Monday, November 05, 2007

Church Planting: Defining Terms

Last week one of my students asked a pointed and challenging question.

“Is church planting the only method to reach a community for Christ?”

His question was born out of the reality that he is working in culturally restrictive community. People in his region are identified by their religion, not as a faith but as a part of their cultural distinctiveness. Even if people become followers of Christ they will not openly declare their faith due to the prohibitions placed on them by society. Acknowledging openly that they are followers of Jesus does not just affect the convert but brings shame on the family which can lead to ostracism, financial ruin, even death. With the reality of such circumstances perhaps the emphasis on church planting within evangelical circles should be revisited.

Church planting, of course, is not a biblical phrase. Putting the pieces together of the Great Commission, i.e. taking the Gospel to all the world, make disciples, baptizing, teaching, meeting as a community of believers, over the centuries a model, called church planting, has evolved. Pentecost produced a hierarchy of apostles and deacons; Paul throughout Asia left leaders in the wake of his evangelism and then he wrote letters to local congregations (Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, etc.). No one I know believe these early congregations purchased land, erected places for meetings, started schools, orphanages or became organized in faith groups (denominations or fellowships).

The evolution of Christianity is a mixed bag of believers who took their faith throughout the world through the circumstances of war, famine, persecution, commerce and organized proselytizing. Protestants became active in the GC a little over 300 years ago. Most of the early workers were translators, explorers, medical workers and educators. From their efforts indeed people did come to faith in Christ and congregations of believers assembled. Most evangelicals today wouldn’t have supported the pioneers of the past, like David Livingston, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, because they weren’t church planters as we think of presently.

So what is church planting today? They are perceived as people who go into a city or village, preach, baptize and disciple followers of Christ. They also buy land, build church buildings and, theoretically, turn over the local leadership to nationals. This model works well where there are no restrictions on expatriates and there are no religious constraints on national church workers.

But what if a national or expatriate Christian is unable to serve in the traditional model of church planting today? What if they are living in a religiously restricted area and must work as a teacher or is contracted to do social work with a NGO? And, what does the traditional model have to say about those who hear the Gospel but are not yet ready or able to be incorporated in a traditional church plant?

Perhaps it’s time for us to revaluate our terms. While the function of church planting may be the same, the form, method and model should be as contextual as our message and discipleship. A church planter, as well as the convert, will look different in every context. Church planting is not the issue, but rather how we perceive what that means in today's complex and diverse world.