I remember my first experience of church planting. We met in the village hall on Sunday mornings for a 45-minute sermon and in the evenings in a home to pray together and encourage one another. And then the “plant” became a “church,” and that meant two “services” in the hall. Out went the corporate prayer and mutual encouragement. In came another 45-minute sermon. Everyone said how they missed the evening meeting in a home, but no one thought that it might be possible to continue it. A church—-a proper church—-has two services on a Sunday, right?
Though we want to plant biblically rooted churches, several dangers lie close at hand as our challenges and opportunities evolve. Here are five of them.
1. Planting a replica church
This church plant is a clone of your sending church or your experience. This tends to be what happens if you don’t think much about the culture and values of the new church. You default to your experience. This, of course, may not be an altogether bad thing. But it is a missed opportunity. Church planting allows you to rethink church, creating patterns of church life more faithful to Scripture and more relevant to the culture. The other danger is that you try to be a large church with a small church planting team instead of seizing the advantages of being a small church.
2. Planting a reactionary church
This, in some ways, is the opposite of a replica church. This is what happens when people have endured a bad experience of church. Church planting for some people is a way of running away for church rather than resolving issues or reconciling broken relationships. For other people the church plant is defined primarily in terms of what it’s not. People know exactly what they don’t want church to be like. But without a positive vision, the resulting church tends to have a negative culture or a culture that’s suspicious of other churches, feeling superior to them.
3. Planting a romantic church
Remember all those conversations over a drink on a Sunday evening as you dreamed with your friends of your ideal church? Perhaps you dreamed of meeting in a coffee shop with some mellow jazz music in the background while you discussed faith with your friends over a latte. Perhaps you dreamed of rocking out to the Christian classics you grew up with. Perhaps you dreamed of hour-long sermons rich with theology. And now your church plant is a chance to create this dream church. Problem is, while you might create a church ideally suited to you, chances are it will not be missional. Your personal set of favorite features won’t necessarily create an ideal context to invite unbelievers (which means it won’t be an ideal church for Christians, either, for healthy Christian living must be missional).
4. Planting a restorationist church
This church plant is an attempt accurately to recreate what the church was like in the first century, to restore apostolic Christianity. Churches like this tend to spend a lot of time trying to identify precisely the patterns of New Testament practice. Of course it’s vital to be biblical. But replicating apostolic norms can be a futile exercise, not least because there seems to have been quite of bit of diversity within the New Testament. And that diversity existed because apostolic churches were adapting to their contexts, both to the people within the church and also to the people they were trying to reach.
The real danger with the restorationist mindset is that you become inward-looking. You end up having long debates over how exactly the New Testament churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper rather than throwing yourself into evangelism. You become like the people described in 1 Timothy 1 who are more interested in winning converts from within the church than winning converts to Christ.
5. Planting a reductionist church
In some ways this is the opposite of a restorationist church. Here the desire is to plant a church that is “incarnational” or “missional” or “contextualized” (or whatever is your favored buzz word). But you understand these terms to mean creating a church that closely resembles the surrounding culture. This concern can too easily lead to attempts to minimize the differences and therefore to minimize the confrontation the gospel brings. True contextualization includes identifying what repentance means in a culture. So it’s not about reducing the challenge of the gospel but understanding the culture well enough so that we heighten or focus the challenge of the gospel.
The danger facing such churches is that they reduce the gospel and assimilate to the wider culture. In the end they have nothing to offer. If we’re so like the culture that the differences are marginal, why should the culture bother with us? We will have nothing to add to what they already believe. Beside which, it’s a fool’s errand: we will never be as “cool” as MTV. What will be attractive to a lost world is the gospel we proclaim and the distinctive community life it creates (remembering that “distinctive” is another word for “holy”).
We need what John Stott called “double listening”—-listening to the world and listening to the Word. We need to understand the world we’re trying to reach, and we need to understand the Word we proclaim so that we bring them together. And by understanding the world I mean the specific context in which you’re working. Contextualization is not simply about adapting to the culture. More importantly, it is about understanding the culture so that you can identify the “bite point”—-the moments where the gospel challenges the culture, offering good news and calling for repentance.
Contextualization is not just about how we can be like the culture. It is also about identifying where the gospel is different from the culture.