Thursday, April 19, 2007

Church Planting Challenge

I’m presently working through a book entitled, “The Shaping Of Things To Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church.” I think most people like books if they (a) are not redundant of common themes, (b) provide new insights and (c) are generally in the same ballpark of their own philosophy or thinking. This current reading coincides with my own thoughts on the institutional church and the traditional church-planting model.

As I stated in a recent post, sometimes I believe that the church and missionaries are stuck with the old paradigm of CP, i.e. evangelism, collecting the believers in one locality, buying land, building a structure, filling those structures with church stuff, etc. Authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch label this the “attractional” model: build it to attract outsiders and they will come (also know at the Field of Dreams syndrome). The author’s, in contrast, suggest a better way, the “incarnational” model, which begins with reaching people with the message of Christ and from that a fellowship of believers group together, which may not look anything like the institutional church today.

Most missiologist understand the concept of incarnation and/or indigenous principles. The problem is that many, in spite of supporting the incarnational philosophy, seldom execute this model and instead revert back to the traditional CP of the past. Why?

Church planters feel a need to quantify what they do as a defined by ministry activity. When I moved to Kenya I raised support as a pioneer church planter. Following the pattern of the traditional way, I sent reports to our donors on our activities. I learned language, visited people in the villages, found a meeting place for Sunday services and eventually churches were planted. Accountability is important and people who support traditional missions expect there be a return on investment. We bought land, erected church buildings (mud or concrete blocks) established a training program and we were very successful. I was the epitome of a classic pioneer church planter.

In my role today I teach in traditional schools and training programs. My students are equipped with theology, evangelism methods and discipleship programs and at the end of their training are sent out, expected to plant churches using the attractional model. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Every national I have ever taught feel that their greatest need is having enough funds to build it (church, school, orphanage), so they (the lost) will come. In spite of my best efforts to convince otherwise they are stuck in that model? Again, why?

I think it’s partly due to the fact that no one quite understands how to organize an incarnational church plant. The truth is, it can’t be done. It’s my belief, and I would think Frost and Hirsch world agree, that a truly incarnational church shouldn’t be organized, at least not in the traditional sense. Once the leadership tries to harness a movement it loses the dynamics of being indigenous. Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I was invited to speak at a large church in Cleveland. I was impressed with the facilities…forty acres of land, large meeting place for corporate worship, etc. The pastor gave me the history of the church and said that he was a drug addict when he was introduced to the Gospel message. He told me that after his conversion he and his girlfriend started telling others in the inner city about this Jesus who had transformed their lives. He told me that for years they were just a rag-tag group of converted addicts and prostitutes telling others about the Savior. One day they incorporated and he told me, over 15 years ago, that he was worried that they had lost their edge. I’ve heard that over the years the congregation has struggled with the same things that plague every traditional church -- finances, personnel problems, transfer of membership, etc. This group of redeemed potheads started out incarnational, they became one of many traditional congregations trying to attract others into their assembly. Ministry to the inner city became organized outreach rather than spontaneous and incarnational telling others about Christ.

The church today is a business enterprise and has all the trappings of product. Whether it is books to market, discipleship material to promote or capital campaigns to finance a new and improved worship center, going into all the world requires a business plan. The secret disciples of Christ in a Tajikistan village cannot be measured; the underground church in Laos cannot be identified. Somehow, it is thought, we must rescue these people from anonymity, expose them, promote them, and put up a building for them. It’s only when the product is packaged appropriately that it can truly be called church planting.