Search

Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

Tag

Church Planting

Church-Planting Teams or Teams That Are Church Plants?

Christian community is supposed to be one of the most compelling testaments to the truth and power of the gospel[1]. Jesus made this clear when he prayed for the loving unity of his people which would prove to the world that he was in fact from the Father. And Paul time and again points to the community of believers – the local church – as the place in which the truths of the gospel become tangible, where the hidden wisdom and power of the word of the cross are put on display, even to the degree that the traditional hostility between Jew and Gentile disappears as both become one body through the cross-work of Christ applied by the Spirit.

This should greatly impact how we view the local church and how we do ministry. But in my experience, often the very thing that is supposed to testify to the gospel’s truth and power – the local church – is often left out of the mission the church has been given in a very crucial way. Especially, in the context of pioneer missions.[2]

This is not to say that the church as a missional institution or that an emphasis on creating community is neglected in pioneer missions, on the contrary, in the realm of Great Commission strategy the aim usually is church planting[3]. But in this quest to create communities of disciples, I fear that the greatest tool in that quest is being underutilized – and that is communities of disciples as a whole. This tool is in fact the very mechanism by which God’s mission is accomplished – the local church[4]. This is ironic, that the very thing missionaries hope to create is left out of the process in a way which I think is crucial for being a faithful witness and planting healthy churches.

Let me try to explain…

Church-Planting Teams

Wisely, the bulk of organized missions endeavours take place in the context of teams. These teams, which often have a leader or leaders who answer to an organization or sending church, serve to provide encouragement, accountability, safety, and equipping for the team-members engaged in the work of making disciples.[5]This is a good thing, but a good thing that is wasted and falls short of its full usefulness because while doing many of the things a local church does, it does not view itself as being a church nor does it intend to become a church. And these teams while seeking to do the work of the church often operate outside of obvious biblical categories for the way in which Christians organize themselves.

Missions teams will often gather weekly for prayer, for study in the word, for worship, for fellowship and sometimes even for communion – all of which are clearly things a local church does. But often a few crucial elements are missing – preaching is absent, while there are leaders there are not pastors per se, and while being evangelistic, intent on making disciples, this outreach is done “out there” and not in order to gather in. People are not invited to come and see the most compelling witness to the truth and power of the gospel, people are not invited to sit under the preaching of the word, people are not invited to observe the fellowship of a beloved, eternal family. And this is a tragedy.

The mission of the church gathered

God intended that we would not simply be individuals sent out from the church on mission but that we would be a church – a living institution that as one is engaged in the mission of Jesus. It is the church gathered, again, which displays the power of the incarnation, the wisdom of the gospel, it is a peopleand not merely persons who proclaim the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his light. Certainly the church goes out on mission into the world when it scatters, but the church also plays out crucial aspects of its mission to the world as a body gathered. We gather not simply in order to be equipped and encouraged to go and do mission “out there” but we gather as a means of doing mission “out there”.

Teams that are church plants

Teams are a good idea, biblical even, but there needs to be a shift in how we view these teams. Not “church-planting teams”, that is teams that plant churches, but rather teams who are in fact church plants! [6]

Churches plant churches by sending people to proclaim the good news, to gather believers in that good news around that news and its signs[7], and to build them up in walking according to that good news until they receive the full benefits promised in that good news in the age to come. The example we see most clearly in Scripture, namely in the ministry of Paul, is when a missionary is sent to a new city, he gathers believers, lives as one of them – a part of the local church – where he shepherds them, trains leaders and then while maintaining a relationship with those churches for their building up and encouragement, he moves on[8].

At this point, I think it is important to talk in practical terms about what I have in mind.

What if six or eight people went to a place with no gospel witness and they began to live life and they covenanted to gather together around the gospel and its signs? What if they appointed leaders tasked with building up the body of Christ for the work of the ministry, and they invited the world to come and see? This is what I have in mind when I speak of teams as church plants. I mean simply teams being sent as the seed of the church – as church plants themselves, doing what the church does.

When teams are church plants a group of Christians is sent to a gospel-needy place where in that place they begin simply to do what a church does, with all the traditional marks of a local church – right preaching, right use of the sacraments, and church discipline (formative and corrective). And as through their collective witness, by the Spirit’s power, people are added to their number, they are brought in and raised up, faithful men are taught and trained and after time another team breaks off and starts a new church in a new area. It may take longer for the church to become purely indigenous[9], but over the decades the church will, by God’s grace, more and more take the shape of the community in which it exists.

