Church Planting and Mission Drift

I’ve had a front row seat watching a flurry of church plants plan, launch, and close. It may be my inner Pollyanna speaking,* a question that always struck me as curious that if several teams are going into the same area, and if we’re all about unity, why couldn’t they join in or join together?

I know, I know, the answer is manifold and cooperative church planting in the name of kingdom building is an ideal. There are fiscal realities (where they are getting their money from), those who are pastor as vocation (that’s their main income), and different visions/specific expression of the church they want to try. The cynic in me has to give a head nod to ego: THEY want to do it. Human nature wants to carve out their own empire and rare is the pastor that admits that they want to be a huge church or speak to large crowds or be on television or radio.

So we get more and more lone wolf communities.

And I get that. Planters have a particular vision, set of values, and a way of “doing/being church” which the vision person wants to try and his launch people/planters buy into. Churches start off with grand visions of who they want to be and what they want to do, called to a particular area for a reason. I think one of the big bugaboos of church planting is mission drift.

A friend once warned me that there was a “danger” when it came to getting a building to house your gathering. The danger was that once a community got a building it could become about the building. Having/owning/renting a building means utilities, rent, insurance, salaries, and repairs. It’s bad enough when administrators view their congregants as “giving units” or otherwise reduce their people to their utilitarian functions. And love is rarely cost effective.**

In a world more worried about production and attendance (“giving units”) and sermons and bottom lines, there’s little room for the eclectic, the square pegs for the round holes reserved for pew potatoes anxious to hear the latest bit of ear tickling, as we’re written off as trouble makers or drama bringers. Suddenly, pastors who didn’t care about numbers start to really care about numbers. The “great commission” becomes “a pretty good suggestion.” Crisis management becomes about how to not lose people. Grand notions of growing a church through winning new folks become reduced to sheep stealing. Because they have bills to pay, they play not to lose. Their communities retreat, become little more than social clubs who play at church.

I’m sure I’m way oversimplifying complex dynamics. And you know what? It’s not bad for a community to step back and reassess itself. After all, the mission was set out by Christ to go forth and make disciples. How each church body does it is up to them. There’s mission drift and there’s a change in focus or a re-prioritization. Not all change is bad and sometimes communities need to accept that’s what they are now and strike a new vision. Of course, I always like the idea of church plants joining together and both communities being blessed. Which is easier said than done.
*and as you know, when you think “Maurice Broaddus” you think “Pollyanna”

**Although, I’d be the first to admit that I tend to come at things as an “artist”, as in, I will blow up a budget. Which is why churches should have administrators who buy into their mission and DO care about numbers.

Ambassadors of Love

Many people call themselves Christian and we often refer to ourselves as a Christian nation. Have you ever wondered how some people can call themselves that? Or rather, how some folks can do some of the things they do and cloak themselves in religion or the Word of God?

On the flip side, there are a lot of folks who cloak themselves in the veil of religion to simply justify their biases. In other words, they have a belief/predisposition then seek to undergird said belief with Bible verses; bringing their vision to their faith and creating dogma around it.

Which is why I don’t tend to dump on Christianity when a “Christian” does something kooky or Islam when a “Muslim” does something contrary to their tenets. There are folks who call themselves Christian, Muslim, Wiccan or what have you whose actions clearly run contrary to the beliefs of those faiths.

We’re all eikons, image-bearers of God, created to relate to God, to relate to others, and to govern the world as such. Christians, in particular, ought to be ambassadors of God. Take that seriously, to reflect God, His love, His holiness.

Too often we run around as if we have diplomatic immunity, a get out of hell free card, that places us above everyone else. Instead, we ought to be the first servants. I think that’s what being missional boils down to for me (and how my faith makes sense to me).

If there’s a “fear” to my faith that I keep coming back to it’s that I take very seriously Christ’s words when He talks about people doing things in His name and when they finally come to meet Him, He tells them that He never knew them. Cloaking myself in His name and missing the point of my religion … that’s not the kind of Christian I want to be.

What defines how you see yourself in your faith?

