church planting in the NT

The New Testament knows nothing of this language of “church planting.”

Huh. That might be a shock for some.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge advocate for church planting and for missional leadership. Ah! There is a clue. But how did we get from partnering with God on mission.. something that most of us will identify with a New Testament perspective.. to this language of “church planting.” What are the real differences anyway? What biblical anchors do we find, and how might that impact this perspective and language we use so commonly?

I don’t have time to work through a formal study. These thoughts came yesterday and they are really only an outline. For what it’s worth, here they are.

I think “church planting” language and practices were largely birthed in modernity in a technocratic frame. It was about intentionality; it was about church growth based on the whole sociology of the movement; it was about evangelism and church extension. By virtue of this latter item it was often “cloning” and colonial (resistance is futile!)

Essentially, church planting in modernity was an ecclesial movement more than a kingdom movement. It was a Christendom frame. It was centered on the church and not on God’s mission. And it tended toward the narrowness we have mostly critiqued to death – personal salvation, individual conversion, without a broader framework for the gospel and God’s work in redemption. One only has to read Missional Church or Stormfront or The Shaping of Things to Come or be familiar with the work of NT Wright to fill in the details here.

So where do we start today to talk about “church planting?” What anchors can we use for a missional frame here?

One could begin with Isaiah 42 and Isaiah 61, then move to Luke 4. The issue is partnering with God in His mission. What is God’s heart for the world? We see the heart of the Father in the life and work of Jesus. He heals the blind, heals the sick, delivers the oppressed from demons, and declares the good news of God’s covenant love to the poor. He also faithfully upholds the seasons and cares for the birds of the air. He then commissions his followers and anoints them with the Spirit to carry on his work. Let me try a Trinitarian statement:

“Church planting” is a work of the Spirit in forming new communities (a new humanity) as we partner with the Father in his mission of re-creation by lifting up Jesus.

A lot more could be said.. maybe you would like to say it :)

city church, soil and rhizomes

Every once in a while previous thoughts return, fall into place in a larger puzzle, and a new picture emerges. Sometimes the picture is evolutionary – sometimes it seems different enough from a previous image that it is revolutionary… It turns previous conceptions on their head. This happened to me on Saturday morning as I was thinking about churches.. and Church.. in our city.
In botany, a rhizome (from Greek: ῥίζωμα “rootstalk”) is a characteristically horizontal stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes may also be referred to as creeping rootstalks, or just rootstocks.

A mushroom is a node that grows out of rhizomic network. It appears suddenly overnight where no life was obvious, because the underground stock is flourishing. The thin and spidery web that supports this type of fungus can exist for tens of yards, without any surface manifestation. You walk in the evening and you see only green grass. The next morning you see the visible manifestation of the underground life. It flourishes for a day or two, then disappears as suddenly and mysteriously. Yet the hidden network remains, and may even be growing and expanding.

Is it possible that in focusing on particular visible manifestations of ecclesial life we have missed the importance and meaning of the underground network, that continues to live even when particular nodes disappear? We see a church community die and assume it is a death. But could it be that the temporary manifestation of life we call “church of xyz” is not the substance, but something like a “node.”

The structures that support organized life and ministry are fluid and change. The average life span of any local and organized church in 1st Temple or 2nd Baptist may be 20 years. That seems long to us, but in the ongoing life of the city or town it isn’t so great. So this node exists in a neighborhood and through its physical structures on the corner of Maple and Mars, it works and scatters seed, then disappears. It falls back into the soil from which it came, and the seed is scattered, reappearing in another node somewhere else with a new name and new leaders.

This is more than “the circulation of the saints.” Something much more is happening here. But it is obscured by other dynamics. Read the rest of this entry →

An Overdue Book Update

We realize the Amazon.com info special-delivery_canada for the book isn’t very helpful to those attempting to discern when they can actually get their mitts on a copy of the book.

Fortunately, after a string of unfortunate technical errors and formatting issues, it seems the printer now has the book set up as they need it, and the first batch of copies are — finallyhot off the press.

Watch for news that they’ll be shipping this week!