I want to argue that viewing missions teams as church plants, and using them as such, is right on multiple levels. Christians are supposed to gather themselves in local churches where they live out their calling together in a way that is visible to the world around them. All Christians, even missionaries, need not only sending churches, they need the local church.[10]And the unreached need healthy churches among them. They need communities formed and shaped by the gospel among them to point them to who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing.

Local churches are really the fruit of the gospel, they are organic institutions that take the shape of what God is doing in history. Therefore, a missionary team, a gathering of believers living on mission together, should take the shape of a local church. This is what the gospel they proclaim creates!

If anyone reads this, there are a few things I would like to come out of it. I wish that churches would support church plants to the farthest reaches of the world. I wish that weekly meetings of cross-cultural workers in gospel-needy places would begin to think biblically about what they actually are – churches- and would aspire to be this faithfully and fully. I wish that more missionaries would invite people to church, to their local gathering where the gospel is proclaimed and displayed. And I hope that from these church plants would come many, many more church plants.

So missionary, perhaps have a conversation with your teammates about how you view your team.

Churches, have a talk with the teams or individual missionaries you support.

Are we sending church-planting teams or are we sending teams that are church plants? I believe the difference between those two things is crucial.

 

 

 

 

[1]John 17:21,26; Ephesians 3:10;1 John 3:14

[2]By this I mean the work of taking the gospel to gospel-needy or unreached places or peoples

[3]Another conversation is how a “church” is often defined in these contexts

[4]By “local church” I mean a gathering of baptized believers who have devoted themselves to one another around the gospel proclaimed in Word, displayed in the sacraments, and lived out in discipline both formative and corrective

[5]In many cases the leaders are appointed using the qualifications for an elder found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1

[6]Two possible reasons this has not been done, in our era at least, is because of the fear that it will stifle rapid multiplication and lead to a church that is too dependent on foreign leaders. However, we must not allow fear of what could be, cause us to stray from what is faithful.

[7]Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

[8]1 Thessalonians 2:8-11, Acts 14:21-28; Acts 18:1-11,18; Acts 20:18

[9]The quest for independent, purely indigenous churches, while a well-intentioned corrective to the paternalism often seen in missions history, has certainly extra-biblical and in some sense idolatrous. Language should really be the only homogenizing factor in the life of a church.

[10]I would argue that the old, all-too-common attitude among missionaries which says “I’m a member of my sending church” grossly misunderstands what a church is and what a church does

As Long As It’s Green: a ministry lesson from my sad lawn

Where I live green grass is a prized possession. In fact, green grass, green trees, and the accompanying freshness to the air are rare things. The general lack of color and staleness can drive you to the point to where anything green is welcome.

This was my attitude toward my small lawn last year as summer was in the midst of its fury. Water is expensive, care takes time, but I tried. I went out every day and judicially watered. But as I did this, I noticed that grass wasn’t the only green thing growing. Other greens things were growing, weeds, some even with thorns. And I remember joking to my wife, “As long as it’s green, I’ll take it!”

Fast forward about six months. Portions of my lawn are green. From a distance you get that refreshing glimpse of life on the parched earth. But getting close you realize that I have a problem. There is very little grass. And one day as I was praying and watering my weeds, I was struck with the danger of having this same attitude in ministry, to look at my church or the pioneer field I have been called to and think, “As long as it’s green!”

How did my lawn get to the place of being green but unhealthy? Filled with weeds and thorns?

I) I was looking for the wrong results

I was more concerned with my lawn appearing green, than I was with the health of my grass. Perhaps if I done the patient work of nurturing the health of the grass there would have eventually been little place for the weeds. In my desire to see green I failed to see that the long-term goal was not greenness but the health of the grass.

So also in ministry we fall into the mistake of seeking the green rather than seeking the grass. We are content as long as there are results. The problem is that what we judge as results may not be what they appear from a distance. The seats may be full on Sunday, but is discipleship happening? Churches may be multiplying rapidly, but is conversion unclear? People may be excited, but is their excitement based on any kind of doctrinal depth? People may be caring, but is there a disturbing lack of holiness?

I have seen many pastors and missionaries so desperate for any results that they have essentially redefined what the goal of ministry is. They have veered from a biblical understanding of the gospel, of conversion, of discipleship, of the church – all because they just want some results, some green. Much like I redefined what a healthy lawn looks like, because I just wanted a green patch in a desert place.

