Earlier this year, my friend, Ed Stetzer, planted a Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. In addition to being a church planter, Ed is a missiologist, research expert, and prolific author and blogger.
I imagine there’s added pressure, and not a small amout of scrutiny, when you’re a well-known missions and church-planting teacher, to plant successfully. I wish Ed and Grace Church the best as they continue to develop gospel ministry to the people of Sumner County, and I don’t want to add expectations.
It is interesting, though, to look at a missiologist’s approach to planting a church in the United States.
I encourage you to pray for Ed and the Grace Church leadership team. Beyond that, follow them on their journey. They are very deliberate about being connected on social media, and Ed is very approachable on his blog. Please feel free to ask him questions. It’d be a shame for us all to miss the opportunity to learn from the decisions he’s making along the way.
In missiological terms, it’s called a “platform.” It’s how you enter into the community, what you do, how you present yourself, in order to make a connection. Many missionaries aren’t “missionaries” at all, but doctors, teachers, businessmen, artists, social activists. A good platform allows for natural interaction with the people to whom you’re ministering while leaving you with enough time to connect socially. Everyone in ministry needs a platform.
Apartment Life is an example of a great platform. Millions of people, especially in unchurched urban areas, live in apartments and multi-unit housing. The owners of these properties stand to make lots of money, but only if they can retain their tenants. Studies have shown that building a sense of community among residents can raise the level of retention. In other words, people will stay in an apartment complex if they have friends there. They may even be inclined to pay more in monthly rent, take better care of the property, and actively recruit potential tenants.
Enter Apartment Life. They place believers into apartment complexes in order to build a sense of community among residents. In exchange for welcoming new tenants, organizing community events, and making friends in the complex, you get to live there for free. Kind of like a property manager, but with relationships. It turns out that the cost of fixing trashed apartments, finding new tenants, kicking out deadbeats, and making people feel safe adds up to a lot more than what you would pay in rent each month. Apartment Life brokers a deal with property owners based on the idea that your presence adds value to their business.
This is one of the most creative and promising endeavors I’ve ever heard about. If you’re in any sort of incarnational ministry, whether it’s to urban professionals, immigrants, or the working poor, odds are they live in apartments. A great way to incarnate the gospel is to move into the neighborhood. Church planters could easily make this their platform for planting a church. (For a great example of apartment complex church planting, check out Mission Arlington.) You’ve got natural access to people, total property owner permission to throw parties and interact with tenants, and you don’t have to pay rent. You’re not limited to existing Apartment Life opportunities, either. If you need a place to live and you can proactively build community, send them an email requesting that they set something up in your area. Already living in an apartment? They might be able to broker a deal where you already live.
PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church
Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.
But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?
As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.
Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.
Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.
But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.
What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.
My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.
“The first will be last,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” A quick perusal of Jesus’ words will turn up all sorts of instructions that don’t seem to line up with what we’d consider “common sense.” He told his followers to “Turn the other cheek” (didn’t He know about terrorism?) and to “Walk a second mile” when forced (by the government!) to walk just one.
As He sent them out on a short-term mission trip, why did Jesus tell His disciples not to carry any extra clothes and not to greet anyone along the way? That doesn’t seem very practical, does it? What if they had a great opportunity to witness to the guy sitting next to them on a red-eye out of Denver? So much of what Jesus told His followers to do (and not to do) just doesn’t make sense in our world. It almost always runs counter to our understanding of what might be the best way to get things done.
Yet most of what we do as believers tends to be determined by our pragmatism. We justify nearly all that we do with, “Hey, it’s working.” We consider efficiency and volume to be stewardship issues. From video-venue churches to mass marketing campaigns to building programs, churches are constantly searching for ways to make the biggest impact, to reach the greatest number of people, and to get the most bang for the buck. I believe that these are human values, not Kingdom ones. What if doing what seems to “work” in the short run is hurting us in the long run? What if giving away iPods and paying people to come to church has long-term negative effects for the church? What if our methods actually change our message?
