The inspiration for many church plants grows oftentimes out of a desire to incorporate biblical values relating to evangelism, mission and giftedness. The underlying value behind all of this is the notion that for every believer, being evangelistic and missional should be both normal and natural, and that furthermore the role of the church should primarily be to empower believers to do just that. In this way the church can ideally live out Jesus’ missional notion of ‘going into all the world and making disciples’ (Matt. 28. 18-20).
Missional, Contextual and Incarnational
Before going too far, we need to define the major concepts of “missional, contextual and incarnational.” All too often these can become simply theological buzzwords that are over-used in church planting or theological contexts, and thereby lose all significance. Rather than going into major depth however I will simply offer a basic working definition of the three.
Missional takes its basis from the concept that the Trinity models mission. The saying is that “God is a missionary” and this is seen all throughout Scripture.
- God the Father—initiates communication to humanity; sent the Son into the world (John 3.34; 4.34; 5.36).
- God the Son—took on human flesh and came into the world as a servant (Phil. 2.5-11); also sent the Spirit into the world after his physical departure (John 14.15-25; 15.26-27).
- God the Spirit—the Advocate who came into the world; empowers the church for mission (Acts 1.8; John 16.12-15).
Thus the concept of being “missional” involves initiating contact and going out into the world to make disciples (Matt. 28.18-20). This is opposed to an “attractional model” of doing church: “if you build it, they will come.” However, increasingly this traditional approach simply does not work today, as Chester and Timmins bluntly put it:
“The vast majority of un-churched and de-churched people would not turn to the church, even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies…It is not a question of ‘improving the product’ of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events.”
(Chester and Timmins, Everyday Church, p.15).
Incarnational comes directly from the example set by Jesus. After taking on human flesh he “moved into the neighbourhood” (Jn. 1.14, The Message). Jesus himself modelled the concept that in order to minister effectively one must share real life with those to whom you are seeking to minister. He did not cloister himself away from the public gaze (like many a celebrity does today). He neither spent his time gathering resources in order to hold huge evangelistic and healing rallies to promote himself as a name brand (as many a televangelist does today!). Instead, he lived humbly and relationally with his friends and followers. Christians therefore should explore what it could look like to live their lives according to this model: in other words simply put, “we are Jesus” to the world.
Finally, contextual involves the notion of translating the gospel message from one culture or belief system into another, yet without losing, fundamentally changing or abandoning entirely its core essence. The early church in the book of Acts modelled this by successfully translating the gospel from a Jewish into a Gentile context without losing its essence. Issues such as observing laws within the Torah–such as the issue of certain dietary requirements, or whether or not male Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised–were jettisoned by the early church, as they were deemed non-essential.
Bishop Cray observes that “the early Christians did not remain culturally static, but quickly translated the gospel out of the original language and culture of Jesus, as the church was planted into non-Jewish cultures. The gospel can only be proclaimed within a culture, not at a culture.”
(Cray, Graham, Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context, p.87).
Leslie Newbigin ties the Trinity, and all three concepts of missional, contextual and incarnational, together. He states that mission “is the action of God by which he chooses and anoints the messengers of his reign. It is the work of the sovereign Spirit to enable men and women in new situations and in new cultural forms to find the ways in which the confession of Jesus as Lord may be made in the language of their own culture. The mission of the church is in fact the church’s obedient participation in that action of the Spirit by which the confession of Jesus as Lord becomes the authentic confession of every new people, each in its own tongue.”
(Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, p.20).
Thus for Christians today seeking to engage in mission, holding fast to a traditional “Christendom model” is increasingly less effective today, given that at its essence it involves what is termed an “attractional” approach to ministry. As noted above this involves the idea where one simply throws open the doors of a church and people will attend out of a sense of duty, familial commitment or–as in the past–legal obligation at the prompting of the state.
Such an attractional approach may have worked generations ago when Western culture was defined by its Judeo-Christian roots, historical background and ethics. Today, however, the reality is simply that, as Tennent points out, “The Western world can no longer be characterized as a Christian society/culture in either its dominant ethos or in its worldview.”
(Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century, p.19).