The other thing, which relates to ministry, that led to the demise of my lawn was…

II) I wasn’t doing the difficult work of weeding

Out of fear of the bare spots that would show, the brown, parched earth that would be exposed, I left those weeds and continued to nourish them in their growth as weeds. As a result the good work of watering was actually being wasted. I was spending time and money to maintain something that would eventually rob my lawn of its health.

So also in ministry, we can end up encouraging the growth of weeds by failing to slow down and do the painful, patient work of persevering in faithful preaching and discipleship. Sometimes ministry is as much about weed clearing as it is grass growing. As the word of God is faithfully preached, the gospel is clearly heralded, and the hard work of discipleship is maintained, this may lead to many green sprigs proving to be nothing more than weeds. This can be one of the hardest and most heartbreaking aspects of ministry, but it is there and it is real. And we must not allow the pain and the desire for “green” to lead us to jettison what it is that we have been called to do.

The bottom line is that because of my desire for a quick and easy green lawn, I didn’t do the patient, dirty work of weeding and ultimately is was because I was looking for the wrong results. And the end result was something that was green, but unhealthy. The grass was nearly no more.

So what are some ways to avoid this sad result:

  1. Don’t assume that results indicate good practices

One of the biggest lies propagated by missionaries and church planters is that results (whatever that may be defined as) indicate good practices. Just because something is green does not mean it is healthy. So you may have planted 10 churches that have planted 30, which have planted 90. What are you calling a church? What are you calling a member of that church? And how did it come about? One of the greatest tragedies in missions is that the wisdom of God has been jettisoned and the Scriptures have been abused in order to justify the unbiblical means which bring about these “results”. Stick to what God has told you to do without twisting the Scriptures in order to justify your pragmatism.

 

  1. Do the nurturing work of meaningful discipleship

There is no short-cut to a healthy ministry. I have seen ministries that will point out how this generation wants everything now, without even realizing how much that has permeated their approach to ministry. New programs and better music may not be bad things, but they can’t replace the slow and steady work of discipleship. Don’t mistake leadership ability or willingness to lead a Bible study as an indication that someone is ready for either of those things. Know those that you minister to, know whether they are “grass or just green” by spending time with them in the word, calling them to respond to it in loving response to the love of God. 

  1. The hard part: Don’t let what will damage the community remain

1 Corinthians 5 contains in it instructions for the difficult work of what to do when what is green turns out to be a weed. You remove it in the hope that it will return renewed, exhibiting the evidence of spiritual life. Many churches are active and full, but if you put it under the lens of Scripture you will see that there is little evidence of spiritual life. Paul warns that a little yeast effects the entire lump of dough, this is a call to carefully examine our ministries and the supposed fruit they are producing. And it is for love of souls and jealousy for God’s glory that we must not allow people to be deceived into thinking they are something they are not. That means inspecting who is brought into church membership and being willing to remove someone from that membership when their life lacks the evidence of being converted.

  1. Know what fruit (or grass in this case) is supposed to look like

This helps understand and define the last point that was made. We need to understand that a true disciple of Jesus exhibits their genuineness by their confession and life of  “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”. I think it is helpful to consider the words used in Romans 10. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (acknowledge rebellion and repent) and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (put all your hope in the cross-work of Christ) you will be saved.” There must be clear sorrow for sin, a desire to be free from it, and evidence in love and gratitude that the person is trusting in the Son of God alone for salvation.

  1. Understand what the objective is and be willing to engage in the long-term, consistent, prayerful labor that it will take to reach that objective

II Corinthians 2:15-17 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. 

II Corinthians 4:5 – “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” 

These are two very helpful texts for understanding our objective. Is the aim to make disciples, as we see in Matthew 28? Yes. To baptize and instruct? Yes. But the foundation of that is this understanding that Paul gives us. We speak Christ. We don’t manipulate, we don’t deviate, we don’t practice cunning. We simply, albeit foolishly, speak Christ. The objective is to make Christ known – beyond that is all in God’s hands. That is going to be one of the biggest things that keeps you from seeking the green above the grass, understanding the bounds of your ability and responsibility.

I should have understood that the objective was not a green lawn, but the sowing and maintaining of the grass. So also in ministry we must understand that our objective is not what only God can do, but what God has given us to do. Understanding that will help us focus, despite the results, on what God has given us to do rather than wasting time and doing damage trying to replicate what only God can do. 

Just because something looks alive doesn’t mean that it is. You have to look at its fruit and its leaves. When someone says their ministry is bearing a lot of fruit maybe they need to ask “what kind? What are we calling fruit? Is it grass or just anything that is green?