In the meantime, you can order your copy from Amazon.

leadership in new churches

I was sitting with a brother who mentors church planters, both in Canada and in Europe. He was concerned too many agencies have continued to clone American models rather than allowing the new works to be shaped uniquely by the Holy Spirit in response to unique contexts. The first question church planting agencies often want to discuss is governance. Who is in control? How does leadership function? What structures are in place?

I was reminded of the “wine and wineskin” analogy in Matthew and Luke. It seems like we want to give priority to the wineskin – perhaps familiarity gives us a sense of security. Sometimes perhaps we don’t genuinely trust God or the people he anoints for the work, so we want control. Maybe it gives us a sense of usefulness, or justifies our position, to maintain that level of input from some centralized office. Cynical perhaps?

Wherever we come out on this, it seems to me that it is simply naive to expect that we can take Florida oranges and grow them in Port Rupert, or in Saskatoon. We have to be sensitive to the soil. We need more than good strategies and more than models that have worked well in the past. We need to become genuinely open to following the movement of the Spirit in each neighborhood. In the outstanding little book The Open Secret Leslie Newbigin expressed it best: “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decision about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources” [rather] the significant advances have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge.”

In short, our best planning won’t suffice. Instead, we should focus on preparation. Our best strategies will often fail, based on what has worked in the past; we live in a new world. So what are the unique factors we should pay attention to as we plant new churches?

* Place – or Context. What is unique in this soil? We exegete our neighborhoods, listen to the stories.
* Purpose – or Telos. Where do we want to end up? What is God’s purpose in the church? How does ecclesia relate to the Missio Dei?
* People – What is God’s provision for this place in the gifts he has given in people? Ministry and mission are incarnational.
* Pneuma – Spirit. Mission involves discerning what God is up to in our communities then partnering with him. It also means priority to wine over wineskin. Form should not be imposed and structure should follow the mission.

These 4 P’s will help us to allow God to uniquely shape the work he will do in each new location. We don’t need to clone more churches. Every biologist knows that cloning gradually reduces genetic diversity until we lose the ability to adapt to new environments. We gradually lose something we can no longer replace. In Mission Shaped Church the authors write,

“The Anabaptist writer and practitioner, Stuart Murray Williams, has been the most trenchant critic of the tendency of older church plants to copy the outward forms and style of their sending church, without asking whether the new mission context was different. This can result in failure to let the shape and form of the new church be determined by the mission context for which it was intended. The call for new kinds of churches can become subverted into the production of MORE churches.” (20)

While this captures the method and the need to exegete culture, it needs to move one step further to explicitly recognize the creativity and freedom of God the Spirit. New initiatives will not be unique simply because of the new context, but because God is endlessly creative. And if we allow the Spirit the freedom to move among us, he will continually surprise us. The uniqueness of new initiatives will rise in large measure from the unique persons who compose the living body, from their unique gifts, perspectives, passions and relationships. As William Cavanaugh aptly put it, “We are God’s body language.”

It is simply wrong-headed to place questions of leadership or governance up front when planting new churches. Rather, we should let forms rise out of the unique matrix of people, place, and purpose in each location. The wine will shape the skin. Jesus is the living Lord of the church and he will build his church as he sees fit. We need to trust the Spirit to do this work, and trust the workers he calls into the field.

Related: Governance in the New Testament

Fresh and Re:Fresh is…

Fresh and Re:Fresh is the story of twelve Canadian church planters from Vancouver to Montreal. In their own words they describe the challenges of cultivating new faith communities in Canadian soil. As church planters and urban and suburban missionaries, they reflect on the context of pluralism, the relation of church and kingdom, describe the spiritual traditions and practices they embrace, the networks that support them, and the challenges of missional engagement in their communities.

Fresh and Re:Fresh also engages the mentors of church planters. These men and women reflect on the changing cultural landscape, and describe the new challenges faced by church planters as they seed kingdom outposts. They also consider the specific skills needed by mentors and spiritual friends of church planters in the unique soil of post-Christendom Canada.

Finally, Fresh and Re:Fresh tells the stories of some Canadian churches in transition. Established communities of faith face particular challenges as they attempt to move attractional to incarnational, from an isolated and inward stance to neighborhood and community engagement for the purpose of transformation.

If you would like to read some short excerpts you may download this PDF document.


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