The question is: how have so many churches today found themselves still holding to an attractional model of mission? Let us look further into the inner workings of such an approach in order to discern how it all functions.
Traditional Church Models
Many Christians attend services in churches all over the world on a weekly basis, but oftentimes walk away from that service feeling quite a bit of guilt and shame. Why is this? By and large it is because they are consistently being told by some preacher or church leader that they are not ‘doing enough’ for God. The preacher informs them that they are not reading their Bibles enough, praying enough, or witnessing the gospel to their friends, relatives, neighbours and co-workers. Rather than being equipped and empowered, they tend to feel that they are badly letting down their church–and disappointing God also.
The irony of all this is, of course, that for many church leaders, they themselves aren’t doing any of these things either. Numerous church leaders are very busy doing “administrivia” throughout their typical work week. Oftentimes this is done in an attempt to keep the many ministries and programmes of the church going. The result is that even though they are leading the church, and are meant to set an example of missional engagement, they have little or no time to develop genuine relationships with nonbelievers (or, for that matter, with even their own church members!) Ironically, these leaders are in fact constantly haranguing their congregations to do the very things they aren’t even modelling as leaders! How has this situation been allowed to develop?
I believe that more than likely this has occurred out of a warped sense of expectations, both on the part of congregational leaders and congregations alike.
Whether or not they pay their leaders a salary, congregations tend to view their leaders as “ministry experts,” since quite often they have advanced degrees from theological schools or at least have some form of ministry experience. On this basis, churches expect their leaders to carry out “the real works of ministry.” This often involves leaders spending their time doing the following weekly tasks: attending a wide variety of meetings, dealing with building usage and maintenance issues, making sure ministries and programmes are carried out each week, budgetary and finance meetings, getting enough volunteers for ministries, pastoral counselling, and on and on it goes. This also explains why many leaders do not have the time to develop relationships with any nonbelievers, because they simply do not come into contact with any during the week. Even many church members report that in order to meet with the pastoral staff, one must book an appointment with the secretary! There is simply no time for relationship-building on any significant level.
In order to keep all of these plates spinning, many leaders not only routinely put in a 60-plus hour week at the office but also continue to receive telephone calls from members in the evenings and on weekends after work. It is well-documented statistically that many church leaders often burn out as a result of the overwork and physical and emotional stress due to the high pressure and demands of the profession. As a former pastor of nearly ten years myself, I can honestly state that in many cases being a church leader can be one of the most exhausting, thankless and unrewarding professions—often both financially and emotionally—in which one can be involved.
In fact I explore this very thing in my podcast series “Rock n’ Roll Soul: Reflections on Christianity, Ministry, and Theology” (available on The Preacher’s Forum iTunes feed, or on this site). In these episodes I share exactly what it is like to work in such a grueling and exhausting church ministry system.
Congregations reserve the right to sit back and criticise each and every decision made by their leaders, since they reason that technically the leaders work for them—on the basis that the people’s tithes pay their leaders’ salaries. However, in a strange twist, even though leaders are technically employed by the congregation, they are also their bosses! Relating it to the business world, it would be like an employee who pays the salary of her manager out of her own pocket, and yet reports to work each day to be told what to do by that same boss.
That is indeed bizarre, but that is exactly the situation in most churches. Therefore a peculiar situation can develop whereby leaders can make various decisions and try and tell the congregation what to do, but the congregation reserves the right to terminate that minister. This can result in a power struggle with the conclusion oftentimes being either a church split or the termination of a minister. Either way it happens, the end result is usually very ugly with a lot of collateral damage left behind.
Therefore, leaders of churches can find themselves in a very strange place—they have to manage the expectations projected upon them from the congregation that they need to produce “real results.” These results usually involve growing the church numerically, keeping all of the existing ministries going (and adding more also), getting members to help run those ministries and expanding the existing physical building as numbers increase.
Leaders, on the other hand, expect that as they work hard for this advancement of the church and its various ministries the congregation will “do its part,” which involves among other things: tithing faithfully so that salaries and expenses can be met, attending services consistently, maintaining and cleaning the physical building, and volunteering to work in various ministries (albeit under the management of leadership). If the congregation does not do these things, the leader feels that it is his or her job to harangue them to tithe, attend church regularly and to get involved in various ministry efforts.