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Missional Expectations

The Dwelling Place has always defined itself as a missional faith community. Granted, we’ve been labeled an emergent church which I don’t care about because people love their categories and will use them to embrace and vilify you. Defending the emergent church or being missional is not part of my mission. In fact, arguing over the emergent church, its theology, etc. sounds like arguments that few but the inside care about (I get that arguments like these and things like the “ontological Christ” are important in some circles—and I know it’s hard to get our missiology correct if our theology is suspect—but in the final analysis, the bulk of my conversations are not with inside folks).

Generally, I’ve seen three models of what folks call emergent church. So most of the time we’re trapped between the traditional crowd believing us to be “different” to the point of being suspect and emerging/emergent folks playing “more emergent than thou.” Basically, the thing I’ve taken away most from the ongoing emergent conversation is the idea of rethinking what it means to be the church. As a faith community, is our chief responsibility to focus on how to teach and transmit faith? Are we to be a social service provider, a religious service provider, and follow a business model? Are we to build grand testaments to our empire and hope to attract people to our weekly production?

Basically I’ve been stung by two recent articles. The first by Alan Hirsch called Definining Missional. He recovers the roots of what it means to be missional this way:

Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.

A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”

On the flip side, I was equally chastened by Dan Kimball’s Missional Misgivings. Most on point was this criticism:

We all agree with the theory of being a community of God that defines and organizes itself around the purpose of being an agent of God’s mission in the world. But the missional conversation often goes a step further by dismissing the “attractional” model of church as ineffective. Some say that creating better programs, preaching, and worship services so people “come to us” isn’t going to cut it anymore. But here’s my dilemma—I see no evidence to verify this claim.

… some from our staff recently visited a self-described missional church. It was 35 people. That alone is not a problem. But the church had been missional for ten years, and it hadn’t grown, multiplied, or planted any other churches in a city of several million people. That was a problem.

Church ought to be put together in a way that makes sense. The missional model is more focused on deploying people, not attracting people. Drawing people out, finding their gifts, figuring out their callings, then sending them out to be a blessing in the world. In other words, we need to be about the doing.

The model of church that makes the most sense for me is family. Sundays are the family meeting, including the family dinner (Communion as our soul food). But we aren’t family just on Sundays, but have to be family during the week also. Families are hard and are re-defined with each addition. We don’t assimilate new members (to make them “one of us”) as much as add their gifts to our own. There is no privileged place and we learn and are taught in midst of life. We build communities of hope, full of hopeful possibility and people living from a place of hope.

And families grow. The goal of parents is to raise their children to be able to start their own families. It is anticipated, planned, and celebrated. You start your own family, you don’t take your brothers and sisters and begin a family.

Before I strain that analogy any further, I’d say missional churches operate from an organic paradigm , without a predetermined ministry method but rather letting their context determine their ministries. The environment should draw out people’s affinities and nurture people’s giftings. And the leadership should cultivate that environment. If you have the environment right, fruit happens naturally.

Believing in deep ecclesiology means that I’ve come to terms with the idea that there needs to be room for all kinds of church expressions, from the attractional model/mega-church to the niche church/coffee shop model. I know I’ve been quick to criticize mega-churches and touting how we’re “not about numbers”. At the same time, if we don’t grow, but rather remain static, we’re a collection of friends hanging out discussing spiritual issues, which isn’t bad, but not all we’re called to be.

I’m still waiting this wondrous conversation between the races promised by the emergent church, but I find that true across the board when it comes to the church. In the mean time, we’re to be communities of faith, hope, and love. We can have all the faith we want, but without love, it’s worthless. It’s sad that I have to remind myself that this includes loving my fellow Jesus people.

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Tucking Dollars for Jesus

During this time of economic hardship and Wall Street downturns, many businesses have taken hits and many jobs are now suddenly in jeopardy. Yet, there is one group who has been particularly hit hard for whom my heart truly goes out: the strippers.

I recently ran across an article which reported that traffic at some super-exclusive Manhattan nightspots is down 40-50%. And it’s not just the high end girlfriends of the traveling businessmen, but also the single mom looking to pay her way through pole gymnastics. Think about it, there are a lot of laps not being danced on.