In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the ways that the (particularly Western) Church has traded in God’s best for “what works.” Specifically, I want to look at the way we practice being the church, our efforts at church planting, and our theology of mission.
NEXT: The Gaps
Armchair missiologists of the world- when deciding where to get involved in missions, don’t be distracted by what isn’t there.
Let me explain. For far too long now, missions strategy has gone something like this: Start by finding where there are a lot of people who haven’t heard the gospel (or who don’t have access to the gospel, or who don’t have a church to go to), and do something there. An aspiring church planter posts a map of his city on the wall and sticks pushpins where all the churches are. He assumes that wherever there aren’t a lot of pushpins, there’s a need for a church/ministry.
What isn’t there is a bad start.
In its effort to find a niche, the world looks at a situation and says, “Where are the gaps? How can we do what nobody else is doing?” God, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to work that way. He seems to go with more of a “Shock and Awe” (to borrow an expression) sort of approach. Think Luke, chapter 10, or His work at on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.
No, a better way might be to ask whether a bunch of pushpins on the map might mean God is at work. Perhaps if God is at work in a place or among a people (as evidenced by the calling or workers, people coming to faith, or your own desire), you should join Him there.
Sure, you might find yourself working alongside other Great Commission believers, and that requires cooperation and unity. Yes, there might be places where it seems like there’s great need, yet no work. But we must trust God to orchestrate His work among the nations of the world.
So here I am- a continent, three cultures, and two months since my last post. A lot has changed. For starters, I’m still working with the IMB. Our regional leadership has been a tremendous support as we’ve begun the “About Europe” meetings and worked to launch the Upstream Collective. My new job is to connect churches with the work in Europe, and to train them for strategic personal involvement in what God is doing there.
I’ve also relocated to Portland. It’s an amazing city- friendly, diverse, creative, polemical, active. In my short time here, I’ve found that I’m not the only Christian subculture refugee. Now that the dust is settling from the hoards of corporately-sponsored professional church planters who have come and gone (all the cool kids are planting in Arizona/New Mexico these days), the Pacific Northwest is a pretty neat place to be. We’re going to see what it can be like to live here like we lived in Barcelona; in intentional missional community that concerns itself with people and what’s important to them.
We’re going to buy houses, remodel them, and rent them to neighbors for as little as possible. We’re going to drive as little as possible and share what we’ve got. We want to take care of the community by meeting the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the people around us.
So far, there are nine or ten of us. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know.
We often have people express interest in coming for a visit to “see” our ministry. Some are church planters from the States, some are pastors of existing churches, some are missionaries in other places. We’ve had seminary students write papers on us, journalists write articles about us, and at least one grade school kid interview us for a class project. We’re thankful when anyone shows interest in our work here, and flattered with all of the attention. Nevertheless, everyone who comes to observe our work first-hand sees pretty much the same thing: not much.
Our ministry is entirely relational. How many American pastors and missionaries can I introduce my friends to before they really start to feel like projects? We don’t identify ourselves as missionaries. How many creative ways are there to explain how I know these strangers who are always passing through?
We spend time with friends in parks and cafes. Since we’re planting simple churches, we don’t have a building. We likely never will. We don’t have an office (though we could really use one). Our team meetings take place in our homes.
Like I said, there’s not a whole lot to see.
Some people understand that there isn’t much to see. Some leave disappointed. At least two have accused us of “hiding” our ministry from the “public;” one praising us for protecting and nurturing our fragile relationships, the other criticizing us for avoiding accountability. It wasn’t some conspiracy to keep people from seeing our work- there just nothing to see.
As a missionary, I am tempted to lie on a regular basis. It may or may not surprise you to read that statement, but it’s true nonetheless. What’s more, I find the temptation strongest when I’m talking with a coworker, partner, or supporter. It all starts out innocently enough; someone asks, “How is your ministry going?” or “What are you seeing God do among your people groups?” For some reason, it’s always difficult for me to know how to respond to these questions. And for some reason, I’m often tempted to offer a less-than-honest answer.
