guys are in slacks and polo shirts….oops…

 

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