So once again, I found myself seriously thinking about that “great idea reduced to a marketing slogan” – “what would Jesus do?” I don’t imagine Jesus passing out tracts asking “Hey, do you want to hear about me?” No, he’d go straight to where they were.

Now, I’ve always advocated incarnational ministry, modeled on the belief that God became flesh in the form of Christ and in said flesh, lived among people. He went out seeking and meeting people in the messiness of their lives, first loving them where they were. In other words, we aren’t called to build structures or create spaces separated from the community and attract people to them, but rather go to where the people are and serve them. Since God is already working around them, it’s only a matter of introducing people to that reality and all of us becoming redeemed participants to this sacred activity.

Jesus was a “friend of sinners” and I’m a friendly sort of fellow, so I’m taking it upon myself to start a new ministry. I’m gonna be tucking dollars for Jesus. I’m off to run this idea by my ever supportive spouse to see what she thinks. And yeah, this pretty much was just an excuse to use the phrase “tucking dollars for Jesus” in a sentence.
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Guarding Yourself

In Christ we have freedom, yet we keep choking it off with our own brands of legalism. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) We don’t trust freedom and we certainly aren’t comfortable with this whole idea of liberation. Most people want to be told, they want the black and white picture and hate (or at least distrust) anything that smacks of gray. That’s why there is such a comfort to rules and why fundamentalism has its draw. We have this fear of ourselves, of others, of community and church, and of the unknown. We definitely have this fear of taking chances and making mistakes.

So what does it mean to be “in the world but not of the world”? Practically speaking, the answer to this question has been a form of isolationism prevalent in too many Christian circles. A quasi-monk lifestyle with the church as some sort of abbey, which if people truly practiced monastic lifestyles and lived in monastic communities, I’d be cool with. Instead what we get is this us vs. them mentality (as we cut ourselves off from any one or thing that may “taint” us with their “worldliness”) and Christian ghettos (where everything we do or participate in has to have the adjective “Christian” in front of it: “Christian” music, “Christian” karate, “Christian” candy, etc.).

Actually, it doesn’t matter what my answer to this question is because I’m going to take a stab at addressing I think what is at the heart of what people “really” mean when they start tossing that phrase around. So let’s phrase the question in a way that expresses the heart of our concern as we go about trying to lead missional lives: “how can we protect ourselves, our own spiritual integrity, while still functioning within the world?”

The big, and valid, concern is one of influences. The fear that we will get caught up in stuff that will throw us from our Christian walks, messy or not, and derail us from a life of pursuing holiness. We don’t live in a vacuum. We’ve been given guidelines and parameters (the Bible describes itself as being “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). While there is great freedom in Christ, we can’t just do whatever you feel like doing. And frankly, we won’t always get why there are certain restrictions. We won’t don’t always understand why we have to study and pray, for example, but hopefully our understanding comes in our participation.

All this to give you three tips in “guarding yourself. One, know your truth. Keep returning to that well of knowledge. It is the discipline of believers. We must constantly immerse ourselves in Scriptures not just for remembrance of God, but also to remember who we are and why we do whatever we do. Two, think for yourselves. Think through your faith, your beliefs, and keep stretching yourselves. In other words, keep asking questions. One of the hardest things for pastors and teachers to do is train their people how to critically think. Three, know your limits. When Christians ask me “how can you be around all of that horror stuff?” one of the presumptions is that reading/writing horror is one step on the path to the occult. (I guess we glorify the occult, make it fascination, and then little Johnny goes off to worship Satan.) Yeah, well the occult has no hold over and little interest for me outside of crafting a story. That will happen when you come from a family of obeah practitioners. So I have no problem being the “sinister minister.” However, you won’t see me being a part of the xxxchurch ministry. You get me within sniffing distance of them and I’d give Ted Haggerty a scandal target to shoot for.

Here’s the thing, we can’t live in fear of “the world”. We’ve been given a mission and have a job to do. A job that doesn’t always allow us to remain “safe” and “comfortable.” Either we believe that we have the Holy Spirit to guide and protect us or we don’t. For some, that may mean a time within the protective bubble of the Christian ghetto. However, that doesn’t mean stay there.

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