In addition to these expectations, leaders tend to believe that it is their job to “motivate” the congregation to spiritual maturity, which involves living a better and more successful Christian life. In order to accomplish this goal leaders believe that they must act as the conscience of the members, reminding them consistently that they should be praying and reading their Bibles more and witnessing to their nonbelieving friends, neighbours, relatives and co-workers. Ultimately, however, evangelism in this framework gets defined as a “one-size-fits-all” type of approach. This puts the emphasis on church members building just enough of a relationship with a nonbeliever to the point where they invite that person to church.
In this model the primary focus for the member is simply for them to get that non-Christian into the pew or seat and the minister will do the rest. The paid professionals will therefore “seal the deal” once that nonbeliever actually gets in the door. Ultimately this is based upon what is termed an “attractional” missional focus, which as noted above involves a “build it and they will come” type of philosophy of ministry. Doing church this way means that the gospel is a product to be marketed, similar to a business selling products.
Leaders of such churches reason that if they can build a hip and cool enough church with a good worship band, relevant and interesting preaching, and (relatively speaking) welcoming people, then nonbelievers will want to attend and perhaps even become a Christian. If these criteria are not met or are done poorly, then the church services will most likely be considered boring and irrelevant. In this scenario even the people that do attend regularly may leave for the church down the street that offers all of those attractions. Certainly the church will not grow numerically, whether by transfer or conversion growth and there is every chance it may have to close its doors since it can no longer afford to pay its staff salaries and keep the lights and heat on.
Church Planting Values
In contrast to this very traditional picture of churches and how they tend to operate, churches perhaps should seek to do away with the trappings of traditional ministries in order to focus upon being missional. Rather than having typical overhead expenses such as staff salaries, crippling building maintenance costs and traditional ministry expenses, instead place value on such things as: building authentic relationships, developing the spiritual gifts and passions of people, and seeking to take responsibility for the area in which you are located.
Rather than spending much of the week attending meetings and “keeping ministry plates spinning,” we would rather free up the time (and money) for building authentic, genuine relationships with believers and nonbelievers alike. This allows for us to operate in the capacity of our gifts and also allows the leadership to model that behaviour for those interested in joining. Thus there need be no issues with the lack of leadership credibility that plagues so many traditional church models as mentioned above.
Biblically, there are three passages that must drive church planters forward. The first is the notion that Paul advances in Ephesians 4.1-16 that Christ appoints church leaders to equip believers to carry out the works of ministry in the capacity of their spiritual gifts. We feel that this “Ephesians 4 culture” should be the primary focus of church leadership.
As mentioned earlier, most traditional churches have this model exactly backwards—the leaders do most of the ministry work as paid professionals while the congregation only gets involved peripherally. Our goal is to ensure that we as leaders work primarily to empower believers to discover what their gifts are and help them to minister in that capacity. Mission will then flow out of that construct normally, naturally and organically.
Second is the concept found in 1 Cor. 12: that each part of the body ideally functions best when that part does what it has been designed by God to do. It is useless, says Paul, for the big toe to compare itself to the eye and to feel less important because it has a less glamorous role in the body. Neither is it good for the eye to look down on the big toe because it has that more “important” role.
Thus, if leadership is actively constructing an Ephesians 4 culture, what leaders should be investing their time, energy and resources in is in equipping believers to discover what their gifts and passions indeed are. In other words, if you are a big toe, be the best big toe you can be! In this way you will be far more relevant and missional if you are in the process of becoming who God made you to be. Our goal should be to help believers discover and nurture those gifts, and to gain a sense of significance and value because of what they are a part of.
Finally, third involves the view of evangelism put forth by Paul in 1 Cor. 3.5-7. He states that although he may have planted a seed and Apollos watered it, ultimately God was the one who made that seed grow. So, he says, neither planter nor water is anything, but it is God who brings forth the increase. These verses are foundational to evangelism, because this takes off the pressure for believers to “seal the deal” and make that hard sale evangelistic approach. Every Christian can be a seed-planter or one who waters that seed, but ultimately we need to leave the matter in God’s hands.