But, before I close this post, I must say on the flip side that it could be that your yard is just brown (metaphorically speaking), because there is no care, no urgency – just plain ministerial laziness. Laziness is just as or more dangerous than is pragmatism.

This is an exhortation to faithful attendance to what God has given us to do. It could be that you “lawn” will be brown all your life due to many factors outside of your control. I have this one section of that same sad lawn that just stays dry and brown no matter how much I seed it and water it. And it is in that situation in ministry that understanding your responsibility as a worker in God’s vineyard is so important! You pour out your life like sprigs on the dry ground, you water, you pull up weeds, you water some more, but you can’t control what the soil is like. You can’t give the miracle of life. You can just supply the material and that is all you are called to do. Understanding this is crucial, lest you find yourself longing for anything that is green, smiling and rejoicing in a patch of thriving weeds and thorns.

Field of Dreams: A Church Planting Approach

The question the past year had crossed my mind, “Why do I put all the work into a Friday morning Equipping Class[i] that only four or five people are going to attend?” The very reason I ask myself that question is because it seems like such a waste of time. Other questions could be asked, “Why have the structures and formalities of membership procedure that we have when there are only twenty-one members? Why stand up and preach when there is only 15-40 people in the room?” Even more questions could be asked, but my answer, by now, is always going to be the same.

We all know the famous line to the classic movie Field of Dreams. “Build it and he will come”. Basically, James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta get Kevin Costner to build a baseball diamond. Costner, as Ray Kinsella, has faith that Jones is right, if he builds it people will come and so it is. Going back then to the question of why I am doing so much with a church so small is because of the “Field of Dreams” approach to church planting. This is not a pragmatic method. It is not some proven strategy. It simply a matter of faithfulness, a matter of exercising the means that God uses to grow and build up his church.

We gather each week in a room big enough to hold a hundred with the hope and prayer that there will be a hundred. We have classes to equip the few in hopes that they may equip the many. By God’s grace alone, I strive to prepare my sermon the same for fifteen people as I would for fifteen hundred people. On and on the examples could go.

It feels exhausting sometimes and the immediate return causes one to consider whether or not it is worth it. I am not delusional. We are not trying to play “big church”, but are simply trying to be church, God’s vehicle for his mission of redemption, the vessel of his truth, the trumpet of his kingdom, the fold of his sheep, and the display of his wisdom and glory.

This way of viewing the little flock I have been given charge of is shaped by the conviction that God grows his church through his church. And on top of that, the growth is his doing through the faithful ministry of the pastors and members of that church. Faithful ministry is that which plans for great things, while leaving the great things to God. Faithful ministry is that which endures through seasons of fruitlessness with confident rest in the fact that God has established this church for the purpose of making known his glory through the proclamation of the Gospel in our community, giving us good reason to hope that there are many sheep who must be brought into the fold. We hope and pray that the harvest will be great, so we prepare the barns. We prepare the ark of Christ for all of the chosen to come and escape the storm, where they can be protected, fed, and sustained. The local church is to be a hopeful, eschatological entity that looks forward with confidence in the Gospel and the power of the Spirit and plans for the harvest.

So we do. We have been planted in this needy, Gospel-impoverished city by God for his glory. He has us here for a reason. Therefore, we preach to the twenty like there are a thousand. We hold equipping classes for the five like there are fifty. And we pray like we are an army. We conduct ourselves in a way that says that we expect more. We are not trying to be “too big for our britches”, we are trying to make britches big enough so that we may be what God can and may choose to make us.

I once heard Tim Keller say that we should preach every week as if non-believers are in the audience and eventually they will be. So I have made this my practice. It is awkward at times, as I gaze across the godly faces of the people in the room. I proclaim the Gospel, calling for people to repent and believe in Jesus. Why? Because in the intimacy of our little group I hear the voice of James Earl Jones whispering, “Steve… People will come, Steve.”

I believe that. I believe that because churches, proclaiming the Gospel, are God’s method of increasing the Kingdom. I believe it because the Word we proclaim is alive and active. So when I labor all week to prepare classes and sermons for so few, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time. We are building.

My job is to be faithful to build. And the fact the Lord tarries and that he is at work in the world through his church in the great task of gathering a people for himself gives me confidence that if we build it, people will come.

 

 

[i] That is what we call our “Sunday School” or adult education classes at Immanuel Fujairah

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