The lies that pop into my mind aren’t usually grandiose- I’m not talking about making up a church planting movement or a new great awakening. No, my temptation is to elaborate with, um, ministerial hyperbole the things that are actually happening. You know, for effect. Perhaps what I’m tempted to offer isn’t a lie, per se, but the result is the same. The only examples I share are those I’ve carefully selected. Certain details are emphasized. Some information is conveniently left out. Our small seeker group of four suddenly becomes a viable church plant of six. My casual interaction with national leaders grows into a full-blown partnership. I find myself taking credit for the successes of others by frequent use of the collective “we.” Everything suddenly becomes over-spiritualized.
The temptation isn’t limited to embellishing our successes. There’s something super-spiritual about suffering on the missions field, so I often feel the urge to overstate the modest struggles we face in Western Europe. Poor customer service becomes enemy opposition, and a hard time at the immigration office is persecution. If life here is too easy, my obedience is somehow less pleasing to God and fellow believers.
Maybe the temptation to stretch the truth is rooted in our performance-based culture that encourages us to value activity over identity. Maybe it’s my desire to be important or well-known. Whatever the reason, exaggerations and half-truths are trouble. Lying is one of those sins that tends to have the “snowball effect;” the liar quickly finds himself having to compose bigger, more elaborate, and (if it were possible,) more deceitful lies to cover the first one.
It occurs to me that a great deal of the misunderstanding is my own fault. How can I expect others to know and relate to my experience if I’m not being completely forthright? Besides, God’s constant and protection and provision for my life means that there is always a truth to be told.
God called me to missions in Western Europe by giving me a vision for what He could (would?) do among the people here. I was excited about being part of God’s interaction with the postmodern, postchristian people of Europe. I really believed that God was going to start a church planting movement here, and I trusted that He was going to use me to somehow be part of that. That certainty of calling and purpose is what has kept me on the field.
But something is bothering me.
We still haven’t seen it. Despite our efforts, prayers, and desires, we have yet to see God move in the ways we envisioned years ago. No city-wide house church networks. No major unity movements among the believers here. Years of studying the language and culture, sowing the gospel, building relationships, and speaking truth into people’s lives hasn’t produced the kind of fruit I thought we were called to.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that the work isn’t something that we do, and that God will do His will in His sovereign timing. Please don’t remind me of William Carey or Adoniram Judson. I’m not discouraged about the number of people who are being saved.
I’ve spent months in introspective prayer and meditation, asking God if there might be sin in my life, or if my actions might be disqualifying me from His service. I’m begging Him to use me. I’m open to whatever He has for us.
I guess I’m just a little disappointed, that’s all.
I recently read an interesting thing about Wal-Mart. It seems that in cities across the country, Wal-Mart stores are up-sizing from their regular old large retail centers to shiny new extra-large “Super Centers.” In many cases, these new stores are right next door or across the street from the old stores.
The problem is that the distinctively Wal-Martian building design and layout (you know, gray and blue big-box warehouse with two main entrances and a chain-link fenced-in “garden center” on one side) makes it difficult for any other retailer to use the old buildings. So the old stores are sitting empty.
Some communities are now requiring that new Wal-Mart stores be built with future use in mind, with store designs that are more easily subdivided for varied uses should the current Super Center ever vacate to build, I don’t know, what’s bigger than a Super Center?
For some reason, this reminds me of church buildings.
Western Europe is home to thousands of church buildings. Cathedrals, basilicas, chapels, and temples that were once full of devout religious people now sit empty in every part of the continent. In the U.K., Some have been converted to pubs. In Italy, many are used a museums. At least European church buildings are pretty to look at.
In one hundred years, what will have become of your church building?
Whenever I try to encourage Americans to be church planters, they almost invariably say something like, “There’s already a church on every corner.” The problem, of course, is that these people are mistaking “church building” for “body of believers.”
We certainly don’t need more church buildings.