Another key observation that Paul simply assumes is that believers will be involved in either planting the seeds of the gospel or watering that seed as a normal and natural extension of one’s Christian life. Relating this concept to the above passages concerning spiritual gifts, believers should discern and discover one’s potential as a seed-planter or one who waters the seed planted by somebody else.
Jesus said in a parable in Mark 4.26-29 that the kingdom was just like a farmer scattering seed in a field. Exactly how that seed grows is a mystery to the farmer, and it really does not matter at all to the ultimate outcome. The point is that when the harvest is ready, it is incumbent upon that farmer to grab his sickle and be ready to bring in the crop. Therefore we have responsibilities as believers to plant and to water, and also to be ready to lead people to Christ if the opportunity presents itself—but this is God’s domain really. Paul states in Col. 4.2-6 that while we should certainly pray for our nonbelieving friends we also must live a life “seasoned with salt.” To interpret the metaphor, it means that our lives should be an example of what a believer should look like. It also assumes that we are living real lives in the real world. Christians trapped with the so-called “Christian bubble” have no opportunities to engage meaningfully with non-believers and so live out these values.
One significant aim, therefore, would be to build authentic relationships (primarily with nonbelievers) in order to plant, water and possibly harvest, but we cannot stress about who is doing what, and at which time—we have to leave the results up to God and be ready to do as and when the Spirit leads.
Church Planting Vision
Based upon these basic values, we believe that the simplest and most natural activity for us to be doing is simply to build genuine and authentic relationships with nonbelievers and believers alike. Nothing has to be forced—just be true to yourself, get involved in the things you love to do, and look for opportunities to build relationships as you do those activities. Whether it involves playing sports on a local team, playing music in a band, going to the pub with mates from work, having friends and neighbours over for a meal, or any number of normal and fun activities, these are opportunities to build lasting relationships and to have fun at the same time! It need not be much more complicated than that.
The underlying vision operating here is that as you build relationships with nonbelievers, you are accomplishing a few things. First of all as they find out you are a Christian, but aren’t some sort of Bible-bashing fanatic, you are communicating the clear message that Christians can in fact be normal and fun people. That in itself is a huge message that needs to be heard today, especially in light of all the extreme positions Christians tend to adopt in Western society today. This has tended not only to divide the church but also alienates nonbelievers from wanting to be a part of organised religion. Thus straight away a seed has been planted. Ultimately we believe that evangelism and mission should be normal, natural and organic rather than forced, inauthentic and potentially offensive.
Second as the relationship develops and deepens, you are also earning the trust of that nonbeliever as you prove to be a faithful friend. Essentially it is all about credibility—as you share life together you are earning the right to have conversations about their spiritual state, their belief system and worldview, the struggles they might be having in their lives, and so on. This does not mean you should immediately reach for a “4 Spiritual Laws” tract and start quoting John 3.16 to them! Simply by listening as any good friend would, without offering value judgements or Bible verses as easy answers, you are gaining their trust.
The point here is that whether or not you ever do have conversations about God, the Bible or the gospel, you are watering that seed. Yes, you should be ready to talk about these things if the person is interested and wants to—but don’t stress about it! Relationships take a very long time to develop and you must always recall that you are earning the trust of your friend. You are not involved in being their friend simply so that you can shove the Bible into every conversational crack, or leave tracts lying around for them to discover later.
Ultimately this is why we believe that evangelism can indeed be normal and natural. Christianity involves all of life, not just church for a few hours on a Sunday morning and the rest of the week living in the “real world.” As mentioned earlier, unfortunately churches have tended to over-think and over-complicate the issue. Ironically many churches spend quite a bit of time in meetings trying their hardest to figure out how they can “have an impact on their community.” Rather than sitting in these interminable meetings, why not actually get involved when and where you can in your community? The fact is that God’s kingdom is much larger than the church, and he is doing many things outside the walls of the church. Our task is therefore to seek God’s face, assess what he is doing within communities outside the church and get involved in his mission.